Due to the Flames’ dearth of high-octane forward prospects, their minor league club is once again being led in scoring by AHL veterans and fringe NHLers. Combined with a very young defensive corps, the result is a mediocre Abbotsford Heat team, placing fifth out of seven North Division clubs with 16 wins and 36 points in 34 games.
Mikael Backlund, C, 20
Acquired: 24th overall, 2007
Like his performance for Vasteras last year in Sweden, Backlund’s North American professional debut has been something of a disappointment. For the second straight year, the smooth-skating former first-round pick has failed to live up expectations, garnering relatively lackluster offensive totals. Through 34 games, Backlund has mustered just eight goals and 16 points. Over a full 80-game season, Backlund’s current pace projects to just a 34-point rookie campaign, well below the output expected of the organization’s most highly-touted offensive prospect.
Backlund has top-notch skills but continues to struggle with consistency and strength. Perhaps his most encouraging stat thus far, though, is the 105 shots he’s managed to put on net (3.08 per game) which is among the team’s leaders. It’s unlikely Backlund will continue to score on just 7.6 percent of his shots indefinitely.
Kris Chucko, RW, 23
Acquired: 24th overall, 2004
Another former first-round pick struggling to live up to his draft expectations, Chucko began the year as the Heat’s top scorer before falling back to career norms. He currently has eight goals and 17 points in 34 games, putting him on pace for a 41-point season. That total is roughly in line with his AHL career average, although it would represent a step back from his previous season (51 points).
Chucko’s shooting pace has also fallen rather steeply relative to last year (2.23 per game versus 3.46 per game) suggesting a bump down the depth chart somewhat. In addition, the deletion of former linemate Kyle Greentree (traded for Aaron Johnson) may have had a deleterious effect on Chucko’s output. Overall, given this season’s early returns as well his output previous to last year, there’s a lot to suggest that Chucko’s outburst from 2008-09 was an aberration.
John Armstrong, C, 21
Acquired: 87th overall, 2006
Perhaps Calgary’s most fragile prospect, Armstrong continues to battle injury issues. After appearing in 68 games for Quad Cities last year, Armstrong has been limited to just 13 contests for the Heat this season. Little can be take from his stats (one goal, six points) to date thanks to the small sample. A tireless worker who surprised many by being a late cut in training camp two summers ago, Armstrong’s development has been almost completely derailed by his ongoing injury problems.
Brett Sutter, C, 22
Acquired: 179th overall
Darryl Sutter’s son reflects many of the “Sutter qualities” in his play: solid, hard-nosed and defensively responsible. He is a capable enough checking forward, although rather restricted offensively. With three goals and 10 points in 29 games, he is roughly on pace to replicate his career bests (10 goals, 25 points) from last year.
Hugo Carpentier, C, 21
Acquired: 118th overall, 2006
Calgary’s fourth rounder from 2006 spent most of his time in the ECHL last year, scoring 24 points in 45 games. He managed to make the Heat initially this year but after recording just six assists in 21 appearances, Carpentier was sent down to the ECHL‘s Utah Grizzlies, where he’s managed two points in six games. He’s a long shot to make any noise at the AHL level.
J.D. Watt, RW, 22
Acquired: 111th overall, 2005
Like Carpentier, Watt spent a majority of his first professional season in the ECHL last year. THis season he’s seen limited time with the Heat, appearing in 24 contests, scoring two goals, three points and managing 80 penalty minutes. The pest extraordinaire loves to get under the skin if his opponents with his physical play and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. But Watt has a limited skill-set outside of making others angry and is a fringe AHLer at this point in his career.
Matt Pelech, D, 22
Acquired: 26th overall, 2005
Like Cory Sarich or Robyn Regehr, Pelech’s value won’t be adequately captured by traditional counting stats like goals or assists. The hulking, 220-pound stay-at-home defender is considered one of the Flames top defensive prospects, although his development has been rather glacial in its pace. That said, the third-year AHL veteran is on pace for his best season yet with two goals and 10 points in 33 games as well as a +4 rating. Pelech managed just nine points in each of his first two seasons and has never finished as a plus player in the AHL, so there seems to be at least a hint of progression in his totals.
John Negrin, D, 20
Acquired: 70th overall, 2007
Highly valued by the Flames organization, rookie Negrin is enjoying a relatively strong professional debut. The smooth-skating, puck-moving defender has scored three goals and 12 points in 31 games played, trailing only Keith Seabrook in terms of defenseman scoring on the team. Although plagued by poor decision-making at times, Negrin’s combination of size, skating ability and vision are often on display.
Given the Flames depth on the blue line, Negrin won’t be rushed into the big leagues any time soon. Like Pelech, he’ll be allowed to ripen in the minor leagues before pressing for a regular spot in the NHL.
Acquired by Calgary for future considerations, Seabrook is also enjoying a decent rookie campaign. He leads the team in scoring from the back end with six goals and 13 points in 34 games and has become one of the club’s regulars on the power play and top two pairings thanks to his strong shot and decent passing ability. The former Calgary Hitman managed 15 goals and 55 points in his final season in the WHL and his offensive touch is translating to the next level.
Gord Baldwin, D, 22
Acquired: 69th overall, 2005
Another big man at 6’5”, Baldwin is still finding his legs in the AHL, having split time between the Quad City Flames and ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers last year. He’s appeared in 21 games for the Heat this season, garnering eight assists and a +9 rating (second behind Jaffray). Relatively mobile despite his size, Baldwin is limited offensively and still inexperienced professionally. He remains a third-pairing defender at the AHL level and is years away from challenging for an NHL position.
Keith Aulie, D, 20
Acquired: 116th overall, 2007
The second of Calgary’s “twin tower” defensive prospects, the 6’6” former World Junior champion has been eased into the pro game by coach Jim Playfair. Big with a strong defensive awareness, like Pelech and Baldwin, Aulie doesn’t have much of an offensive game to speak of (one goal and three points in 28 games played), so his road to the NHL won’t be paved with goals or power-play time. A bull down low and around the net, Aulie occasionally struggles to keep up with the pace at the AHL level and is sometimes caught out of position.
Leland Irving, G, 21
Acquired: 26th overall, 2006
The assumed starter heading into the year after usurping Matt Keetley last season, Irving started out on fire with a .928 save percentage through his first 13 games. But the second-year pro has come crashing down to earth since and currently sits with a .909 save rate through 23 appearances. That is below his rookie save percentage of .912 and it places Irving just 26th in the league by that measure. Due to his struggles, Irving has lost each of his last four games and has allowed Keetley back into the starting position conversation.
Matt Keetley, G, 22
Acquired: 158th overall, 2005
After a extremely lackluster season in 2008-09, Keetley has performed well in limited action so far this year, allowing just 22 goals in 10 starts en route to an impressive .930 save percentage. Hobbled by a knee injury earlier in the season, Keetley has started five of the Heat’s eight December games and looks to have stolen the starter’s reins from the struggling Irving.