Flames AHL/ECHL prospects 2009-10 review

By Kent Wilson

With the Flames moving their AHL affiliate squad to new grounds in Abbotsford, British Columbia, there appeared to be a push by the organization last season to up the club’s competitiveness. Darryl Sutter acquired a bevy of AHL veteran type players to fill out the roster in the summer, including Jason Jaffrey, Riley Armstrong, Colin Stuart and Garth Murray. The club also added rookies Mikael Backlund (draft pick), Keith Seabrook (trade) and David Shantz (AHL free-agent signing).

Unfortunately, the Heat suffered through injury issues all season long, eventually losing over 400 man-games to various ailments. The club struggled to remain competitive as a result, although a late-season push and first-round upset managed to extend their year beyond all expectations before they fell to Hamilton in the second round.

Forwards

Mikael Backlund, C, 21

It was a bit of a mixed bag for the young center this year. Backlund finished the regular season with 32 points in 54 games for Abbotsford, a somewhat disappointing total for a prospect of his ability. He struggled with consistency and ran both hot and cold. Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that he averaged more than three shots on net per game (182 in 54 games), with a low shooting percentage of eight percent. It’s possible that the youngster doesn’t yet have the strength or ability to finish his chances at the pro level yet, but also didn’t get the bounces this year.

Backlund finished the regular season with the big club and showed well enough to convince the decision makers to pencil him in to the starting line-up for next year. He was sent back down for the Heat’s playoff run and dominated in the first round only to disappear completely in the second. However, if nothing major changes this summer, there’s a good chance Backlund won’t be seeing any more games at the AHL level.

Brett Sutter, C, 22

Darryl Sutter’s son was another youngster who saw time with the big club this season. Described as a defensive specialist, Sutter’s offensive totals were mediocre (nine goals, 24 points in 66 games), but in line with established career norms. He displayed tenacity and poise in a fourth-line role for the Flames during his 10-game stint, but also finished with zero points. While it’s possible that Sutter has NHL upside as a grinder/energy type forward, it’s also possible his near total lack of offensive ability will hold back his NHL aspirations.

Kris Chucko, LW, 24

It was a disastrous season for the former first-round draft pick. After scoring a career-high 28 goals and 51 points last year, a lot was expected of the 6’2 veteran winger in 2009-10. But Chucko’s offense fell back to career norms in the absence of former linemates Kyle Greentree and Jamie Lundmark. In 41 games, Chucko managed just nine goals and 18 points before suffering a season-ending concussion in December.

Time is rapidly running out for Chucko to make a mark. He was drafted some six years ago and, at 24 years old, is already well past the age when most forwards break into the NHL. He’s never consistently dominated at the AHL level and will be competing with a whole new set of young forwards for ice time next year. Chucko is a restricted free agent this July and it’s an open question whether the club will retain his services.

Ryley Grantham, LW, 22

Drafted in the sixth round as an overager in 2008, Grantham was picked more for his brawn than hockey skills. In 67 games for the Heat, he managed one goal, four points and 169 PIM, good for second on the team behind super pest J.D. Watt (267 PIM).

The 6’4, 210-pound winger is a pugilist and probably doesn’t have an NHL ceiling in any other area. Given the manner in which heavyweight fighters have been disappearing from the NHL in general – and the way the Flames scratched Brian McGrattan most of the time this year in particular – Grantham’s chances of advancing beyond the AHL level are probably close to zero.

J.D. Watt, RW, 22

Watt led the Heat in penalty minutes with 267 in just 70 games played this season. Although average-sized at 6’2 and 195 pounds, Watt excels at driving his opponents crazy and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. A one-time 30-goal scorer in the WHL, Watt also added some modest offense to the mix for the Heat this year with eight goals and 13 points.

Like Grantham above, Watt’s abilities in other areas of the ice are rather limited. While he’s more mobile than his bigger contemporaries, his skating, shooting and vision are all below average relative to capable AHL forwards. While he displays many of the qualities of the modern "pest", he’s also a guy who struggles with discipline and can cost his club by taking needless penalties. Overall, like many of the Flames current AHL forward prospects, Watt is a long way from making a dent at the NHL level.

John Armstrong, C, 22

Injuries continued to plague John Armstrong this year. The tenacious checking center appeared in just 14 games for Abbotsford, garnering one goal and six points. In two seasons in the AHL, Armstrong has played in just 82 games total. He also never played a full schedule in the OHL during his time in junior, averaging approximately 49 games per season over five seasons.

Armstrong has missed huge chunks of time during his formative years. Beyond the question of whether he’ll ever remain healthy enough to contribute, there’s a good chance his development has been irreparably harmed by his continual trips to injured reserve.

Hugo Carpentier, C, 22

A fourth-round choice out of the QMJHL in 2006, Carpentier has yet to prove himself in the AHL. He split his time between the Heat and ECHL Utah Grizzlies this year, managing just six assists in 35 games for Abbotsford and nine points (including three goals) in 24 games for Utah.

Carpentier has put up nothing but lackluster results at the professional level. A moderately capable scorer in junior who managed 20+ goals twice in four seasons, Carpentier has yet to hit that number as a pro with just 14 goals in 121 games played between the ECHL and AHL. He is a thoroughly underwhelming prospect and likely won’t be with the organization much longer.

Defensemen

Matt Pelech, D, 22

The bruising 6’4, 220 lb shut-down defender has also battled injuries throughout his career. This year was no exception, with Pelech appearing in just 47 games due (mostly) to a pinched nerve. His results over that period were good though with two goals, eight assists and a +7 rating.

