Top Shelf: Giordano takes long road to NHL stardom

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Elite defensive talent is hard to come by in the NHL. Every summer at the draft, there are usually only a handful of guys who figure to have the size, skill set and mental acumen to be a legitimate No. 1 defenseman.

There is the rare exception, of course. Since talent evaluators are only human, they sometimes take a big swing and a miss when sizing up certain players.

Calgary's Mark Giordano is one of those guys, and at the age of 31, the Flames captain is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

With over a quarter of the regular season in the books, Giordano has established himself as the top candidate for the Norris Trophy. And if the Flames are able to keep up their surprisingly great start to the season, Giordano even has a real chance at winning the Hart Trophy.

Already considered one of the best undrafted players of his generation, if Giordano wins the Norris as the league's top defenseman he could join Martin St. Louis as one of the best undrafted guys of all time. If he wins the Hart -- the league's MVP award -- then we may someday be talking about Mark Giordano, Hockey Hall of Famer.

To say the least, Giordano's road to NHL stardom has been anything but usual. A little over a decade ago, he was draft eligible in the summer of 2003 and every single NHL team took a pass. Nine rounds came and went and nobody believed Giordano was worthy of a pick. A total of 292 names were called but Giordano's was not among them.

Luckily, the Flames saw enough in Giordano to sign him as an undrafted free agent in 2004 following his final junior season with Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League. Calgary's general manager at the time -- Darryl Sutter -- gets recognition for inking him to an AHL contract, but Giordano's work ethic is what makes the signing look like the coup it is seen as today.

Although Giordano was named to the OHL's All-Rookie team in 2002-03, his lack of size for a defenseman (6-feet, 203 pounds) made him an undesirable draft prospect. Instead of being discouraged, however, Giordano simply worked harder than everybody else until he proved he belonged in the NHL. He could've taken his foot off the pedal then, but that's just not the way Giordano is wired.

Calgary centerman Matt Stajan knew Giordano from their days playing against each other in the OHL. When Giordano recently was named the NHL's First Star for November, Stajan told the Calgary Sun all about his captain's legendary work ethic.

"He kind of always flew under the radar, and I never really understood why," Stajan recounted. "Once he got his shot and then coming to be his teammate and watching the way he works, he just wants more. He's never satisfied. With his hard work, he's always trying to reach that next level.

"When your best player is the hardest-working player I've ever been associated with on any team, it says a lot about him as our captain."

Although he proved himself as an integral part of Calgary's blue line several seasons ago, the Toronto native has been unfairly overlooked for most of his NHL career. But, as Giordano approaches his 500th NHL game, the spotlight on him has never been brighter.

For the last few years, proponents of advanced statistics have counted Giordano among the best NHL defensemen but it took an increase in offensive production to get everybody on the same page. Last season, Giordano set career bests in both goals (14) and points (47) despite injuries limiting him to only 64 games. His offensive game has reached new heights in 2014-15, as Giordano is on pace for a point-per-game season with six goals and 21 assists in 27 games.

Along with defensive partner TJ Brodie, a modest fourth-round pick by Calgary in 2008, Giordano is a big reason the supposedly rebuilding Flames would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The club boasts a stable of young offensive prospects, including Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, but Calgary's surprising 17-8-2 start to 2014-15 has more to do with its top defensive pairing.

The best part for the Flames is Brodie ($2.125 million) and Giordano ($4.02 million) combine for a 2014-15 cap hit of $6.145 million. That's clearly a bargain for a Calgary team that is currently more than $18 million under the salary cap.

While the Flames famously traded away defensemen with better pedigrees in recent years, such as Jay Bouwmeester and Dion Phaneuf, it's a safe bet Calgary won't be doing the same with Giordano. However, with one more season left on his contract, the captain will be due a big raise before Calgary allows him to hit the free agent market in the summer of 2016.

Given how far he has come already, the Flames may want to think extension now before Giordano's value rises even higher.