Last May, the Flames signed undrafted 21-year old defender Chris Breen to an entry-level deal, adding to their already crowded stable of blueliners and making it unlikely that we would ever see the lanky 6'7" rearguard in an NHL game. This past season, however, Breen proved to be a durable and relatively stable presence on the Heat's backend, scoring four goals and 11 assists and accumulating 47 PIMS in 73 games, earning high praise from head coach Jim Playfair:
"No one really knew what his upside was gong to be.I think he learned how to handle the puck a lot better. He learned to defend a lot better. He’s a very, very big player. He became a very consistent player. I firmly believe Chris Breen is going to find his way and become an NHL defenceman."
"His disposition is one that he's just a very laid back player and I think the more you increase details and urgency and competitiveness in him, it's a no brainer that Chris Breen's going to play in the NHL."
"He has to develop at a rate that Calgary can eventually trust and believe that he can play at the next level and he's going to play there."
Breen was an unknown commodity before coming to the Heat on a tryout basis last Spring, and the fact that he went undrafted despite his size meant that suspicions about the completeness of his game were warranted, but he seems to have taken big steps in the right direction under the tutelage of the Abbotsford coaching staff and on a pairing with fellow rookie T.J. Brodie, who experienced his own growing pains in 2010-11. Breen finished the season with a -6 rating while Brodie managed a +3 on a team where few regular skaters managed to finish on the positive side of the ledger.
Breen outperformed both John Negrin and Matt Pelech, each of whom again missed large portions of the season with various ailments, and quite possibly has more upside at this point despite coming from the same mould--a stay-at-home type player with limited offensive capabilities.
Breen, however, is not the first big blueliner to be signed and coveted by the Flames in the past decade. 6'5" Gord Baldwin was selected in the third round of the 2005 Entry Draft and seemingly showed an improvement in 2009-10 when he scored a career-best four goals and 24 points and finished the season with a +7 rating before regressing in his fourth AHL season, despite playing in all but five games. Baldwin has yet to play a game in the NHL, and while Breen's progress is encouraging, he's not exactly next in line on the Flames' organizational depth chart; I suppose I'll wait to pass judgement until I see him again at Prospect Camp in July.