Pelech looks NHL-ready. He’s big, mean and relatively mobile. He was usually deployed against other teams’ top lines when he was in the line-up this year and managed to be a plus player in both the regular season and the playoffs (+2 in 13 games). That said, the Flames organization is currently well-stocked with NHL-caliber defenders. Unless Darryl Sutter makes a move or two to free up some roster space for the youngster, there’s little chance Pelech will be able to claw his way through all that depth next year, absent a major injury.

John Negrin, D, 21

The tall, smooth-skating defender was putting up good results before falling to a knee injury in January. In 45 games, Negrin collected five goals and 15 points and was among the team’s scoring leaders from the back end at the time.

Like many young defensemen, Negrin struggled occasionally to read plays and was sometimes caught out of position. Although he possesses many of the physical tools sought by coaches and managers in the post-lockout NHL including mobility and a good first pass, he still has some steps forward to take before he challenges for a spot on the big club.

Keith Seabrook, D, 21

Brent Seabrook’s younger brother was one of the few Heat defenders to stay relatively healthy for the whole season, managing a team-high 10 goals and 28 points in 78 games. Although on the smaller end of things at 6’0 and 197 pounds, Seabrook’s agility, vision and offensive ability make him a threat from the point, particularly on the power play. He also led the back end in shots on goal with 142 (an average of nearly two per game) which was well ahead of anyone else who played on the Abbotsford blueline this year.

Seabrook doesn’t possess his brother’s defensive acumen, however, and is prone to the odd gaffe now and then. He’s also smaller and needs to battle fiercely in his own zone and in front of the net. Like Pelech, Seabrook is obviously stuck below a lot of established defenders, but at least his first pro season was enough to cement him as a top-four option on the farm going forward.

Gord Baldwin, D, 23

One of the beneficiaries of the spate the injuries was Baldwin, who set career highs in games played (67), goals (four), assists (20) and plus/minus (plus seven). Thanks to injuries to guys like Pelech, John Negrin, and Brett Palin, who missed large chunks of time, Baldwin got moved up the depth chart and was able to take advantage of the opportunity. The towering 6’5 defender’s year ended on a bit of a sour note, however. He struggled mightily in the Heat’s second-round series versus Hamilton, finishing with zero points, five shots and a dreadful -9 rating.

Baldwin is a player who is in tough to ascend any higher in the organization. Although big, Baldwin is a rather awkward skater and has trouble keeping up with quicker opponents. He’s also five years removed from his draft year and only just completed his first full season at the AHL level. In addition, Calgary has notable OHL scorer T.J. Brodie set to join the team next year as well as Tim Erixon at some point in the near future. If Negrin, Pelech, Seabrook etc. remain healthy next season, Baldwin will be fighting for ice time at the bottom end of the rotation.

Josh Meyers, D, 24

A former seventh-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings, Meyers is an older professional rookie who spent four years playing in the NCAA for Minnesota-Duluth. The Flames signed him to a two-year contract this year after making the Heat as a training-camp tryout.

A decent scorer in college (10 goals, 28 points in his final year), Meyers scored three goals and 18 points in 54 games for the Heat and was able to capably step in and fill tougher roles when the injury bug hit. That said, he’s several years older than most of his peers on the team and probably doesn’t have a future in the NHL.

Brad Cole, D, 23

A free-agent signing out of the WHL three years ago, Cole has been a regular in the Flames farm system since 2007-08. In junior, Cole never really put up noteworthy numbers until his final, overage season where his 16 goals and 41 points were more than double his previous career highs.

At the pro level, Cole is a perfectly average player. At 6’3 and 200 pounds, he doesn’t excel in either direction. In July he will become a restricted free agent and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team not offer him a new contract.

Goalies

Leland Irving, G, 22

It was a frustrating step backwards for the Flames top goaltending prospect this year. After usurping Matt Keetley as the starter last season, Irving entered the season as the de facto No. 1 goalie, only to stumble badly. In 35 games for the Heat, Irving put up mediocre results (14 wins, 2.76 GAA and a .905 SV%). At one point in the season, Irving lost nine games in 10 starts and was eventually demoted for a stint in the ECHL with the Victoria Salmon Kings. But his stats in the ECHL weren’t that much better (eight games, two wins, 3.06 GAA and a .908 SV%).

Irving finished the year with the Heat, but as the back-up goalie behind David Shantz (on an AHL level deal). Irving appeared in a single post-season game for Abbotsford, but it was in relief duty during a game when the team was getting badly outplayed. He made just four saves on seven shots and was promptly pulled himself.

Irving remains the best goaltending talent in Flames system, but he’s going to have rebound big time from the lackluster season he suffered through this year. The Heat’s young defense corps and rash of injuries obviously didn’t help any of their puck stoppers this year, but it’s not like the former first rounder rose above the adversity either.

Matt Keetley, G, 24

Keetley is rapidly becoming the forgotten man in the Flames system. First passed by Irving and now Shantz, Keetley has yet to play more than 35 games in a single season in the AHL despite recently turning 24 years old. This year, he saw 23 games for the Heat, winning 10 and putting up a 2.59 GAA and a just mediocre .912 save percentage. That save rate matches his rookie performance from 2007-08 and represents an improvement over his dreadful season last year (.892 SV%) but wasn’t enough to win him the starting position over Shantz, or even the back-up role in the playoffs. Like Irving, Keetley played some games in the ECHL with the Salmon Kings, where he struggled (nine games, two wins, 3.84 GAA and a .880 SV%).

Although a Memorial Cup winner with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Keetley’s professional results continue to be rather underwhelming. Should the Flames decide to sign Shantz to something more than an AHL contract, Keetley may the odd man out come October.