Sven Baertschi will likely have to fight tooth and nail to become an everyday NHLer to start this 2013-14 season. With the Flames trimming Michael Ferland, Corban Knight, Max Reinhart, and Keegan Kanzig from their training camp roster earlier this morning, perhaps the most intriguing position battle in the first few weeks of the season might have nothing to do with Sean Monahan at centre.
For a team that many consider to be deeply lacking in offensive talent, the Flames actually boast a rather impressive set of natural left-wingers. Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler, and Mike Cammalleri all have rather secure positions on left-wing – though Cammalleri has played both wings at times in his career, not mention his brief time at centre last season. With a largely similar left-wing depth chart entering the abbreviated 2012-13 campaign, Baertschi struggled to start last season which ultimately led to his demotion in March, which left Baertschi, to put it mildly, “disappointed.”
At the time of his demotion last season many pointed to his usage, rather than the quality of his play alone, as the culprit for the ‘setback’ for the 2011 first-rounder. In his first ten games with the Flames, Baertschi played 10 minutes or less in four of those games over the course of which he amassed only a single assist and no goals. Baertschi then had to contend with a hip injury, which kept him out of the lineup for a full month.
When Baertschi was recalled on April 7, just over a week after the Jarome Iginla trade, Baertschi’s ice time was significantly increased (In seven of his final 10 games, Baertschi played over 15 minutes) and so did his offensive production.
Many assumed that his spot on the 2013-14 edtion of the Flames was more or less carved in stone but as George Johnnson pointed out, Baertschi didn’t exactly have the strongest training camp and now is in jeopardy of facing another demotion to Abbotsford.
There is no denying Baertschi’s offensive upside and creativity with the puck, but at this stage of his career, the flashy forward’s performance, or lack thereof, is often chalked up to the waxing and waning of his fragile confidence. I would argue, like many have, that the notion of confidence is secondary to that of opportunity. When Baertschi has performed well so far in his young career, he was being used at a top-six forward with skilled players. Right now, Baertschi is not good enough to play in the Flames’ top-six on the left-wing. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that if Baertschi won’t be able to usurp Hudler, Glencross, or Cammalleri’s spot in the top-nine of the Flames, he should start the season with the Heat and await an inevitable call-up due to injury or trade.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it runs contrary to the implicit mission statement of the Flames’ 2013-14 Flames. The goal, though never overtly stated by management, of this season is to get a glimpse into the future of the Flames and attempt to develop a new core of players moving forward. Is Hudler a part of this new core moving forward? Perhaps. Is Cammalleri? Almost certainly not. There is an argument to be made that if the Flames send Baertschi back to Abbotsford again, they may be delaying an accurate assessment of Baertschi’s true potential as a top-six forward in the NHL.
However, the buzzword not only with Baertschi, but with Johnny Gaudreau, Kenny Agostino, Tyler Wotherspoon, Emile Poirier, Jon Gillies, and Morgan Kilmchuk, is patience. With that in mind, I believe the Flames are far more likely to act cautiously with Baertschi and allow him to try to perfect his game in the AHL rather than force him to learn on the fly. Whether this ultimately helps him become a better pro or further sinks his confidence, there is no way to know for certain. What is certain is that Baertschi is by no means a lock on this years Flames roster.