Prospective Flames Mikael Backlund and Alexander Deilert make time for a game of keep-away after an on-ice training session at the 2008 Prospect Development Camp.
The Calgary Flames' 2009 training began just a few weeks ago with the Prospect Development Camp at the Pengrowth Saddledome. The six-day training-and-assessment camp hosted Flamelings new and old, all eager to prove their worth and earn the best possible placing within the various leagues.
Most will return to their North American junior teams or home to European leagues, or head off to take a roster spot on Calgary’s AHL affiliate, the Quad City Flames. A select few have a chance to crack into an NHL roster spot at some point in the season as a two-way floater, or hope against hope, earn a full time position with the big club. M MacDonald Hall attended the last three days of camp (24, 25, 26 July 2008) and reports the sights and sounds of the season’s first assessment in a short multi-part series.
Part One focuses in on Mikael Backlund, Daniel Ryder, and a sample of the atmosphere created by a fresh sheet of ice, literally and figuratively.
The days were hot but the Pengrowth Saddledome was typically, wonderfully cool. A light sweater and a cup of coffee was the antidote to the unwavering chill that rose from the ice surface, erasing any memory of the heat wave outdoors. The building itself felt like a shell, empty and quiet save for the sounds on the ice.
Thirty hopeful hockey prospects made up the week’s roster: four netminders, eight defensemen, and eighteen forward skaters. Separated into Groups “A” and “B” and wearing red and white sweaters, the players’ energetic nature brought the hollow ‘Dome to life as each sought to make the impression of a lifetime.
Present at various times were Calgary’s top staff, though most of the on-ice work was carried out by the trainers and assistant coaching team. GM Darryl Sutter spent most of his time in the office, but would appear periodically to appraise the different groups and drills. Son Brett was already at camp as a prospect on the ice, and the rest of the Sutter clan spent part of Friday watching the training of Calgary’s youth pool.
Head Coach Mike Keenan and Associate Coach Jim Playfair spent most of their rink time observing closely from the bench as the rest of the cast worked tirelessly on the ice. Development Coach Wayne Fleming was a near-constant on-ice evaluator, observing each group, particularly as Rich Hesketh took them through skating and coordination drills. Assistant Coaches Rich Preston and Rob Cookson were joined by Quad City Assistant Coach Scott Allen in running the offensive/defensive drills and assessing readiness for AHL/NHL play.
Goalie coach David Marcoux and newly assigned Director of Goaltender Development Jamie McLennan were also in regular attendance, putting prospective backstops Matt Keetley, Kevin Lalande, Leland Irving and James Spratt through their paces. (See more about the goalie development training in upcoming articles in this series, second week of September.)
Development training at this stage in the pre-preseason is multifaceted and multipurpose. Coaches and management assess current skill level, discipline and attitude, physical fitness, etc. while gauging potential, coachablity, and rate of development.
They inspect the individuals and the health of the prospect pool as a whole, exploiting the opportunity to put the them through tests in the Calgary Flames style. This may be the only time this year the Calgary coaching staff work directly with most of these lads, and they know the importance of personally getting a feel for a skater’s game.
Evaluation takes place on and off the ice. Combining what they already know of each player with what they observe at camp, staff will gain a better understanding of where and how the prospects may land this season. The organisation consequently develops expectations of players' performances wherever they may be, and will use camp experience to accurately reassess the roster as needed. Calgary’s current prospect team is not exactly threatening to steal NHL spots from the Flames’ main cast right now, but there are a few notables to watch out for in the near future.
Mikael Backlund was the guy to watch out of this year's prospect camp. Acquired by Calgary 24thoverall in the 2007 Draft, this young Swede has beautifully graceful speed and nice hands. The practices didn't give much of an inkling as to his physical presence, and he'd be likely to need it as a usual on the Flames squad. And there is a chance (though slim) Backlund could be a full-time NHLer as early as this year: GM Darryl Sutter has stated emphatically that if he makes the main team it will be to play regularly, not just a few games here and there.
Backlund‘s situation makes it difficult to say anything otherwise. If he doesn’t find a full-time NHL spot he'll go back to Europe to play, although he is property of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Backlund decided he would rather not play for Kelowna if he can return to Sweden, and although he would gain invaluable experience in North American hockey by playing the WHL circuit, Flames higher-ups are comfortable with his choice. At 19 years-old, Backlund is too young to play in the minors, so 2008-09 will see the talented youth playing full-time for either Västerås (Sweden) or Calgary's NHL club.
6'2" tall and 181 lbs, Backlund may need another year of development, but his scouting sheet illustrates his impressive potential. Hot wheels, soft hands, and a hefty shot make him a regular scoring threat, though his best skills may be as a playmaker. The ability to thread the puck and stickhandle with agility near the net means the young Swede’s presence on the ice opens up a lot of options for his team. He also possesses a healthy dose of defensive awareness which should help him become a solid two-way player, and raise his chances of positive development at higher levels of competition.
Skating in red sweater No. 60 with Group “B“, the left-handed centre made an impression on local sport media earlier in the week, and his skills showed no sign of giving out as camp drew to a close. The final three days put the players through more skating drills, shot analysis, etc., and Backlund displayed a consistent level of talent throughout. Passes were clean, crisp, and tape-to-tape, and his stick handling was simple yet effective, with just enough flash.
