Flames remain without a sole AHL affiliate in 2004-05

By Aaron Vickers





No Flames Farm!



Arguably the most important step that a prospect of a National Hockey
League franchise takes is making a transition to the
professional ranks of North American hockey, whether it be in the NHL,
or the American Hockey League. It is no secret that the AHL, the primary affiliate league of the NHL, is the
main stepping stone for youngsters with the hopes that they will
eventually realize their dream of playing for one of 30 teams in
what is the supreme hockey league in the world.

One cannot deny the success the AHL has had in passing on
players to the National Hockey League. In fact, the AHL prides itself
on it. A figure released by the AHL stated that 80 percent of all NHL
players are a ‘graduate’ of the AHL, with more then 400 players skating
in both the NHL and AHL last season. In the World Cup of Hockey currently being played, the AHL has contributed to the development of
105 players participating for their respective nations, ranging from former Flame and AHL
Rookie of the Year in 1987 Brett Hull, to 2004 Hart Trophy
award winner and former Calgary Flame Martin
St Louis.

The Calgary Flames roster boasts many players that have honed their
craft that the AHL level. Matthew
Lombardi spent the entire 2002-03 season playing in the AHL,
registering 46 points in 76 games before making the jump to
the Flames as a full time player in 2003-04. Osoyoos, BC native Chuck Kobasew also spent part
of the 2002-03 season in the AHL, scoring 21 goals in 48 games before
being called up by the Calgary Flames for full time duty. The list
continues with the likes of Steve Montador, Mike Commodore, and Markus Nilson. In fact, only
four Flames players have never seen any minor-league action: Jarome Iginla, Steven Reinprecht, Martin
Gelinas, and Toni Lydman.

Clearly the minor league level is essential in developing NHL-ready
talent. It then becomes puzzling to understand why the Calgary Flames,
who boast so much talent that has come from the minor leagues, do not currently have
a a full AHL affiliate.

What Happened To Saint John?

As recently as two seasons ago the organization had a minor
league club located in Saint John, New Brunswick, also nicknamed the Flames.
For ten seasons, from season 1993-94 to
2002-03, the Saint John Flames provided the Calgary Flames a place to develop
prospects such as Martin St Louis, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Cory Stillman
and Denis Gauthier.

On April 22nd, 2003 it was announced that the Calgary Flames had come
to an agreement with then the operators of the Saint John Flames, Saint
John Pro Sports Inc. The Calgary Flames bought out their interest, 50 percent, in the Saint John Flames. One week later,
the Calgary
Flames announced that they had suspended the operations of the organization
for one season. The season has passed, yet there is no talk of
taking the Saint John Flames out of dormancy. Meanwhile the Calgary Flames, who
put the Saint John Flames into inactivity, had to pay a ‘dormancy fee’ for
the 2003-04 season, with the expectation that the NHL franchise would
re-locate their farm affiliate a season later.

There appears to be no plans for relocating the franchise, however. For the
coming 2004-05 hockey season, the Flames have decided to share an affiliate with the Carolina Hurricanes. The
Flames and Hurricanes are set to share the Lowell Lock Monsters of the
AHL’s Atlantic Division, located in Massachusetts. There is only one other AHL franchise, the
Houston Aeros, which will also be shared as an NHL affiliate, by the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

On the ice, the Saint John Flames were anything but a failure. During
their tenure in the American Hockey League, spanning a decade, the
organization compiled a 338-334-105-19 record, including a Calder Cup
victory in 2001 capped by Jack A Butterfield winner Steve Begin.

Unfortunately for both the Calgary Flames and the City of Saint John,
the organization simply couldn’t generate enough revenue to continue to
operate in the small market town. Rising salaries paid in American
dollars coupled with poor attendance figures had Saint John losing
money for five consecutive seasons before the Calgary Flames decided to
close the door on their partners. Eventually, it all came down to
dollars and sense for Calgary Flames President Ken King.


Where and When?

