The evolution of Chris Breen
CALGARY, AB -- To say Chris Breen has come a long way over the past three years would be an understatement.
The undrafted blueliner has went from being questioned on if he could be a productive professional to having a chance at cracking the Flames roster.
"The coaches down in Abbotsford have helped me immensely," he said of his evolution as a player. "Wardo, Luke Strand and Cail, they've all been excellent with me, developing my game and making sure that I have the chance to make the step to the next level.
"It's been incredible."
The Flames had been monitoring Breen's progression in the OHL, where he spent time with the Saginaw Spirit, Erie Otters and Peterborough Petes, and signed him to an amateur tryout deal once his junior career had come to a close at the end of the 2009-10 season. He suited up for one game with the Abbotsford Heat that year, picking up one assist. His AHL audition convinced Flames brass that Breen's game had room to grow and they inked him to an entry-level deal on May 31, 2010.
When Calgary signed the hulking blueliner, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs in at 224 lbs, many wondered what what kind of a player he was. He had the size every team would love to see on their back-end, skated extremely well for a player of his stature, showed very good poise in all three zones and his stats line indicated he had offensive upside.
However, his game in the OHL lacked physicality and aggressiveness - traits that would have become that much more intimidating given his size - and he didn't appear to be overly confident handling the puck.
There were plenty of questions surrounding the rearguard. Was he strictly a shutdown defenceman? Could he be more of a two-way player, spending time on the power play along with the penalty kill? Where did he slot in on the depth chart?
The one thing the Flames were sure of, however, was his work ethic and willingness to do whatever it took to make himself a better player.
"Overall, he's becoming more well-rounded," Flames special assistant to the general manager Craig Conroy summarized. "But the one thing he's done right from the very beginning is work hard. He works so hard. He's in the gym every day in Abbotsford. Every time I've been there, he's always in there.
"He does all the extra stuff and he just wants to get better which is great for us."
During the first half of the 2010-11 campaign, Breen struggled to make the necessary adjustments to the professional game. Adapting to the speed and urgency of the game took time but his hard work and dedication paid off. Breen's puck possession skills improved dramatically throughout the year and he learned how to match the pace of the AHL game. He saw his minutes gradually grow and the Heat coaching staff were confident enough in him to use him on their shutdown pairing in the second half of the season.
The Uxbridge, ON product also showed off the offensive upside scouts had seen in his junior days, scoring four goals and 11 points through 73 games in 2010-11. The coaching staff used him on a power play at certain points during the year.
"He's more of a defensive-defenceman right now," Conroy mused. "But you can see the offensive upside. He has a very hard shot."
Breen's offensive production slowed in the 2011-12 season as he managed one goal and seven points through 70 regular season games but he looked more comfortable in his second professional season. He read plays extremely well, used his stick more effectively and the pace of the game was rarely an issue.
The 23 year-old is now in a top-four role in Abbotsford, logging a ton of minutes and playing in a multitude of situations. He has also become a harder player to compete against. He is more aggressive along the boards and in front of the net and is willing to drop the gloves.
Given the uncertainty of his viability as a pro three years ago, his progression over the past few years can be categorized as remarkable.
"This year, he has taken right off," Conroy said. "His stick handling has improved, the way he moves the puck has improved, he plays well one-on-one. He's becoming smarter and knows what the other guys want to do."
He's done his fair share of growing off the ice as well. Breen is the father to two-year Skarlett and four-month old Cullen and is engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Jamie-Lee. The maturing he has done away from the rink has translated into becoming a more well-rounded player and human being.
"I'm focused on being a good dad and a good fiance ... I've learned how to manage my time properly, especially my rest and sleep. I never know when I go home what kind of day the kids are going to have," he chuckled. "I've learned how to really take care of myself.
"What I've learned away from the rink has helped be a lot at the rink."
His strong play in Abbotsford this year has earned him a chance to compete for a roster spot in Calgary and Breen is relishing his time at training camp.
"It's really special to have the chance to push for a spot," he grinned. "We had 10 defencemen here and I don't know how many we're going to keep around during the season but just to have the opportunity to compete here, prove myself in camp against these great players is pretty special."