CALGARY, AB -- During his time with the Detroit Red Wings, Kirk Maltby epitomized the term "grinder."
A checking forward who excelled at getting under the skin of his opponents, he pushed them to take ill-timed penalties in frustration. He played a gritty, physical game that punished the opposition and made them fight for every inch of ice. Maltby's defensive responsibility made him a highly versatile role player, earning plenty of even strength minutes along with special teams time. He was particularly effective on the penalty kill and his vision helped open plenty of short-handed opportunities.
Calgary Flames assistant general manager John Weisbrod believes prospect Turner Elson embodies those qualities that made Maltby a successful NHLer.
"Our hope has been that even though he's still a young kid, he can conceivably grow into a Kirk Maltby-type player," Weisbrod told CalgaryFlames.com. "He's a two-way player and he's an accountable kid. Even though he's not a flashy player, he's a player that is willing to do all the little things necessary to win. Some of the things that, sometimes, other players aren't willing to do.
"He's right at the beginning of his growth curve and this will be a big year for him."
Elson was passed over in the 2011 NHL Draft but the Flames had him on their radar during the 2010-11 season. The organization invited the St. Albert, AB product to their annual development camp as a free agent to see how he fared against the team's other prospects.
He's right at the beginning of his growth curve and this will be a big year for him. - Flames assistant general manager John Weisbrod
He headed to Penticton that fall, playing in two games with the Flames at the Young Stars Tournament. The team felt Elson would be an excellent addition to their main training camp roster and the youngster impressed Flames brass once again with his poise, determination and tenacity. They offered the forward a three-year, two-way deal on Sept. 22, 2011.
"Having him come to rookie camp and then participate in main camp and play a preseason game enabled our entire hockey operations department to evaluate him as a player and to get to know him as a person," Flames general manager Jay Feaster said after announcing the signing.
"There was no question that we wanted to add him to our organization and we are thrilled to have him under contract. He thinks the game very well and displays what we consider to be very good hockey sense. He also competes hard every shift and is responsible in all three zones."
Elson followed up that milestone by putting together a career season in Red Deer. Despite being limited to 55 games due to injuries, he recorded 21 goals and 46 points last year. He also shouldered more responsibility on and off the ice, playing more minutes against tougher competition and taking on a leadership role in the Rebels locker room.
At the end of Red Deer's season, the Flames had Elson spend some time in Abbotsford to get a taste of the professional game. He was part of the Black Aces practice group and ended up dressing for his first pro outing on Apr. 15 against the Toronto Marlies.
"It was an amazing experience," Elson said of his time in Abbotsford. "You learn so much just from being there and practicing with the team. There is a lot of great players there. Pro hockey is a big step from juniors. It's different hockey. It was nice to get my foot in the door at the end of last year."
When asked about working with Troy Ward, Elson couldn't say enough about the Heat head coach. Even though the Heat were wrapping up their regular season and working on getting themselves prepared for a run at the Calder Cup, Ward took the time to get to know Elson. He was able to pick up strengths in the rookie's game and give him plenty of direction.
"It was change from what I was used to but it was definitely a good change," Elson said. "He's a detail guy. He focuses on the little things and I like that. I play a detail game, I try to do all the little things right, so his coaching style is really great."
The Flames organization has great faith in Ward's ability to develop players like Elson and get them to the next level. The Abbotsford bench boss is very adept at accurately assessing what a player brings to the table and works on a one-on-one basis with each of his charges, highlighting the skills that will elevate their game and pointing out areas they need to work on in order to make the jump the NHL.
"He takes a very holistic approach and I think a lot of players - who come from different backgrounds and various coaches - when they first get a taste of the way Troy does things, they find it very positive and very encouraging," Weisbrod stated.
"I think that approach resonates with kids and that's one of the reasons Troy has had so much success with so many different players."
Elson did attend the Rebels training camp in September, suiting up for one pre-season game but, according to Weisbrod, that move was made to get him back on the ice in a competitive atmosphere sooner than he would have if he had only come to the Flames training camp. The organization feels he is capable of earning a roster spot in Abbotsford this year.
"My hope would be that he will be able to make the jump," Weisbrod said. "I know it's the hope in his mind and our anticipation is for him to be able to compete for a spot in Abbotsford.
"I'm excited to see how things shake out for him once he gets going this fall."
However, the Abbotsford training camp is expected to be crowded and players like Elson may have to wait solidify a spot on the team. Understanding that, he is happy to kick off the year in Red Deer and likes how the team looks heading into the season.
"We had a lot of guys that played big minutes for us last year that, being it was their first year in the league, shouldn't have had that much but with injuries, they had to play. It made them learn a lot quicker and they have improved so much.
"I feel like the team is going to be a lot better this year and take a big step forward."