Four lockers down, Calgary Flames defenceman Shane O’Brien is watching as the crowd forms around Sean Monahan, who is receiving post-practice marching orders.
First, there is a photo shoot – “In sweats?” Monahan asked – followed by a telephone interview with the NHL Network.
Monahan is a rare species in Calgary – a rookie sensation in an organization that’s had its share of first-round failures lo these many years – and the veteran O’Brien is teasing him about all the attention.
“It’s 24/7 kid,” O’Brien said, adding: “I can be your PR guy if you want.”
No need for that probably.
Monahan, the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft looks like the real deal already, even without any extra hype. So often, junior-age players arrive in the NHL with a splash and then tail off once the pace of play ramps up. In Monahan’s favour is he turns 19 on Saturday, and thus, is one of the older members of his draft class.
Beyond that, he is fairly mature physically and thus far has been able to make plays against genuine NHLers, a telling sign. Monahan has three goals in the past three games and scoring points in all four, as Calgary is off to an unexpectedly good 2-0-2 start.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ streak of 24 games in a row without a regulation defeat at the start of a season – established last year – is not in immediate jeopardy, but there are smiles all around town over how well the Flames have coped with the early stages of the post-Jarome Iginla, post-Miikka Kiprusoff era. They have 15 goals in the four games, and are getting scoring contributions from throughout the lineup.
So when asked Thursday about Monahan’s play to date and how he’s sustained a high level in the early stages of the season, head coach Bob Hartley said the same question could be asked of his team as a whole.
Against long odds, can they keep it going?
“I ask this question every day,” Hartley said. “Monny’s a special kid. He makes great plays. He’s fun to work with – and you’re right. The question goes as well for Monny as our entire team. That’s where my job and my partners come into effect – the way we prepare them, the way we hold them accountable to the standards we established on Day 1. Are we going to be able to do it? Time will tell.”
Thus far, the Flames goaltending has been left in the hands of journeyman Joey MacDonald.
The Flames went to Europe to recruit three possible replacements for Kiprusoff. Two – Reto Berra and Joni Ortio – are in the minors. The third, Karri Ramo, who was signed with great fanfare out of Russia’s KHL after four sterling years with Avangard Omsk, started in the season opener, an overtime loss to the Washington Capitals, and hasn’t been seen since.
The Flames have shown an ability to get out to early leads – they hold an 8-3 edge in first-period goals – and have allowed their opponents back into every game. Twice, they blew the leads completely and lost in extra time. Twice, including Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, they were able to hang on and secure the two points in regulation.
The temptation is to suggest teams aren’t ready to play the Flames because their lineup doesn’t inspire any fear, but that will change in a hurry if the victories continue to come.
The New Jersey Devils (0-2-2) represent the next challenge Friday. After that, the Flames embark on an eight-day, five-game trip, playing each of the teams in the former Pacific Division, an early litmus test for the club.
Their ninth game of the season comes in Phoenix, at which point they will have to make a decision about Monahan – keep him for the duration of the season, or send him back to junior.
“I don’t think about that nine-game thing,” Monahan said. “I want to be here full time and I want to play on this team. So I’m just going to continue to work hard and, hopefully, things happen how I want them to happen.”
Ultimately, the Flames will decide Monahan’s future on the basis of where his hockey development can be most intelligently enhanced.
Some teams will allow financial considerations to influence thinking, but the Flames are a salary-cap team and their managers have carte blanche to spend ownership’s dollars however they see fit.
If keeping him around is in Monahan’s best long-term interest, they will burn up the first year of his entry-level contract to make it happen.
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