‘Big-time poise’: Glimpsing the future for Calgary Flames prospect Hunter Brzustewicz

Having yet to set foot inside the Saddledome, 19-year-old Hunter Brzustewicz has quickly emerged as the most exciting or at least most intriguing player in the Flames’ future pipeline.

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Ask around about Calgary Flames blue-line prospect Hunter Brzustewicz, about why he has flashed so much promise and potential as an up-and-comer, about the reasons that many believe he has such a bright future at the NHL level, and you’re guaranteed to hear the same word over and over again.

Brzustewicz, by consensus, has “poise.” Or, as one of his past coaches describes it, “big-time poise.”

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“When you’re under pressure, the first thing for most guys is they want to get rid of it. They don’t want the problem,” said Flames general manager Craig Conroy. “So when you have those guys that have that poise, have that patience … if he can buy a little more time, it really opens up other people. Or if he can bring two people to him and then make that play, those are special guys. You wish everybody could do that, but not everybody can do that. That’s the thing that excites you about him.

“When you look at guys like that in the NHL … we don’t want to compare, but there are some guys that you say, ‘If he progresses the way we think, he could be a real, real good NHL player.’ ”

Two-and-a-half months after being acquired as a key piece of a blockbuster trade, just inked to his entry-level contract and having yet to set foot inside the Saddledome, 19-year-old Brzustewicz has quickly emerged as the most exciting or at least most intriguing player in the Flames’ future pipeline.

When Elias Lindholm was swapped to Vancouver during the all-star break, there was marvelling from some on the West Coast that the Canucks had landed a prized pivot without surrendering a top-flight prospect.

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The folks in Calgary don’t see it that way. They’re confident that this gifted puck-mover from Rochester, Mich., has the vision and playmaking chops to eventually run an NHL power play. While he must continue to hone his defensive game, they figure he has all the tools required to blossom into a trustworthy Top-4 type. There have even been external comparisons to previous Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, except that this rising right-hander was actually willing to sign with the Flames.

Hunter Brzustewicz
Hunter Brzustewicz, a 19-year-old defence prospect for the Calgary Flames, led the Ontario Hockey League in assists during the 2023-24 campaign. Courtesy Tiffany Luke/Kitchener Rangers

‘It was a brilliant move for Calgary to add him,’ says Brzustewicz’s former coach

A third-round selection in the 2023 NHL Draft, Brzustewicz just finished piling up 79 assists — the most of any skater in the Ontario Hockey League, and tops among the 400-some rearguards on Canada’s three major-junior loops — in his 67 regular-season skates with the Kitchener Rangers.

Heading into Tuesday’s action, he had added six more helpers in eight playoff dates. (The Rangers, as they prepared to host Game 3, were facing a 2-0 deficit in a second-round series against the London Knights.)

Dan Riedel has received plenty of phone calls just like this — a hockey writer looking for some insight on Brzustewicz, like what makes him tick and what skills could help to set him apart at the highest level?

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“I’ve got all the time in the world to talk about Hunter,” he said. “I think it was a brilliant move for Calgary to add him, I really do.”

Riedel is a coach in Michigan for the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies program. He watched, sometimes in wonderment, as this “very humble kid” averaged 1.45 assists per game for his U15 AAA squad in 2019-20. Brzustewicz set up his close buddy, Rutger McGroarty, for countless goals that winter. According to Elite Prospects, he also posted a plus-85 rating.

“He’s never sweating, never panicking,” raved Riedel, whose resumé also includes several seasons as a minor-pro forward. “He can hold the puck until the very, very last second. You’re almost like, ‘C’mon, move it! Move it!’ But he sees something.

“You know, when you scout a game or you watch a game as a reporter from up top, you can see the seams and you can see the plays. But having been a player myself, you know the game is so much faster on the ice, right? And he sees things that other people on the ice simply don’t see. His patience and poise to let things unfold, it’s really remarkable. Some people argue he needs to play with more pace. For me, I always tell those people, I think he sets the pace. He plays at his own speed. He’s like a basketball point guard.

