For an organization that once thrived with homegrown Stanley Cup-winning stars Joe Nieuwendyk, Theo Fleury, Gary Roberts, Al MacInnis, Gary Suter and Mike Vernon, the Calgary Flames have not had much fortune recently in developing and keeping high-impact players.
"Sometimes you draft a guy that's a great skater or [has] great hands and all this, but then when he gets up to the next level, where everybody's a better skater and everybody has better hands, if they don't have the brain to figure it out and still maximize what they bring to the table, then they struggle," Weisbrod told NHL.com.
The Flames have started to accumulate some interesting pieces who seem to possess a healthy dash of brain power that is able to mesh with the instinct needed on the ice. The hope is a pipeline of productive players who give the franchise a much-needed jolt.
"I always use examples with our staff like Logan Couture in San Jose or Jeff Skinner in Carolina, or even Patrice Bergeron from my time with Boston," Weisbrod said. "These were guys that were downgraded [before they were drafted] whether it was their skating, their hands or some physical element, and they ended up rising above where they were projected just based on their hockey IQ and feel for the game. I would certainly say that is one of the more distinct changes we've made -- to really prioritize people that have hockey sense the way we define it, and have the ability to think and feel the game so that if their skills are in order, they'll have the rest of the pieces they need to compete at the highest level."
While general manager Jay Feaster has had little time to put his stamp on the club's player development since becoming the permanent GM in May 2011, the emphasis on cultivating smart players while remaining committed to winning with core veterans starts with talented forward Sven Baertschi. And the Flames were certainly pleased to see some of their prospects contribute to a terrific 42-26-3-5 season by their American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford.
Here's a look at Calgary's top 10 prospects:
1. Sven Baertschi, F: Though possessing a non-imposing 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame, the Switzerland native does play a hard-charging style that is augmented by his slick set of hands. His speed and skill are two of the assets Calgary is looking for more of, and a promising three goals in a five-game NHL audition last season certainly made Baertschi's case to join the 2012-13 Flames a strong one.
"It would take the upset special of the week for him to perform poorly enough for us to say he's not going to be on our team," Feaster told the Vancouver Sun.
Baertschi finished his last season of junior hockey by piling up 94 points in 47 games, a two-point-per-game clip. On a team that has not had a significant rookie impact their scoring in years, the Flames have a potential home run in Baertschi.
"He's willing to compete, and his offensive mind is top-notch," Weisbrod said. "I think that's what made his transition so smooth when he got called up from junior and played games for us. He thinks the game on such a high level, and he's got the quickness and skill to go with that. Sven's skill level and offensive ability and explosiveness are as good as we have in our organization."
2. Max Reinhart, F: One of three hockey-playing sons of Flames alum Paul Reinhart, the 2010 third-round pick (No. 64) had 28 goals and 42 assists with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League last season. Known for a two-way game that translates to all special-teams situations, Reinhart later spent time with Abbotsford. The 6-foot-1 center impressed immediately with three goals and four points in his first three games, which included playoff contests.
"He's rare for a young guy in that he's as effective without the puck as he is with it," Weisbrod said. "A lot of these young guys coming up, they're used to being the guy and they can do their offensive things, but when they don't have the puck they're a little bit lost. Max is the opposite of that. He's just a smart player. I'm not sure what his breakthrough point will be, but we're certainly bullish on him."
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With a strong pedigree and vision, Reinhart may tempt the Flames to inject him into the middle of their lineup at some point if the need exists.
"Max is the prototypical player we want in our organization," Feaster said. "He has good size, skates very well, works extremely hard, competes and leads, and is an outstanding teammate. We believe Max has a very bright future ahead of him with the Flames."
3. John Gaudreau, F: The small, but hyper-skilled New Jersey native earned multiple individual honors in 2011-12 with Boston College, including Beanpot Tournament MVP, the Bernie Burke Outstanding Freshman Award, Hockey East Tournament MVP, Hockey East Association Player of the Month for October 2011, and multiple Hockey East Rookie of the Week nods.
Gaudreau scored 21 goals and 44 points as a freshman -- trailing only eventual New York Rangers rookie Chris Kreider for the 2012 NCAA champions -- and capped it with an unforgettable goal that won the NCAA tournament.
Gaudreau's 5-foot-6, 141-pound frame dropped him to the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft after winning a championship and top rookie honors playing for Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. His knack for performing under pressure and his fast ascent up the college ranks may have Calgary brass eying him as Theo Fleury 2.0 – though with plenty of time to develop further with Boston College.
He will be vying for a spot on Team USA's World Junior roster this season after being a late cut last time.
"I think you can make an argument he's our best prospect in a lot of ways," Weisbrod said. "His calling card is his brain, his hockey sense. He's like a hockey wizard, and he's so committed to making himself develop. The difficulty with little guys is always trying to judge whether their game will translate to that higher level where the players are bigger, stronger and faster. But I'm really bullish that Johnny will be able to do it. He wants it so badly, and he loves the game so much. This is not a guy I would bet against. I think he has a really bright future as a pro."
4. Mark Jankowski, F: His selection at No. 21 overall in the 2012 NHL Draft was a surprise based on several pre-draft rankings, and the great-nephew of NHL great Red Kelly added another surprise to his story by announcing he would be heading to Providence College this fall and not to Dubuque of the USHL as he originally intended.
Weisbrod felt the raw 6-foot-3, 170-pound 17-year-old was ready after his performance at the Flames' summer development camp and envisions him as a Joe Nieuwendyk-type player with special hands. Jankowski pumped out 53 goals and 40 assists last season for Stanstead College, but the wait for his impact on the Flames will likely be a long one.
