The Calgary Flames have developed a habit in the past three seasons. This habit, of turning young, previously unheralded, inexperienced players into NHL regulars, is set to continue as the young club continues to mature its talent. Last season it was Clarke Wilm who surprised observers by sticking with the club for the entire season. Who will be this seasons’ Clarke Wilm?
In 1996/97 this trend started with defenceman Todd Simpson and winger Jarome Iginla both making the Flames, and playing in the entire 82 game schedule. Simpson was more of a surprise than Jarome Iginla. Iginla had already grabbed headlines twice during the previous season. First he was the compensation for Joe Nieuwendyk in a deal with the Dallas Stars. Secondly, he scored a goal in his first NHL game, in game 3 of that seasons unsuccessful playoff series against Chicago.
In 1997/98, Steve Begin and Derek Morris, both recent draft picks, started the season in Calgary, with only Morris managing to both survive and thrive in the NHL in his first attempt.
In 1998/99, Clake Wilm won his roster spot over players like Sergei Varlamov and Travis Brigley. Rico Fata and Martin St. Louis began the journey but both returned to junior and the minors respectively, leaving Wilm to carry the torch of the rookies forward. Wilm played consistently well all season long, showing an occasional offensive touch, but developing as a strong third line defensive forward, often playing in key situations and against the opponents best players.
As the last training camp of the millennium approaches, thoughts turn to the Flames list of prospects to try to discover which will become an NHL rookie, and which will complete the first of many seasons in the NHL.
Last seasons final training camp cuts and near misses are the first to come to mind. Rico Fata, still too young to play in the AHL, will have to play in Calgary or go back to the OHL for another season. Considering that Fata has already played for four seasons in the OHL it is likely that he will stay in Calgary – even if he is only given spot duty in defensive situations while he continues to adapt to the NHL game. The Boston Bruins are now starting to reap the rewards of a similar approach in the development of Joe Thornton. Calgary will follow their example with Fata.
Travis Brigley is in a key year of his professional career. He has spent two full years in Saint John, and must feel the pressure to move onto the next level. Brigley continued to develop last season – posting better offensive numbers and playing a physical game on a more consistent basis – despite an experiment to convert him to a centre. With that experiment behind him, a good camp will see Brigley start the season in Calgary.
Sergei Varlamov came to camp last season after a much-heralded final season in the WHL. He was one of the final training camp cuts, and found it tough going as he adapted to the pro game in Saint John. Varlamov picked up his game as the season wound down, but will have to post better offensive numbers next season. He still remains a very good prospect within the organization, but another season fine tuning his game in Saint John is expected for this season.
Daniel Tkazcuk has not started his first professional season, but already people are writing his name down on the Saint John roster list. This will be Tkazcuks third training camp, he knows what to expect, and what it will take to keep him in Calgary. Tkazcuk has shown a determination to prove the pundits wrong in the past, and if Tkazcuk can show a strong work ethic and a defensive awareness he will make the squad. It is doubtful that he will have initially have a spot on the top two lines, but a season on the third and fourth lines, learning the NHL game, is a strong possibility.
Steve Begin has already played in the NHL. He played 5 games when he was just 18 years old, and is now a more mature, experienced player. With a full pro season behind him now, expect the enthusiastic Begin to make an impression in training camp and tempt Brian Sutter to keep him in Calgary. Begin is still a young player, and another season in Saint John will not do him any harm. Except him to accumulate many travel miles flying back and forth between Calgary and their minor league affiliate.
Hnat Dominchelli has played 77 games in the National Hockey League, but must still be considered a prospect in some ways since he has yet to achieve his place as a full time player in the NHL. This is the most important season in Dominchelli’s pro career. He must become an NHL regular this season, or he will quickly find himself trade bait for Al Coates. Dominchelli has struggled to show that he has more than one dimension and can compensate for his smallish frame. A late season call-up at the end of last season is a good indicator that he may have finally accomplished that task. During those 23 games, Dominchelli found himself playing on a checking line with Andrew Cassels, and playing against the opponents top line. Hnat has struggled in training camps in the past and must be better prepared for this season.
The Calgary Flames have 7 defenceman that played in the NHL on a regular basis last season returning this year, and have Wade Belak ready for full time duty. It is unlikely that a defenceman from outside these will surprise and make the team. If they do, it could mean part time duty for Steve Smith and Tommy Albelin this upcoming season.
Toni Lydman is making his first appearance at a Flames training camp, and the Finn is most likely to push for a place on the roster amongst the defenceman. The defenceman has turned heads in the last two world championships and has been a consistent performer for Tappara Tampere and IFK Helsinki in Finland for the past three seasons.
Darrell Scoville turned in an impressive season in Saint John last year, his first as a pro. Saint John suffered with many problems amongst their defenceman, but Scoville was consistent, and improved as the year went on. He has been tipped by Saint John GM Nick Polano as someone who is going to be vying for an NHL spot in the near future.
Calgary has two young goaltenders who played in the NHL last season; and both will be competing again for one of the two available roster spots. Last season Tyler Moss won out, and started the season as the backup to Kenny Wregget. Injuries and then the emergence of Fred Brathwaite saw Moss returned to the minors. Jean Sebastian Giguere is still being tipped as Calgarys number one goalie of the near future. These two will battle it out, with Tyler Moss having the edge since Calgary is willing to let Giguerre continue his apprenticeship in the AHL. One of these two players will see a full season in Calgary.
Each training camp sees players improve drastically and grab a spot ahead of players who are thought far more likely to play in the NHL. Todd Simpson and Clarke Wilm are examples of that. This season there are a few players who could surprise.
Chris Clark is an aggressive winger who had an outstanding first pro season. Clark may lack an NHL calibre offensive game, but could easily become this seasons Clarke Wilm. With Calgary losing Bob Bassen, Tom Chorske, and Ed Ward in the off-season, several 3rd and 4th line jobs will be available to potential role players like Clark.
Oleg Saprykin is not expected to make the NHL for at least two more seasons, but he is a player whose aggressive, feisty game will make him stand out during training camp. If Saprykin is in top shape, and plays in training camp the way he did throughout the WHL last season, he could be making enemies within the NHL as early as this season.
Calgary will be introducing at least one, possibly two, new faces to the NHL on a full time basis this season. Training camp will be the battle ground, with Brian Sutter having the difficult task of determining which player is ready to become the Clark Wilm of the 1999/2000 season.