CALGARY – There’s a little less grey on the Calgary Flames these days.
The recent call-ups of forward Paul Byron and defenceman T.J. Brodie, the return of Mikael Backlund from a finger injury, plus Roman Horak making the team out of training camp gives the Flames four players under the age of 22.
In Calgary, that constitutes a youth movement. Unlike their NHL neighbours to the north in Edmonton, the Flames don’t do major rebuilds. They’ve been an older team that made gradual changes.
But the Flames are mired in a win-one, lose-one-or-two rut. They’re searching for momentum. Heading into Friday’s game at home against Chicago, every team but one ranked ahead of Calgary in the Western Conference.
“We’ve had a veteran team here for two years and missed playoffs and we’re two games below .500,” head coach Brent Sutter said Friday. “These young kids have come in and have been giving us what we want them to.”
The average age of an NHL roster is fluid as players move in and out of the lineup. According to QuantHockey.com, a database of statistics and analysis, Calgary dropped from second-oldest in the league last month to fourth with an average age of 29.15.
Forward Niklas Hagman, 31, was claimed by Anaheim this week after the Flames put him on waivers. Defenceman Cory Sarich, 33, was a healthy scratch for five straight games, although Sutter said he’d return to the lineup Friday.
All this movement seems designed to shake up a moribund team and send not-so-subtle messages to veterans Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Ollie Jokinen, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Jay Bouwmeester.
“Young guys haven’t been instilled in the lineup just because we wanted to go with youth,” Sutter continued. “We’re putting young guys in that can play.
“We feel it adds something to our team that we’ve been missing.”
Brodie, 21, was summoned from the Abbotsford Heat on Nov. 9 and 22-year-old Byron the following day.
“I think they’re giving us more of a chance so it’s great for the younger guys,” Byron said.
The Ottawa native scored his first goal for the Flames in Saturday’s 4-3 win in Colorado. He came to Calgary with defender Chris Butler in the off-season trade that sent defenceman Robyn Regehr to Buffalo.
Byron appeared in played eight regular-season games for the Sabres last season.
Brodie, from Chatham, Ont., was Calgary’s fourth-round pick in 2008. He averaged over 12 minutes per game and was even in plus-minus in his first three NHL games this season.
“They’re young guys who have come up and given us some energy and some life and some emotion,” Sutter said of his call-ups.
Backlund, 22, was inserted on the top line between Iginla and Tanguay upon his return Nov. 11 from a pre-season pinkie injury. Calgary’s first-round pick in 2007 wants to provide a lift for the struggling threesome.
“Be a plus player, not a minus player to start,” the Swede said. “If I can help produce I will try to do that obviously and I’ve got to get better at that. That whole line, we’ve got to get going here.
“I know there’s a lot more pressure this year than last year for me and playing on the top line, you’ve got to take a lot of responsibility. As a first-line centre, people expect a lot.”
Horak, the youngest on the team at 20, has both held his own and his spot on the team with defensively responsible play—plus-three on a team with several minus players—and his hard work on offence.
The Flames picked up the Czech centre’s rights when they traded first-round pick Tim Erixon to the Rangers in the off-season. Horak is pleased to look around the dressing room and finally see players his own age.
“Pretty much all the guys have families here,” he said. “If you have some young guys around, it’s good for me too. It seems like they’re trying to give opportunity to young guys now.
While young players naturally take their cues from veterans, Sutter would rather his 20-somethings not adopt the inconsistency that’s plagued the Flames this season.
“Those guys have all been really good,” Sutter said. “Backs has been coming back off an injury and he needs to continue to push to get his game to where it needs to be. The kids have to keep their level where it has to be and continue to grow from that. No drop-offs.”