Though Backlund is known for his smooth and speedy skating, there is always room for improvement. As the group participated in a power-skate analysis on the last day of camp, each skater was given critical advice from development specialist Wayne Fleming. Having driven in quickly with surprisingly short strides from the goal line to centre, Backlund was informed that he was guilty of excessive shoulder movement, decreasing the efficiency of his stride. When he repeated the exercise, he had taken the recommendations to heart and improved his fluidity.
Still enjoying himself, Backlund found a few minutes after a final skate to pal around with another Swedish citizen at camp, recently recruited rearguard Alexander Deilert. Playing a short game of keep-away, the European skaters illustrated the sense of camaraderie and fun that exists amongst the discipline and hard work of hockey development camps. More importantly, Backlund consistently displayed an interest in the game and continual learning of its nuances, tools every successful professional requires in this sport.
As with most prospects, however, it is always difficult to tell how they will handle themselves when they play with the best in the big leagues. Junior talents often have to slide back down the totem pole and work a niche out wherever they can depending on how high they climb back up. Regardless of how much or little we see of Mikael Backlund in '08-'09, he is one of the more talented prospects in Calgary’s pool and his progress this year will be important. He could have a shot at playing in the preseason - if he doesn‘t head home to Sweden - where coaches and fans alike may decide for themselves just how much Backlund has to offer the NHL right now. And if not today, there’s always tomorrow.
Dan Ryder has come back to the fold of hockey and seemed to be comfortable in his on-ice homecoming. The 21 year-old centreman, brother of former Canadien/current Bruin star Michael Ryder, returns to the Calgary Flames after a hiatus that had been indefinite until recent months.
Dan, who was drafted by Calgary in 2005, walked away from his position on the AHL roster last season as he reconsidered his future in hockey. This was just months after he wrapped up his OHL career and signed an entry-level NHL contract with Calgary. The organisation received no explanation when he left after only six games, in which he tallied a goal and four assists. Sutter was content to leave the decision in the boy’s own hands, though a suspension from Quad City and comments by the Calgary GM made it clear he would have to earn his place if he chose to return to the team.
It seemed for a while that Ryder would not return to hockey, but reportedly felt that familiar call of the ice. In early July, Sutter announced Daniel’s return to the Flames Development Camp in an interview on Calgary’s sports radio station, The FAN 960. Since then, the city has been abuzz as to the future of this young hockey prospect.
A member of Group “B” with Backlund, Ryder looked to fit right in. On the ice he completed the training exercises with competence, though his best skills were not on particular display in many of the development drills. The 5’11” - 190 lbs Newfoundland centre plays a simple, hard-working game and makes a huge impact working the intangibles of hockey gameplay. Ryder uses his slightly smaller stature to manoeuvre and find open ice, creating opportunities for himself and his team.
He can score, he can pass, and he battles hard for the puck in every encounter. Ryder’s tenacious attitude may be his strongest attribute, and he will need it to fight the sense of indecision which has shadowed his reputation since the unannounced exit last year. Indeed, his greatest pro-sports struggle could be the combat of any negative impressions he may have left regarding his professional commitment. He will need to prepare himself on two fronts: working hard on the ice and being diligent with his future career choices.
As of this time the Calgary Flames seem happy to let bygones be bygones at least in the public eye. Until the final rosters are drawn and the season is underway, we will not know what kind of confidence they truly have in young Dan Ryder.
Vital Statistics - Mikael Backlund and Daniel Ryder
Mikael Backlund (C) ~ 6’2” - 181 lbs Born: Västerås, Sweden - 17 March, 1989. Shoots: Left. 2007-08 Regular Season Stats: Västerås (Allsvensken) GP-37 G-9 A-4 Pts-13 PIM-24 Västerås (Junior) GP-9 G-7 A-6 Pts-13 PIM-20 Best Season: 2005-06 Västerås (U-20) GP-25 G-15 A-16 Pts-31 PIM-30
Dan Ryder (C) ~ 5’11” - 193 lbs Born: Bonavista, Newfoundland - 12 January, 1987. Shoots: Right. 2007-08 Regular Season Stats: Quad City Flames (AHL) GP-6 G-1 A-4 Pts-5 PIM-2 Best Season: 2005-06 Peterborough Petes (OHL) GP-65 G-38 A-44 Pts-82 PIM-57
More Flames Prospect News, Coming Up In This Series…
Goaltender analysis; introductions to freshly drafted Flames prospects including Spitfire RW Greg Nemisz, SoCal C Mitch Wahl, and Swedish D Alexander Deilert; a look at the newly acquired LW Kyle Greentree, and camp returnees D John Negrin, RW Kris Chuko, D Matt Pelech, and LW/C Dustin Boyd. Plus, a detailed listing of on-ice participants at this year’s Calgary Flames Prospect Development Camp.
Part Two is already available, discussing Dustin Boyd, Kris Chucko, Matt Pelech and John Negrin.
For more information on some of the players present at this year’s camp, follow the links to Calgary's 2008 NHL Draft, and stay tuned for further instalments of this series on the Calgary Flames 2008 Prospect Development Camp. To read about the summer changes to Calgary’s roster, check out Calgary Flames Roster News: Old Flames, New Faces - Sutter Shakes It Up.
~* The author is endlessly appreciative of the community and fan support from the Calgary Flames organisation. Thanks for the opportunity to share Flames fever with even the remotest corners of hockey fandom*~
M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and will be adding to that department over the summer. Future articles include a breakdown of Calgary Flames playoff performance in the 21st Century, roster changes and information, and Flames-specific trivia. M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an assortment of Flames/NHL articles.