Spring has seemingly, finally, sprung in Calgary, and while Flames fans throughout the city are making their way out of hibernation in search of the warm weather that has eluded them for months, there is still important hockey being played.
Yes the Stanley Cup playoffs are ongoing, but the Flames have a vested interest in the upcoming 2009 Memorial Cup tournament, as three prospects are competing for the junior hockey championship.
The Ontario Hockey League champion Windsor Spitfires boast Greg Niemsz, while the Western Hockey League champion Kelowna Rockets feature two players in Mikael Backlund
and Ryley Grantham
, who are considered part of the future of the Flames.
Niemsz, the 25th overall pick in 2008 NHL entry draft, likes the makeup of his team heading into the four-team tournament.
“We’ve got some good leadership here and guys that have been in the playoffs. It’s always a different season in playoffs and we’re not going to read too much into being first in our division or anything like that," said Niemsz, who's recipe for success runs year-round.
“It starts with fitness,” said Niemsz. “In the summer, you really buckle down and try to get bigger, faster, stronger every year.”
Backlund was drafted at the exact same position as Niemsz, only a year earlier. The 25th overall draft pick in 2007 enjoyed a brief call up to the Flames this season following a strong performance in the 2009 World Junior Championships for his native Sweden. He played just over 10 minutes in the Flames 5-2 win over the New York Islanders on January 8th.
Following the game Backlund was sent to Kelowna, where he has made a strong impact with 12 goals and 30 points in 28 regular season games. Since arriving with the Rockets, Backlund has really enjoyed the amount of hockey he's been able to play.
"I've been really happy with my time here... I've been really enjoying my game here... I really enjoy playing in the WHL," said Backlund. "I've been growing as a person, moving by myself to another country... been playing a lot of minutes every night, a lot of games. It's helped me with my confidence and helped my game a lot."
Backlund has raised his game another notch in the playoffs; he has 13 goals and 23 points in 19 playoff games so far, and is a plus-16. That kind of production may be a welcome addition to the Flames when camp breaks in September, and Backlund is thrilled at the opportunity to one day play at the 'Dome.
"It's always special being here in Calgary in the Saddledome because I was drafted here so I like to be here," said Backlund, "it's more exciting I think... I don't feel so much pressure here, its fun to be here."
Grantham, a fellow Rocket, plays a much different role for their team than Backlund, but he is just as vital to the club's success.
"(Being an agitator) is definitely part of my role... It’s something that I’m pretty good at I guess, and just to be an energy guy, to get out there and crash and bang bodies and make room. I make everyone bigger out there... I’m not supposed to be putting up a lot of big numbers, but it’s nice to chip in and help out,” said Grantham.
Drafted 168th overall in the 6th round in 2009, Grantham was traded on January 8 from the last-place Moose Jaw Warriors to the Kelowna Rockets, extending his season by a great deal and giving him valuable experience playing high-stakes hockey.
“It (is) a great opportunity for me... a chance to make some noise in the playoffs,” said Grantham.
The Flames are eager to see how their prospects engage in such a pressure-packed competition. The fact that all three are centres bodes well for the future of the one of the toughest, and most valuable positions on the ice. Between Olli Jokinen
, Daymond Langkow, and Craig Conroy, the centre position is currently one of strength for the team, but with salary sap concerns comes some roster uncertainty. If any of these three players can begin to make a compelling case for themselves, the Flames would be elated to be able to slot a low-salaried prospect into the roster come the beginning of the 2009/10 NHL season.