St. Paul, Minn. — Almost immediately, you could hear the collective reaction of Calgary Flames fans when head coach Bob Hartley announced that left-winger Sven Baertschi would be taking a seat in the press box for a second time this young 2013-14 National Hockey League season.
“Every time we sit Sven, it’s like the world is ending in Calgary,” Hartley said after Tuesday’s morning skate ahead of their game against the Minnesota Wild.
However, the NHL education of the 21-year-old continues. Baertschi, although offensively gifted and talented with the puck, had last been benched against the Dallas Stars on the road with Hartley singling out his overall commitment to three zones.
When asked about it on Tuesday, Hartley said the Flames’ coaching staff was going to have a video session with Baertschi to show him where improvements are needed. And, in the meantime, winger Lance Bouma would replace him on the second line with Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler.
The Flames did not make Baertschi available for comment which left Hartley to discuss the decision — and, also, the impact on the player.
“That’s part of his challenge,” Hartley said. “Mental toughness is, unfortunately, a big part of this deal. This is a business for men. This is the best hockey league in the world. No one puts a gun to our head to be in the NHL. It’s a privilege to be in the National Hockey League. The day you steal a jersey, the day you get a coaching job in the NHL, it’s a very good day. But the next second, somebody else is wanting your job. Everybody wants to be in the NHL. It’s a day-to-day battle. You have to accept the facts and you have to accept the risks.”
Before Chad Billins made his NHL debut on Tuesday night, the undersized defenceman was talking about modelling his game after Kris Russell.
Like Billins, who is listed at a generous five-foot-10 and 180-pounds, Russell is a blueliner who has to focus on other ways to be effective based on his size.
“I’ve watched him even before he was in the Flames organization,” said Billins who had been told Monday he would be in the lineup against the Wild. “He’s a smaller guy, like myself, but he moves the puck well. I definitely try to learn from him. He’s a special player and has that offensive mindset. He’s definitely someone I look up to.”
Billins said it’s about spatial awareness, rather than overpowering players, that makes guys like them successful at their jobs.
“You just have to be that much better with your stick and your body-positioning to make up for the size,” he said. “Not going to be six-four any time soon so you have to work around it. Guys like Russell have been able to stay consistent with that. It’s important to pick things up and practise while you’re watching.”
However, the 24-year-old who won a 2013 Calder Cup with the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins definitely wasn’t watching on Thursday.
He starred in his first NHL game in front of his dad Jason and mom Teri who were up at 3 a.m. to fly into Minneapolis from Michigan earlier that day along with his younger brothers Dylan and Tyler.
“It’s something you dream of when you finally get the call but when you find out you’re in the lineup, it’s crazy,” Billins said. “Such a whirlwind of emotions. To be able to share it with my family is pretty special.”
BACKLUND NEEDS TO PUSH
Hartley still wants centre Mikael Backlund, who is currently on the Flames’ fourth line with Tim Jackman and Brian McGrattan, to continue to push against the other young pivots like Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan and even veteran centre Matt Stajan.
“I keep repeating to Backs, I’m not going to get him in the office in a few weeks or months from now and tell him that I’m disappointed with his offensive contribution,” he said of Backlund’s fourth-line minutes. “I know what I’m going to get from him. But at the same time, I’m telling him he needs to challenge himself and needs to battle because those guys — Colborne, Monahan, and Staj right now — on a day-to-day basis, they got ahead of Backs. And those are facts.”
Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Wild, Backlund, who was sat against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 30, had two goals, two assists, and was a minus-two.
“Whether he agrees with us or not, we’re all with him,” Hartley continued. “Backs is a great guy. It’s not because we don’t like Backs or it’s a punishment or anything like this. It’s the way we’re rating our players right now. I told him with hard work and the great attitude he has, maybe that’s the way he’s going to steal someone else’s job. We have no problem with this. We want that competition. We think it’s very healthy.”
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