Flames GM Feaster still scouring for more grit
He may just have the right guy(s) within the organization already
With Calgary unable to attract a premiere grit player in free agencey, they’re hoping they’ve got the right sandpaper within the organization. Akim Aliu, fighting for a spot in Abbotsford, might just be that guy after an impressive NHL run late last season.
Photograph by: Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald
Looking back at his body of work over the summer, Jay Feaster sees one glaring item remaining on a lengthy-do list.
He hired a Stanley Cup champion head coach in Bob Hartley. Locked down a power-play quarterback in Dennis Wideman. Added scoring punch up front in Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka.
But the Calgary Flames general manager badly wanted to add some menace and grit to a forward group clearly lacking in both categories.
Call it the sandpaper initiative. Status: ongoing.
“As far as a trade goes, we had conversations,” Feaster said Sunday at training camp for Calgary’s No. 1 farm team, the Abbotsford Heat. “But nothing made any sense for us to pull the trigger.”
They also tried to pull the trigger via free agency, but the pool of candidates vanished in no time with former Flame Brandon Prust signing on in Montreal and Zenon Konopka catching on with the new-look Minnesota Wild.
Turns out tough guys with decent hands are hard to come by . . .
“We looked on the free-agent market,” Feaster said. “When you’re looking for that kind of player, those guys tend to go pretty quickly.
“They’re an important commodity.”
They signed former Flame Steve Begin to a tryout contract. But with the trade market shut for the down due to the NHL lockout, the Flames are left to look in house for sandpaper candidates.
Enter Akim Aliu and Lance Bouma. Both are auditioning this week in Abbotsford with an eye to a greater prize.
Full-time employment with the Flames.
“If we were in camp right now in Calgary, those are two guys we would be looking at to see if they could be the guy we were looking for,” Feaster said. “Overall, we had a good off-season. We like what we were able to do on the free-agent market and we like the way our team looks. We’re excited about the coaching staff, but that’s the one area we clearly didn’t get addressed that we wanted to.”
At six-foot-four, 225 pounds, Aliu has the raw size and skill the Flames so badly need. He is clearly capable of throwing the body and driving the opposition absolutely bonkers.
For proof, ask the Anaheim Ducks, who took 16 minutes in penalties in Game 82 of last season in an effort to get back at the pugnacious youngster.
In his honour, the sellout crowd of 19,289 at the Saddledome chanted “Alloooo” to officially welcome the kid to the NHL.
“I’ve been thinking about that all summer,” Aliu said. “I was just honoured for that to happen. I’m really looking forward to playing in front of those fans again.”
Barring a sudden change in the NHL labour negotiations, no one will be playing professional hockey in Calgary for the foreseeable future.
“The circumstances are what they are,” Aliu said. “I’ve got to make the best of it down here until I get another opportunity up there.”
In two NHL games, Aliu scored two goals and one assist and amassed 12 penalty minutes — which is not bad for a player who was unemployed at Christmas time due to differences in opinion with the brass of the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose.
In spite of his late heroics last season in Calgary, Aliu failed to find his groove for Abbotsford during the playoffs. The big man even found himself in the press box during the series against the Toronto Marlies as a healthy scratch.
Consistency is clearly the key for Aliu if he has designs on one of the “sandpaper” spots in Calgary.
“That’s been a little bit of a downfall for me,” said Aliu, 23. “I can come out for some games and play really well and dominate some parts of the game. And then I’m nowhere to be seen for a period or two or a game or two.
“So I definitely think to make it to the next level you have to bring it every night. I’m going to work on that down here. I think you have to be honest with yourself to become a better player.”
At six-foot-one, 215 pounds, Bouma injected grit to the Calgary lineup last year in 27 games with the Flames. The former Vancouver Giants captain checks. He fights. He blocks shots, and he annoys the heck out of the other team.
His major area for improvement? Offence. With one goal and three points as an NHLer, Bouma needs to prove he can contribute at both ends of the rink.
“I just need to work on my skills with the puck,” he said. “I need to work on my shot and my hands and things like that. I just need to get better offensively.
“Obviously the coaching staff is great with that kind of thing. They show me tape of what I’m doing in games and what I can do better in those situations and things like that.”
For both Aliu and Bouma, the NHL labour situation gives them the perfect opportunity right to prove to the Calgary brass that no trade is necessary — that the sandpaper already exists in the organization.
Feaster can only hope.
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