It's not often you find an undrafted 6-foot-7, 21-year-old defenseman with a season of AHL hockey under his belt. Since, as the saying goes, "you can’t teach size," why not take a late-round flyer on that huge kid, right? That makes the case of towering Calgary Flames
defense prospect Christopher Breen
a touch curious.
In reality, Breen wasn't slighted -- he just wasn’t showing all his potential in his draft-eligible years. The native of Uxbridge, Ont., didn’t play in the Ontario Hockey League until his 18-year-old season; since then, he has added three inches and a whole lot of bulk to his frame.
He's the textbook case of the late bloomer.
"In the OHL I was one of the guys on the back burner, and this year in (AHL) Abbotsford I played hard and got some good coaching and made some big strides in my game," Breen said of his sharp ascent.
The Flames like what they’ve found in Breen, signing him after his over-age season in the OHL. Breen arguably was the Abbotsford Heat’s top defender last season.
Flames Director of Player Development Ron Sutter gives credit to Calgary's scouts for finding Breen among other undrafted defenders the Flames have inked over the years.
"Every year we've had a lot of free-agent defensemen that have come to our camps, that have gone on to have pretty good pro careers, either with us or with other teams," Sutter said. "Mark Giordano
's a classic example. In Chris' case, he's as green as grass. He's still got a lot of work to do, but at the same time, last year he made some good strides for a guy we just signed to play in the American league. He's a responsible kid, and he seems to have his career on the right path."
Breen played 73 games for the Heat last season, scoring 4 goals and adding 7 assists. More important was the fact that he seemingly improved with each passing game.
"I don't think there were any real expectations going in," Sutter said. "Number 1, we knew that he would have to fight and compete for a job to stay in Abbotsford with our defensemen there. The team and the coaching staff slowly brought him along, and as we did that he gained some confidence. What we recognize most is that for a big guy he moves pretty darn well on the ice. Jimmy (Playfair, coach) used him as the year went on, and his responsibilities grew."
Breen credits his development to a few different sources including "a lot of good coaching, a lot of hard work, some good teammates and lots of support."
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While Breen is closer to the NHL than ever, what he'll eventually be as a player remains up for debate.
"We don't know what kind of numbers he’s going to put up," Sutter said. "He needs another full year under his belt, I believe, where we can really start to see where his game is going to go."
One thing the Flames do know is that Breen is big. It wouldn't hurt his cause if he could find some more nasty to go along with his size.
"He’s a pretty lean guy (224 pounds) and he's fairly fit, so I don't know, I wouldn't want him to get any bigger, I want him to get stronger," Sutter said. "He’s going to have to develop a little bit of an edge to his game to give himself that much more of an opportunity."
Though he may be a late bloomer in hockey, Breen is as mature a hockey player as you'll find in a 21-year-old. He credits recently becoming a father as a part of that maturation.
"It's been great," he said of starting a family. "It's definitely been different, but it's been fantastic. It kind of wakes you up pretty quick to what's really important in life. It's been a real maturing process, that's for sure."
Another thing going for Breen is that he's a quick study.
"One of his strengths is that he's a good student of the game, he listens, he absorbs things, he's a sponge out on the ice when you talk to him, and he is very receptive to video and 1-on-1 work," Sutter said. "He's grown. He's maturing as a player and as an individual for the responsibilities he taken off the ice for himself and his young family. It's totally up to him."
It's been a whirlwind year for Breen that has seen him transformed from an unknown into a quality NHL prospect -- and a father. His goals for the coming season seem very attainable.
"I definitely want to get at least get a couple (NHL) exhibition games in and keep building from there, and hopefully a couple games in with the Flames in the regular season," Breen said. "Hopefully everything works out."