Horak may score spot in Flames lineup

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:43 PM ET

Brent Sutter didn’t mince words.

When asked about Roman Horak still being with the team in the final days leading up to the season opener, the Calgary Flames coach said: “He’s here. The way he’s played (to) this point in time, you’ve got to expect him in the opening day lineup.”

How long Horak remains with the big club remains to be seen.

It could be all season. It could be just a couple of games.

There are players every year who stand out in the pre-season but can’t elevate their games when there are points in the standings on the line.

Still, it’s a credit to the 20-year-old centre who came over with a pair of second-round draft picks in the summertime trade that saw 2009 first-round draft choice Tim Erixon go to the New York Rangers.

When training camp opened, the Flames brass said any young player who earns a spot on the roster will get one.

Horak is the best candidate thanks to a strong two-way game during the pre-season slate.

“He’s earned everything he’s got to date,” Sutter said. “He’s played well here, he’s done everything you could ask for a young guy coming in since opening day.

“It’s still a work in progress, but at this point in time, it’s something I’m certainly leaning towards doing.”

The latest Roman (first, it was the goalie named Turek, then the defenceman with the surname Hamrlik) is pegged to skate on a line with Rene Bourque and Lee Stempniak, a couple of players who have pushed for 30 goals a couple of times in their career.

Injuries may make it easy for the Flames to fit Horak onto the 23-man roster when the puck drops next Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With a sick bay that includes centre Brendan Morrison, defenceman Brett Carson and right-winger Jarome Iginla — who is yet to practice with the squad — those three could be on the shelf long enough for the team to just need to send one more player to the minors.

Among the candidates for reassignment are the two defencemen on two-way contracts, Derek Smith or Jordan Henry.

However, if Iginla and Morrison are good to go for the season opener — a possibility since the team insists Iginla will be and Morrison is pushing himself for it — things can be dicey.

The Flames may need to move a one-way contract, either to the minors or via trade, provided they can find a partner, since they have 14 forwards on one-way deals.

A couple of obvious candidates for AHL assignments are forwards Raitis Ivanans, who missed the final 81 games last season due to concussion, and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond.

But Letourneau-Leblond was acquired from the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round pick, and we’ll assume on Sutter’s recommendation, so you’d think he was brought here for a reason.

Which means the one-way contract candidates become even more interesting.

Centre Matt Stajan and left winger Niklas Hagman — the two players remaining from Toronto in the infamous Dion Phaneuf trade — were both on the bubble when training camp started.

Hagman had a strong start to training camp, levelled off during the middle portion of the pre-season schedule and finished with a solid game, but shouldn’t feel he’s a slam dunk to stay in Calgary.

As for Stajan, he was “OK” in Sutter’s words but hardly received a glowing report with the Flames set to have Olli Jokinen and Mikael Backlund at centre.

“Staje has been fine. It’s a situation he understands. Obviously, you’ve got Olli as one of your top guys, you’ve got Mikael Backlund — if he’s playing up to his standards — he’s one of your top guys, if Roman Horak continues to play like he does, he’s one of your top guys,” Sutter said. “Staje has to push to be in that mix. He’s had a decent camp.

“He’s hasn’t been outstanding, but he’s played OK.”

Is OK good enough to prevent assignment to the minors, which could cause all kinds of chaos with Stajan’s contract (three more seasons with a US$3.5 million salary cap hit)?

Only time will tell.

But thankfully, Horak made it interesting in the final days before puck drop.


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