Top Shelf: Monahan makes Calgary's choice an easy one

Philadelphia, PA ( - The key to turning the corner during a rebuilding phase is finding one player who can be a difference maker.

The Calgary Flames may have found their next franchise player and it only took him nine games to prove he was a keeper.

Sean Monahan will play his 10th game of the season -- and of his career -- for the Flames on Thursday, meaning the clock will start on his three-year, entry- level contract.

Since its cost effective to return young players to their junior teams before those entry level deals kick in, NHL clubs usually are looking for reasons to say a kid isn't ready for the big time, but Monahan took his destiny into his own hands.

The sixth overall pick of this past summer's draft, Monahan, who turned 19 years of age earlier this month, has turned heads from Game 1 of his NHL career. Nine games into that run Monahan has a team-high six goals while adding three assists and he's hardly seemed out of place playing among seasoned veterans.

"As we always tell players, they make the decisions. The players decide and certainly in Sean's case, Sean decided," Flames GM Jay Feaster said about the team's decision to keep Monahan at the NHL level.

For Feaster, a big factor in keeping Monahan with the Flames was how he has maintained his early momentum and even earned more playing time. Monahan skated for 11 minutes and 40 seconds in his NHL debut on Oct. 3, but he's been used for over 19 minutes in each of his past two outings.

"Through those first nine games, he demonstrated that he can play in this league," Feaster added. "He has not looked out of place and has not been a guy who's taken five or six minutes and a few shifts a night. He has seen his ice time increase through this trip."

Having missed the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, the Flames entered this season at a crossroads, but Monahan gives hope the club is finally heading down the right path. Calgary traded away Jarome Iginla -- the longtime face of the franchise -- last season and lost franchise goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff to retirement during the offseason.

Moving forward without two of the best players to ever suit up for the franchise was not expected to be easy, but with a 4-3-2 start to the 2013-14 campaign things are going smoother than most people predicted.

Of course, Monahan's offensive production has been a big reason the team has so far been able to clear the low bar set for them by the pundits.

The low expectations also helped Monahan get a real shot to make this team. If Calgary was heading into this season with aspirations of competing for a Stanley Cup, it's possible not even Monahan's terrific start to the campaign would've kept him with the big club. As it stands, the Flames are trying to take stock of what is left to build upon now that they find themselves planted firmly in the post-Iginla era and Monahan isn't a bad starting point, to say the least.

Monahan seems like a kid who realizes his quick start will mean little if he doesn't constantly work on improving his game. The NHL annals are littered with cases of young players who found early success in their careers, only to fall on hard times as time wears on.

Both Monahan and Feaster admit the young centerman needs to work on getting better in the faceoff circle -- he's only won 40.9 percent of his draws this season -- but if that's all he needs to get better at he's way ahead of the game.

For now, the youngster is focusing on keeping it simple and doing what he can to make this rebuilding project as painless as possible.

"I'm just really happy to be part of this team and trying to help this team win games," Monahan said.

There's a good chance Monahan could hit a wall during the lengthy NHL schedule, but with the dearth of offensive talent currently in Calgary it seems unlikely the Flames will regret this decision.

Feaster and his staff deserve credit not only for giving the kid a real chance to shine, but also for quickly realizing how important he could be to the future success of the franchise.

Prior to Monahan's arrival, it seemed the club was looking at a long and arduous road back to respectability. Now it doesn't seem so bad.