By David Song
When Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster drafted Sean Monahan sixth overall in the 2013 National Hockey League Entry Draft, a beacon of hope was ignited in the minds of many Flames fans. Monahan’s size, skill and maturity were evident in his junior years, and he is perceived to be a much safer and more talented pick than 2012 Flames first-rounder Mark Jankowski. So far, Monahan has not failed to impress, notching six points in the first five NHL games of his career. He has discovered chemistry with 2011 first-rounder Sven Baertschi and appears unfazed by the stiff competition he faces in hockey’s flagship league.
Under such circumstances, it is very tempting for the Flames organization and their supporters to press Monahan into full-time service in hopes of establishing him as one of the team’s top scorers. However, even if the lanky kid has a strong finish to his nine-game audition — the maximum amount of games a junior-eligible player can play in the NHL before using up a year of his affordable entry-level contract — it may be too early to throw him into the majors permanently.
Consider what happened to Baertschi during his first foray into the NHL. In 2012 he was called up for five games due to injuries on the Flames’s roster, scoring three goals and showing great poise before the return of some veterans from the injured reserve list necessitated his return to juniors. Fans quickly came to expect great things from the Swiss sniper, who started the 2012–13 campaign in Abbotsford thanks to the lockout.
Baertschi lit up the American Hockey League, tallying 26 points in 32 games and battling through a mid-season neck injury, but his second stint with Calgary saw him score only one point in his first 10 games, before being sent down to the Abbotsford Heat of the AHL. Baertchi’s underwhelming performance damaged his confidence and disappointed the fans. There is nothing to prevent Monahan from experiencing a similar dip in production should he remain in the NHL. Baertschi’s stint in the AHL did him well — he returned to the NHL in April and scored nine points in 10 games.
Jonathan Cheechoo stands as another example of the transience of NHL success. In 1998, the San Jose Sharks were criticized for drafting the Ontario-born right winger 29th overall, as he was seen as a later-round pick. After a few seasons in the minors, Cheechoo suddenly exploded during the 2005–06 NHL campaign, winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for most goals in the league with a 56-goal, 93-point effort. His next season was shortened to 76 games, but he continued to play well, scoring 69 points and 37 goals. From that point on, things went straight downhill for Cheechoo as his yearly point production fell to 37 and then 29 in the next two seasons. Cheechoo has not played in the NHL since 2010 and has never again come close to reproducing his Richard Trophy numbers, even in the AHL. He is currently active in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.
It isn’t easy to have continued success in the NHL, whether you’re the top sniper in the league or a 19-year-old rookie just a few games into your career.
Granted, Monahan is not Baertschi, and he is certainly not Cheechoo either. Monahan has the potential to break out in the majors and never look back, becoming a success story a la Steven Stamkos or John Tavares.
It is precisely because of the chance at elite-level talent that the Flames coaching staff should assess Monahan in a brutally honest, no bullshit manner, keeping his long-term success in mind. Although Calgary’s squad has been surprisingly formidable so far, the Flames are still rebuilding, and making the playoffs is not the goal this year. As a result, roster moves should be made to suit the needs of individual players and not the short-term fortunes of the team.
Even if Monahan wears the Flaming C for this entire season, fans should not be surprised or discontented if he is assigned to the Heat next season. Temporary success is no guarantee of lasting success. Every appropriate step must be taken to ensure that Monahan receives the conditioning and well-rounded experience he needs to one day become an undisputed top-line centre. If this means depriving the Flames of a potential asset in the short term, so be it. By now the Flames and their fans should know that patience is a virtue, and that there is no such thing as a quick fix for players or teams.
At the end of the day, Coach Bob Hartley and his crew knows Monahan’s level of readiness better than any third-party analyst, and their decision should be trusted. If they ultimately choose to press the 19-year-old into NHL service for good, their judgement should be trusted. Nevertheless, it is paramount that expectations surrounding Monahan remain realistic. If he is force-fed more than he can chew, the result would be severely wasteful for both him and the entire organization.