With the graduation of their 2008 draft class, the Flames forward depth has taken a turn for the better recently, although it remains something of a question mark. Mitch Wahl, Greg Nemisz, Lance Bouma and recently signed free agent Bryan Cameron all represent organizational bright spots up front, although none of them are ready for prime time quite yet.
Calgary’s true strength remains on the back-end, especially with the emergence of training camp stand-out T.J. Brodie. With guys like Ian White, Mark Giordano, Steve Staios and Adam Pardy poised to become free agents next summer, the organization may need one or more of the youngsters to step in sooner rather than later.
Perhaps the thinnest position in the organization, the Flames left wing features mostly bangers and crashers. Elder statesmen Cam Cunning is 25 years-old and likely to be an AHLer for life. Lance Bouma, former captain of the Vancouver Giants, is in his first pro season for the Heat this year and playing mostly as a third-line checker. Former Anaheim first rounder and reclamation project Logan Macmillan also skates on the left wing and has yet to make an impact as a professional: in 12 games for Abbotsford stretching back to last season, Macmillan has zero points and boasts a minus one rating.
Although he hasn’t been signed to an NHL deal yet, free agent pick-up Carter Bancks has had a tremendous start to his pro career with a goal and six assists to lead the Heat in scoring in the early going. An undersized, but feisty winger out of the WHL, the 21-year old was only a moderately good scorer in junior, with a career high 55 points in his final season. Signed more for grit and depth, his early scoring touch is a bonus.
Pugilist Ryley Grantham takes care of the heavy weight duties for the Heat. His ceiling is strictly limited to enforcer at the NHL level and given the fact those guys are easily acquired for nothing every summer, it’s unlikely he’ll ever challenge for an NHL spot. Bryan Cameron, although officially listed as a center, has been playing on the left side in Abbotsford and he has yet to translate his junior scoring touch at the next level: in his first eight games, he’s managed just two assists.
Although he’s still several years away, sniper Ryan Howse is rapidly gaining notice as one of the Flames best prospects. The Chilliwack Bruin scored a career best 47 goals in the WHL last year and has come roaring out of the gates this season with 14 goals and 18 points in his first 10 games. Those are highly encouraging numbers for a franchise looking to up their offensive punch.
With Mikael Backlund, Brett Sutter and Stefan Meyer starting the year on the parent club, a lot of room has been made for rookie Mitch Wahl to make his mark. The former Spokane Chief was an assist and plus/minus leader for his team throughout his junior tenure and is currently the top pivot on the farm. The smooth-skating center has eight points in twelve games to start his professional career.
Fellow rookie Gaelan Patterson is coming off of two straight 20-plus goal seasons. A strong skater and good face-off man, his versatility should come in handy for the Heat.
John Armstrong continues to battle injury problems and has struggled to make his way up the Flames depth chart as a result. He missed a large chunk of this season’s training camp thanks to taking a puck in the face in an exhibition game. The 22-year old is currently playing a checking/fourth-line role for the Heat. Hugo Carpentier was demoted to the ECHL for the second straight year and is unlikely to be a prospect of interest for the club going forward.
Third round pick Max Reinhart has had a strong start to his season with the Kootenay ice. The son of former Flame Paul Reinhart has tallied six goals and 10 points in 12 games thus far, good for fourth on the team in scoring. Just 18 years-old, Reinhart still has a couple of years of junior eligibility left.
Depending on the injury situation on the parent club, the Heat may also eventually add free agent signing Ryan Stone, who has been sidelined by knee issues since last year. There’s currently no word on when he’ll be fit to play.
With Kris Chucko failing to impress in training camp and recently being injured (again), the torch has been passed to fellow first rounder Greg Nemisz, who already has three goals in his first nine games. For Chucko, it’s entirely possible this will be his last contract with the Flames organization. The 24-year old has been plagued by inconsistency and injury problems in the AHL and has never made a solid push to be an everyday NHLer.