For the time being, the Calgary Flames seem indifferent about
housing their dormant AHL franchise. Content with sharing Lowell with the
Carolina Hurricanes, plans for a new Flames affiliate may be on the
back-burner for the time being.

There will be a new city joining the AHL next season, but it won’t house the
Flames. Des Moines, Iowa, a
city with a population hovering around the 200,000 mark, will be the
AHL’s 29th franchise and the
Dallas Stars will lay claim to the organization, ending their partnership with the Houston
Aeros after the 2004-05 season.

While the Canadian dollar has made a strong recovery in recent months,
it seems unlikely that the Flames would place their affiliate within
Canadian borders. Taking in Canadian currency through gate receipts and
promotions makes paying salaries in American coin that much more
difficult. It is expected that when the Flames do re-establish the
rights to a sole American Hockey League affiliate, it will be one south
of the border.

While there hasn’t been much discussion on a new location for a Calgary
Flames affiliate, there is a growing trend amongst AHL teams to be
closer to their parent organizations. Not only does this cut down on
travel costs of each organization and allow for faster access to
players in call-up situations, it also allows for a closer observation
of the minor league team. By being closer to their youngsters, not only
can the organization monitor their development much more closely, but
play a more important role in that development as well.

That said, the northwest United States appear to be a prime location
for the Calgary Flames to re-establish their farm system. A city such
as Boulder, Colorado, in an area where the Avalanche and NCAA teams have a
strong following, would make an excellent alternative. Although Seattle may be
pushing for a National Hockey League organization, one may wonder if
they’d be willing to settle for an American Hockey League franchise.

Who?

The Calgary Flames currently have a plethora of prospects overseas
playing hockey in Europe, and more specifically Russia, that could come
across to North America and use the American Hockey League as a means
of becoming acclimatized to not only North American hockey, but
cultures and language as well. Players such as Yuri Trubachev, Ruslan Zainullin and Andrei Teratukhin would benefit
greatly from being able to spend some time in the American Hockey
League before becoming relied upon to carry some of the offensive load
of the Calgary franchise.

Europeans wouldn’t be the only to benefit from the Calgary Flames
having their own AHL partner, however. North American players coming
out of college or the Canadian Hockey League are also having problems
finding quality ice time. One such prime example of this is goaltender Brent Krahn, who after finishing up
his junior career with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2002-03, struggled
to find a regular team in 2003-04, playing with three separate
organizations. With fellow goaltender Danny
Sabourin
taking the lone goaltending spot on a split Lowell
squad last year (each organization, Calgary and Carolina was allowed to
have one goaltender on the roster). It took a juggling act between the
two goaltenders to allow Krahn any quality time in the AHL. It wasn’t
until Krahn was loaned to the San Antonio Rampage, an affiliate of the
Florida Panthers, that he saw significant action.

This offseason, the Calgary Flames also signed several young
unrestricted free agents. These players, mostly comprised of overaged
Canadian junior players, will be looking for a place to take their game
to the next level after signing their first professional contracts.

Among them is defenseman Mark
Giordano
,
a 21-year-old defenseman who finished up his junior career with the
Owen Sound Attack this season. Standing at 6’0 and slightly over 200lbs,
Giordano will likely be forced to start off his professional career in
the ECHL with Calgary’s affiliate, the Las Vegas Wranglers.

Patrik Nilson, who played three
games with the Florida Panthers AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage and
is the brother of current Calgary Flame Marcus Nilson, was one of several
forwards signed by the Calgary Flames this offseason. Nilson spent the
majority of last season in the Central Hockey League, registering 65
points in 60 games for the Laredo Bucks.

The Flames also went out
and signed Robyn Regehr’s
little brother, Ritchie Regehr.
The Rosthern, Saskatchewan native has spent parts of the last six
seasons in the Western Hockey League, spending the first three with the
Kelowna Rockets, and finishing up his junior career with the Portland
Winter Hawks. Now 21, Regehr will be making his debut as a professional
hockey player, and may take up one of few valuable spots that have been
allotted to the Calgary Flames on the Lock Monsters.

