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'AN UNBELIEVABLE FEELING'

Swedish prospect Carl-Johan Lerby brings puck-moving prowess to Flames' prospect pool

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

In choosing a mentor, it's common to list off a legend.

Paul Coffey, Bobby Orr, and, in the case of the Flames' newest recruit - Swedish prospect Carl-Johan Lerby - the seven-time Norris Trophy-winner, Nicklas Lidstrom, are popular choices.

Nowadays, though?

It's all about the present.

"Being from Sweden, how can you not love guys like Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson?" Lerby said from his home in Malmo after signing a two-year entry level contract with the Flames. "But …

"My favourite player? Right now, the guy I look up to, the guy I watch the most, has to be Miro Heiskanen.

"He's just phenomenal. Watching him all year, the way he skates, moves the puck, and the way he's taken over in the playoffs, that's the kind of player I hope to be and the kind of impact I hope to have one day."

That's right.

Lerby, 21, looking up to the 19-year-old should-be Calder finalist from Dallas.

The times, they are a'changin.

But the comparisons - however lofty - are right on the money.

Lerby, an undrafted, left-shot defender, recently completed his third season with the Peter Andersson (father of Rasmus)-coached Malmo RedHawks of the Swedish Hockey League.

The Flames had been keeping an eye on the 6-foot, 182 lb. puck-mover throughout the 2018-19 season, and felt with the positive strides he took over the course of the campaign, the time was right to make a splash.

Lerby, who had 21 points (5G, 16A) in 47 games this year, will remain with the RedHawks for the upcoming season before his entry-level pact kicks in with the Flames in the fall of 2020.

"Our European staff, led by (Head European Pro Scout) Hakan Loob, (Director, Pro Personnel) Derek MacKinnon and (Assistant General Manager) Craig Conroy, identified this player early in the season and they stayed on top of his progression all year," said Senior VP of Hockey Operations, Don Maloney.

"He's a player that needs more development time; some time to thicken up and mature, physically.

"But we felt strongly that if we didn't act, now a year from now he would become one of, if not the, top European free-agent signings."

Lerby - like Heiskanen - is in the mold of the 'modern-day' defenceman we, the media, wax on about at length.

He's fast, moves the puck well, can operate a powerplay, and most of all, has an incredibly high hockey IQ that allows him to make plays under pressure.

A classic late-bloomer, who overcame all sorts of odds to get here.

"My second year with the pro team (2017-18), I had a bunch of injuries that I had to battle through," Lerby said. "I was involved in a car accident, too, and missed a bunch of time because of that.

"It wasn't a fun time.

"But I didn't have a choice. It was my childhood dream to play in the NHL one day. So I fought hard to make that dream a reality and had what I think was a pretty good year. ... Now I've signed my first NHL contract. It's an unbelievable feeling."

As Maloney explains, it was that can-do, whatever-it-takes mindset that - considering the context of his breakthrough campaign - shone during the scouting process.

"It's about getting to know the player, inside and out, as best you can in a limited time," Maloney said. "What motivates him?

"Everyone wants to play in the NHL. But are you driven enough to put in the work, to get stronger?

"What we saw this year and what we believe we'll continue to see again next year as he continues to develop, is a resounding 'yes.'

"We saw an opportunity strike while the iron was hot. If you have a chance to get ahead of it, get ahead of it."

Part of the attraction, Maloney says, in Lerby signing here was how Andersson - a fellow client of longtime agent Claude Lemieux - has developed under the Flames' watch.

"They saw how we developed Rasmus," Maloney said. "He spent some time in the minors, improved his game, came up and is now a very important player for us.

"That's the opportunity a lot of young players seek.

"And they want to be brought up the right way."

The first order of business for both sides will come in late June/early July, when Lerby reports to Calgary for the first time to participate in the team's annual prospect development camp.

That, along with a full year's worth of pro seasoning upcoming, will help put the talented, two-way defender on solid footing for when he lands full-time in the Flames organization.

"There was a time, not long ago, when you wouldn't pay any attention to a player like this," Maloney said. "The guys that were big but couldn't skate all that well, would spend five years in the minors, and never really have a chance to play.

"Nowadays, you have to have certain qualities. You have to be able to skate, and you have to be able to think.

"(Lerby) has both.

"We also believe that we, as an organization, can have an influence on those qualities and help take them to the next level.

"He's going to do his part next year…

"And we're going to do our part to bring him along."

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