Steinberg on AHL: Bar high for Baertschi

“In our mind, Sven is a professional hockey player.” — Jay Feaster, Calgary Flames General Manager

When Jay Feaster made that statement to Sportsnet 960 The Fan last month, it was affirmation of something many Calgary Flames fans were well aware of. Even though the fate of the 2012-13 NHL season was unknown at the time, there wasn’t going to be any uncertainty when it came to Calgary’s top prospect. Sven Baertschi, the Flames’ first-round pick in 2011, wasn’t heading back to junior; he was either going to play with the Flames or their American Hockey League affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat. With the NHL season very much up in the air, the majority of Baertschi’s first season will likely be spent in the AHL. Knowing that, just what should the expectations be for him?

Here’s where things get interesting. Baertschi put up 179 points in 113 games with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks over two seasons. He also decided to ignite the excitement of Flames fans when he scored three times in a brief five game emergency call-up with Calgary last season. There could be an expectation of regular points at the AHL level, seeing as how he’s produced at a high level in junior and impressed to a large degree in the NHL. Those expectations could be well founded, but failing to meet certain point totals doesn’t necessarily mean we’re talking about a letdown.

While the AHL truly is the second highest level of professional hockey on the continent, it’s also not the NHL. The overall skill level obviously isn’t as high, but the differences don’t end there. More than anything, you’re talking about a different understanding of structure. It’s something Heat Head Coach Troy Ward has talked about many times.

“There’s more structure up there,” Ward told last week. “There’s more of a time management game there, where guys see space and understand space and know how much time they’ve got to set the zone against the 1-2-2 forecheck. Down here you’d like to say that it’s a 1-2-2 forecheck, but it doesn’t always work out that way, so you can never control the timing of the game as much as you do up there.”

So how does that affect Baertschi? Well, he’s playing against men full time for the first time in North America. He did this for a couple seasons with Langenthal in Switzerland, but I think we can all agree it’s slightly different on this side of the pond. On top of that, it’s not the NHL. His five game stint last season allowed him to play with seasoned NHLers who were able to protect him, if need be, more effectively on the ice. On top of that, how he’s utilized is different. Because roles aren’t as defined as they may be in the NHL, it’s tougher to protect players situationally.

“Sven seems to have most things in line to continue to score a lot of goals,” Ward said. “But, here it’s going to be a scrambly game at first and I’m sure it’ll take a while for him to settle into, but that’s okay. You would expect a little bit of a drop off every now and then, we just want to make sure that we help him with the necessary tools to work through that so if it happens in Calgary, and he’s already been through that in Abbotsford, he handles it in the right way and continues to be a positive player for the team in other aspects.”

Regardless of how Baertschi performs, especially early on in his first AHL season, it’s very clear how important this season is from a development standpoint. While Feaster says it would be the “upset special” if Baertschi didn’t make the NHL squad, the fact is there is no NHL squad to make currently. That said, professional hockey is a different animal from major junior, and it’s the right spot for the 20-year -old Swiss native. There’s nothing left for Baertschi to accomplish from a development standpoint in the WHL.

Flames assistant general manager John Weisbrod knows the score here. Organizationally, he’s the executive most closely associated with the Heat and he’s been with the team throughout their training camp. And Weisbrod thinks playing in a somewhat “scrambly” environment can be a very positive experience for Baertschi.

“I think to some degree it’s a good thing. As difficult and challenging as it can be for certain guys, there is some value in playing in an environment that’s not quite as buttoned up and structured. It’s still a very high skill level and it’s still a great pace, but the game is less predictable and in some ways that helps the development of your sense and your brain and reading different situations and dealing with things that you don’t expect to happen. While it might be something that Sven finds a little bit challenging or frustrating at times, and I’ve certainly seen that happen with other players that I’ve had in AHL situations, it most always is a benefit”

Maybe Baertschi puts up very good totals as a rookie AHLer this year, and maybe this article ends up being unnecessary because of how well he plays. But if that’s not the case, there are more important things at stake this season than just points. The Flames have high hopes for Baertschi going forward, and Weisbrod thinks this season will be a positive one for him, regardless of where he plays.

“This can still be a very positive and productive time period in terms of playing in the AHL, however long that may be, and I think he’ll take some big steps forward. I think he already has just in the brief time we’ve been here, so I’m bullish on what the year will be for Sven regardless of where he’s playing.”

For fans in Calgary, they just hope Baertschi will be wearing the flaming C sooner rather than later.