Pacific

Flames Could Have Big World Cup Presence

Flames Could Have Big World Cup Presence
Sonny Sachdeva

Every four years, the hockey community’s conversations shift immediately from discussing NHL clubs to analyzing the game in terms of national lineage. The success of the league’s top players becomes less about the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies and more about the possible selections and line combinations for each national team in preparation for the Winter Olympics.

However, fans and players alike won’t have to wait nearly half a decade to see international hockey anymore, as the league is set to bring back the World Cup of Hockey, starting with the 2016 iteration to be held in Toronto.

The Calgary Flames have rarely been a club who have enjoyed much international acclaim. Unlike other elite organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins – who have both boasted numerous international superstars for the last decade – the Flames have seen their subpar overall talent level reflected in their minimal participation in international competitions wherein the world’s best players take part, outside of former captain Jarome Iginla, who spent much of his career as an international mainstay.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, only two Flames players made the cut – Ladislav Smid (Czech Republic) and Reto Berra (Switzerland) – neither of whom were prominent members of the club.

The 2010 games saw a slightly better showing from Calgary, as three Flames participated in the Vancouver tournament – Iginla played in his final Olympic games for Team Canada, helping them win gold, while Niklas Hagman and Miikka Kiprusoff both suited up for Finland.

Four Flames played in Torino in 2006. Iginla and Robyn Regehr both made appearances for Canada, joined by Toni Lydman (Finland) and Jordan Leopold (Team USA).

Iginla was the lone Flames representative sent to the 2002 games in Salt Lake City.

Gone are the days of Jarome Iginla being Calgary’s only high-end international representative.

It was back in 1998, the NHL’s first season of inclusion in the Winter Olympics, that the Flames entered as one of the deepest organizations, boasting five players on various national teams sent to Nagano – Theoren Fleury (Canada), Valeri Bure (Russia), German Titov (Russia), Michael Nylander (Sweden), and Tommy Albelin (Sweden).

Since that star-studded group in ’98, the Flames’ talent level has been on the decline, reaching a new low when Iginla – the club’s lone marquee star of this generation – finally left Calgary in a trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.

That subpar run looks set to change, however, as Calgary will be one of the most well-represented clubs at the World Cup, potentially boasting eight players who will suit up for their countries.

After a season that had him in talks for a Norris Trophy up until he was sidelined by injury, Mark Giordano is a lock to hold down one of the last few spots for Team Canada’s blue-line. Many projections of the Canadian team have had defensive partner T.J. Brodie joining him, taking advantage of the pair’s elite chemistry as was previously done with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and more recently, with Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo.

Netminder Jonas Hiller remains one of the few top-end goaltenders from a nation other than one of the ‘Big Six’ (Canada, U.S.A., Sweden, Russia, Finland or the Czech Republic), meaning he’ll almost certainly suit up for the ‘European All-Stars’ (a.k.a. “rest of Europe”) team.

Jonas Hiller could make the cut for World Cup competition.

Jiri Hudler, who was left off the Czech team in 2014, seems poised to make a return after putting together a 31-goal, 76-point season that had him among the NHL’s top 10 scorers in 2014-15. He’ll likely need a repeat performance, considering the World Cup won’t come until after the 2015-16 season, but considering Hudler has seen his points-per-game pace rise in every season he’s spent with the Flames, and has established some lethal chemistry on the club’s top line, it’s safe to assume he’ll post a strong enough stat line next season to warrant a spot in the international tournament.

Calgary’s most recent acquisition, Michael Frolik, also has a strong shot at suiting up for the tournament. He’s won five medals with the Czech team while competing for them in the World Junior Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games (in 2014), so there’s a good chance the 27-year-old continues his international career as long as he continues to do what he does best with his new club.

Those five veterans alone would give the Flames their best international showing in nearly two decades, but the inclusion of an Under-23 North American team is the true game-changer for Calgary.

With the Flames’ young core quickly growing into one of the finest in the league, the team looks set to dominate the U-23 team, with Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Dougie Hamilton all locks to make the squad.

Sean Monahan will be one of Canada’s U-23 staples.

Many projections have all three on the roster, which would likely make the Flames the only NHL club to send three players to the Young Guns team.

The trio would surely play a key role as well. Hamilton would be the oldest of the team’s defensive corps, giving him the experience to be one of the team’s central leaders on the blue-line.

Monahan and Gaudreau would most likely be the only linemates suiting up for the team, as, while Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will almost certainly both get the call, the fact that both are centremen will mean separation onto different lines. Thus, while Monahan and Gaudreau won’t be the most accomplished forwards on the roster, their chemistry and experience together could prove invaluable.

With those three in tow, the Flames look likely to send eight to the World Cup – a telling sign of the undeniable progress they’ve made in growing the crop of talented players throughout their lineup. While a Stanley Cup still seems far off, the fact that the Flames now boast both veterans and growing young stars who could represent their respective countries on the biggest stage shows just how elite the club’s balance really is.

It may seem like an abstract way of assessing a team’s worth, but the correlation is very clear. Only the best players are selected to compete for each country – selected by executives who are themselves elite – and thus, those clubs that see a higher number of players called into international action can therefore be judged as having the greatest overall depth.

It’s no mystery, then, that the Chicago Blackhawks – winners of three Stanley Cups in the last six years – led the league with 10 players sent to the 2014 games in Sochi.

Chicago had four defenseman (Duncan Keith, Michal Rozsival, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya) and six forwards (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, and Marcus Kruger) represent their countries at the tournament – showcasing the depth that has allowed them to earn them the title of ‘modern dynasty.’

Calgary might not be warranting any dynasty titles just yet, but with their own core growing to the point that the team has both vets and young players, playing both up front and on the blue-line, ready to make their mark on their international stage, it’s clear the Flames’ ascension is positioning them to become a legitimate contender in the near future.

The Flames’ potential eight invitees still pales in comparison to Chicago’s 10 – especially considering the 2014 Olympic games had no such “Under-23″ team – but the fact that three of Calgary’s eight are all in the early stages of their career is even more significant for the club’s growth. It means the team is on pace to get even better as Monahan, Gaudreau, and Hamilton continue to hone their games and develop to their full potential.

Add in the pending rookie season of recent fourth-overall draft pick Sam Bennett, and the fact that Calgary should soon have no problem attracting big-name free-agents, and it becomes difficult to predict exactly how high the Flames’ ceiling could truly be.

Wherever they end up in the next few seasons, it’s clear the Flames are currently enjoying their finest depth in years – perhaps going as far back as that star-studded roster in ’98 – despite still being only in the early stages of their rebuilding process. It’s a welcome turn of events for the Flames faithful – a fanbase that has endured a decade of disappointment following the club’s unlikely run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. Despite the lengthy wait that had to come first, it seems the tides have finally turned in the Flames’ favour, and the future is once again bright for the C of Red.

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Pacific
Sonny Sachdeva
@sonny_sachdeva

Sonny has served as a credentialed member of the media while covering the Calgary Flames, and has seen his work regarding various NHL teams featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, and Bleacher Report, among others. He also serves as an NHL Analyst for H4TV’s The Sports Journal, as Sports Editor of the Gauntlet, and has formerly served as the Editor of Pens Labyrinth. He joins Today’s Slapshot to cover the Pacific Division.

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