"For a guy his size, he has really good instincts, and I'm extremely high on what this kid is capable of being," Weisbrod said. "He was obviously playing in an obscure place against inconsistent competition, and we felt those things went into devaluing how good he is. We drafted him knowing it would be a slow boil. He needs to get bigger and stronger, and compete against bigger and better players. I think he'll have good development time [at Providence]. When he's ready, he's ready."
Akim Aliu, F: Perhaps no player in the game has been more nomadic in a five-year span. Among the Ontario Hockey League, the ECHL and the AHL, Aliu has suited up for 10 different clubs since he was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 (No. 56), not including a stint in Austria for EC Red Bull Salzburg. A handful of on- and off-ice incidents earlier in Aliu's career helped stall him until Calgary traded for his rights last season.
An impressive audition at season's end in which Aliu scored twice in one NHL game and added an assist in another certainly helped persuade Feaster to re-sign the 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward to a one-year deal. The Nigerian-born wing notched 10 goals and four assists in 42 games for Abbotsford, and added 59 PIM.
"In his two games with our club he showed that he is a very good skater, is willing to play a strong physical game and can also score goals at the NHL level," Feaster said. "We really like the tools Akim possesses and the passion he brings to his game. We are confident that, given Akim's talent and ability, along with his solid work ethic, if he also continues to believe in his coaches and our organizational commitment to him, he will soon realize his dream of becoming a full-time player in the NHL."
Weisbrod said, "I certainly think that he's one of the guys right in the wheelhouse to compete for a spot on our team this year. He's strong as an ox, and he's just fearless."
6. Greg Nemisz, F: A solid showing with Abbotsford and a spate of injuries on the parent club gave the Flames' 2008 first-round pick opportunities for spot duty in nine games last season (zero points). Nemisz has good size (6-foot-3, 197 pounds) and a two-way game, but is at a pivotal point in his career. A refocus on his conditioning and leg strength in the offseason has the Flames feeling the results can place him into the lineup and make the most of his skill level.
"I think he senses that he's getting to that point where if he's going to make it, he needs to kick the door down," Weisbrod told Flames TV. "We feel good about [Nemisz]. He's working really hard this summer, and he has that feeling that this could really be his year. And I think he might be right."
Leland Irving, G: One day, 35-year-old star goaltender Miikka Kirprusoff will either be playing for another squad, should the Flames choose to trade him to further stock their prospect cupboard, or he will ride off into retirement and leave behind an heir apparent.
After seven NHL appearances last season with a 3.20 goals-against average and 1-3-3 record, Irving, the Flames' first-round selection in 2006, was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract in July.
"He got us points in games [last season] we maybe should not have gotten points in," Weisbrod said. "He's a smaller guy (6-foot) by the sort-of current NHL prototype where everyone's out there looking for 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 goaltenders, but he's really smart and really athletic and a mature kid. He reads the play really well. This could be the year that he gets to play in the NHL full-time."
The organization has been slow and steady in their development of Irving, who was 66-54-6 for Abbotsford over parts of three seasons.
"Leland made some great strides last season," Feaster said in the team's press release announcing Irving's deal. "It will be necessary for our backup goalie not merely to start 20-plus games but also to win more than half those starts. We look forward to what should be a hard-fought and spirited battle in training camp between Leland and Henrik Karlsson."
8. Markus Granlund, F: The 2011 second-round pick is another high-skill/high-hockey IQ product who the Flames are excited about. The Oulu, Finland center is the brother of Minnesota Wild super prospect Mikael Granlund.
Scoring 34 points in 47 games for HIFK Helsinki – tops among rookies in Finland's SM-liiga -- Granlund's biggest challenge, at 5-foot-11, 166 pounds, will be adjusting to the North American brand of hockey once he comes over to begin his NHL career.
"He's a guy that, to play over here, needs to be a top-six forward," Weisbrod said. "And he's certainly capable of doing that. His offensive-skill attributes are high-end, and he seems to be a very committed and hungry kid. So far, he's tackled every challenge that's been put in front of him, so we're optimistic that when he needs to cross that river here, he'll be able to do it."
9. John Ramage, D: Projected as a physical, shutdown defenseman, the son of Flames' Cup-winning blueliner Rob Ramage captained the Wisconsin Badgers to a 17-18-2-0 record last season. After struggling at Calgary's development camp a year earlier, the 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman caught Feaster's eye this summer with a heightened fitness level and "readiness to compete," according to Weisbrod.
"The guy who for me, made just a dramatic improvement and really put himself squarely in the radar where he hadn't previously, was John Ramage," Feaster told the Calgary Herald. "I thought the maturity of another year and his commitment was evident. I thought he was very, very good."
With the Flames possessing seven defensemen on one-way contracts, plus young T.J. Brodie in the fold, Ramage can develop steadily while playing a final season for coach Mike Eaves' Badgers. Ramage compiled 10 points and 62 penalty minutes in 37 games last season.
"We just felt like he was in such a good place [with his game] that we contemplated signing him this year," Weisbrod said. "He has a maturity about him that has sort of always been ahead of his age, but I feel like he's taken a big step forward in his pro potential by starting to recognize those little things that he'll need to do to make him effective. I think it will be interesting as this coming season winds down, if he continues to progress in the same way, I think he can end up being a really good prospect for our blue line."
10. Michael Ferland, F: Calgary's fifth-round selection in the 2010 draft, Ferland racked up 47 goals and 96 points for the Brandon Wheat Kings as one of the top scorers in the WHL last season. He also chipped in 84 penalty minutes of nastiness that many teams wouldn't overlook.
"He's big and strong and scary, but he also has some really good puck skills and ability around the net," Weisbrod said. "If we can point him in the right direction, I think he could be a force to reckoned with."
Ferland will have to prove an offseason arrest was an anomaly. If so, his rare combination of physical play and scoring touch are something any team can use, especially a Flames club that can benefit from more size in the lineup.
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