For depth, the Flames recently signed the surprising Jon Rheault to an AHL contract. An ECHL player last year who joined the club due to a spate of injuries, Rheault was amongst the Heat’s leading scorers during the post-season and one of the final cuts from Flames training camp this year. Small, but fast and agile with good offensive instincts, Rheault has been skating in the Heat’s top six forward rotation.
Super-pest J.D. Watt already has 30 penalty minutes in five games for the Heat this season. An agitator that can sometimes cross the line in Sean Avery or Dan Carcillo-like fashion, Watt was the team leader in penalty minutes last year with 267 in 70 games. His game outside of dropping the gloves and making opponents miserable is fairly limited, unfortunately.
T.J. Brodie was the big story out of training camp this year. The smart, mobile fourth round pick managed four goals during the pre-season and was able to stick with the parent club for three games despite a fairly stacked roster at the NHL level. Matt Pelech being waived and demoted was also a story of note, particularly because many expected him to take the next step this season given his age and waiver eligibility. The 23-year old has battled injuries through his career (including a potentially career ending blood clot last season) and his development has paid the price as a result. There’s still time for Pelech to take the next step forward, although with guys like Brodie and Erixon gaining ground, the competition for spots on the Flames is becoming pretty fierce. For now, Brodie and Pelech are likely the “big two” on the back-end in Abbotsford.
John Negrin is another blueliner who has been unable to remain healthy. The smooth-skating rearguard missed half the year due to various ailments last season, including reconstructive knee-surgery. Negrin played in just three games for the Heat to start the season before discovering he would have to go back under the knife due to complications from the prior procedure. He’s a good bet to miss a huge chunk of games again.
Keith Seabrook has continued to show his offensive prowess from the Heats blue line. No Abbotsford defender managed more goals or points than Seabrook last season (10 goals, 28 points) and he’s already garnered one goal and six points in the first nine games this year. A smaller guy with some issues in his own end, Seabrook will have continue to make strides at both ends of the ice in order to make his way up the depth chart.
Elder statesman Josh Meyers and free agent signing Chris Breen round out the depth chart for the Heat. The towering Gord Baldwin will also be battling for ice time, along with 26-year-old Joe Piskula, who was likely signed to fill the role of “steady veteran” thanks to the loss of Steffan Kronwall, who returned home to Sweden.
The aforementioned Tim Erixon continues to ply his trade in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea HC. Although he’ll turn just 20 years-old in February, this will season will be his third in the SEL. The Flames organization are apparently content with Erixon developing in the highly competitive environment at home and likely won’t agitate for him to cross the pond until he’s ready to seriously contend for a spot on the parent club (which may happen as early as 2011-12).
In junior, recent third round pick and Reinhart teammate Joey Leach continues to put up nice numbers for the Kootenay Ice. In 12 games played, Leach has five points and a team-leading plus-12 rating. He was the team leader in the latter metric last year as well, managing an impressive plus-33 in 70 games. Leach is just 18 years-old and obviously several years away from turning pro. However, the early returns on him are good.
The Flames are still waiting for first round pick Leland Irving to justify his draft position. Aside from a decent rookie season two years ago, Irving has struggled to perform at the AHL level. He was demoted to the ECHL for a time last year and lost his starting position to free agent signing David Shantz. This year, Irving will be given every opportunity to grab the reins ahead of Matt Keetley. Unforunately, his early play has been uninspiring with a .895 save percentage in eight games. In order to climb into the picture at the NHL level, Irving will have to consistently rank as one of the top ‘tenders in the AHL, particularly with 26 year-old Henrik Karlsson suddenly in the mix.
As for Matt Keetley, his stock continues to fall in the organization. The 24-year-old has bounced between the AHL and ECHL since turning pro and he hasn’t been able to gain traction as a consistent starter. In just two appearances this year, Keetley has an .857 save percentage. Obviously the window hasn’t completely closed on his opportunity yet – it just means it will take a big reversal of fortunes for Keetley to become a prospect of interest again.
The Flames also signed 26-year old J.P. Lamoureux for the purposes of depth. He’s currently the starter for the ECHL Utah Grizzlies. Look for him to spend the entire season there unless one of Keetley or Irving gets injured or completely falls on his face.