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“Or another sport … I always compare him, and I know this may sound a little bit strange, to Patrick Mahomes, just because of the ability to create something out of nothing,” Riedel continued, referring to the Kansas City Chiefs’ superstar quarterback and three-time Super Bowl MVP. “Like, the play is never dead. You watch Mahomes and all of a sudden, he is throwing the ball with his left hand. Just those plays that you’re thinking, ‘How did he come up with that?!?’ It’s not razzle-dazzle or flashy, but you probably saw the play after the trade where he just held it, held it, held it and made the pass back across the crease and the guy had an absolute tap-in. And it’s like, ‘How do you see that? And how do you have the patience to make that play?’

“But that’s Hunter.”

Adam Nightingale, who previously coached in the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) and is now the bench boss for the Michigan State Spartans, isn’t necessarily surprised by Brzustewicz’s gaudy stat-line this season in the OHL.

Nightingale describes the future Flame as an “unbelievable kid” with “super high character” and is quick to remind that he was forced to sit out most of his U-17 campaign due to a significant shoulder injury.

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“That’s a hard year to miss, but I give him a ton of credit,” Nightingale said. “Because I never saw him come to the rink without a smile on his face. He stayed positive and it’s good to see him now seeing the fruits of that. Because that’s not easy. He was around us every day. He was in all the team meetings and he’d sit up and watch practice. He wasn’t an energy-suck to the team. He brought what he could. And at that age, to have that maturity, I give him credit.

“He’s obviously had a great run at Kitchener, and I think he’s going to be a great pro,” he added. “He has big-time poise and he’s a very smart hockey player, so you always knew he was going to keep getting better.”

Poise.

There’s that word again.

“I just think, when you process the game as well as he does, you don’t panic,” said Nightingale, who also had Brzustewicz on his roster with the USNTDP U18s and for a trip to the IIHF U18 World Championship in Germany in 2022. “Average defencemen see the first forechecker and don’t see the second and third. I think Hunter is a guy that goes back for a puck or he’s at the offensive blue-line and he sees all five of the defenders. That’s his smarts.”

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Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy
Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy speaks to the media at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Friday, March 8, 2024. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Conroy: ‘To see the steps that he has taken … it’s very impressive’

One of Riedel’s favourite Brzustewicz stories comes from a minor-midget tournament in Rochester, N.Y. His assistant coach had to head home due to a family matter, so Riedel was alone on the bench.

“We were playing the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, and they had a bunch of guys that went in the first or second round of the OHL Draft,” he reminisced. “We’re down late and we had a four-on-three, so we call timeout and I’m thinking, ‘OK, we have all these plays. What do we want to run?’ And for whatever reason, I just handed Hunter the marker and he drew up the play.

“And then they went out and executed it.”

It’ll ultimately be up to Brzustewicz, listed at six feet tall and 190 pounds, to execute on his vast upside.

In the OHL’s annual coaches’ poll, he was listed three times on the Western Conference honour roll. That included a nod as the smartest player and second-best offensive blue-liner.

Just as encouraging is what he told NHL.com back in January, before he was traded to Calgary: “It is honestly a joy to me to defend and to get better at it, just because so many people have knocked me on it.”

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“He’s not a punishing defender, but he’s a smart defender, uses his stick well,” Conroy said. “He defends more with his brain.

“To see the steps that he has taken from his first year to his second year in the OHL, it’s very impressive,” the Flames GM continued, chit-chatting about Brzustewicz while watching a recent practice at the Saddledome. “I mean, you look at his stats, that’s a great year. That’s an unbelievable year. And he should be happy with it. But now, there’s going to be another step and another step and another step. Getting drafted, signing a contract, that’s one thing, and then there’s a whole other level to be out here with these guys at some point.”

If Brzustewicz does complete that climb, if he is eventually a fixture in the Flaming C, you can expect to hear one word over and over again.

“Obviously, he has to go there to Calgary and prove it,” Nightingale said. “But I do think he has that unique poise.”

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