Other signings include former Kelowna Rocket and Red Deer Rebel Carsen Germyn, who spent last season
in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals, Dustin
Johner
, who finished up his junior career with the Seattle
Thunderbirds before skating in four games with South Carolina of the
ECHL, and left winger Davin Heintz
formally of the Swift Current Broncos.

With the recent signings of the Calgary Flames, suddenly there seems to
be an apparent log-jam of talent vying for limited positions with
Lowell. The Calgary Flames could very well ice an AHL affiliate, and do
so somewhat successfully. Granted, there is very much a veteran
presence on most AHL franchises, the Calgary Flames have many prospects
ready to make a significant run at professional hockey in the American
Hockey League.

Down the middle, the junior Flames could ice their Russian pair, Yuri Trubachev and Andrei Teratukhin. The likes of Brandon Prust or Patrik Nilson could also make cases
for themselves, but it is likely that at least one or two positions
would be reserved for more proven AHL players.

On right wing, Carsen Germyn has already proven he’s able to handle
full time AHL duty with his 27 points in 77 games with
Norfolk. Former fourth rounder from the 2001 NHL Entry Draft Tomi Maki
may be looking to change his luck, and scenery, after struggling the
last few seasons with several injuries. Calgary’s return in the Marc Savard trade, Ruslan Zainullin, could also use an
American Hockey League appearance to jump-start his North American
career, after many have written him off in terms of contributing at the
NHL level.

While Calgary organization appears thin in terms of professional
prospects on left wing, the Flames signed 6’4 forward Davin Heintz in hopes that he may
blossom. Aside from Heintz, however, the organization will have to wait
for Michigan’s Eric Nystrom to
graduate before it will have a potential front-line prospect patrolling
the left wing in the pros.

On defense, the organization appears relatively thin, but with the
additions of Ritchie Regehr and
Mark Giordano, things appear to
be turning the corner. Both are signed, and looking for action,
possibly in the American Hockey League. While they appear evident, the
Calgary Flames may have also been able to keep former Cape Breton
Screaming Eagle Tim Ramholt in
North America, by signing him to a professional contract and allowing
him to further develop in the AHL, instead of having him return to
Switzerland to play for Zurich. Although falling just outside the
criteria of what is defined as a prospect at Hockey’s Future, Swede Jonas Frogren may have also been
coaxed to come play in the American Hockey League. Frogren, an
excellent defenseman in Sweden, would also serve as an excellent
call-up to the Calgary Flames in case of injury.

It’s certain that goaltender Brent
Krahn
would like to have a net to call all his own, which is
something that would happen if the Calgary Flames had sole possession
of an American Hockey League affiliate. Krahn would likely be the official starting goaltender, but an interesting thought could have stellar Russian
netminder Andrei Medvedev
making his North American debut in the minor leagues. Not only would
this give Medvedev a chance to become familiar with the smaller North
American rinks, but may give the Calgary Flames a better opportunity to
increase the fitness of the plump puck stopper.

What Now?

While the Calgary Flames currently own the rights to their dormant AHL
affiliate, there is certainly more then just profit to be made out
of the venture. The Calgary Flames will soon invest in a new franchise,
and by doing so, invest in a new generation of Calgary Flames prospects. Certainly
the Flames themselves would eventually see the reward from their
investments, especially if it meant seeing the likes of their top
European prospects inch closer and closer to the NHL, a reward of the
patience Calgary has shown them thus far.

Perhaps the most important facet in which an AHL organization may help
the Calgary Flames is simply prospect enhancement. General Manager and
Head Coach Darryl Sutter would certainly hand select his own Head Coach
to watch over his up-and-coming players, and the thought of developing
prospects from within, with the Sutter mold in mind, certainly has to
be attractive to the Calgary Flames.

Certainly the Calgary Flames see the positives in re-forming the former
Saint John Flames, only in another city. In fact, it’s likely only a
matter of time before the likes of Dustin
Boyd, Aki Seitsonen
and David
Van Der Gulik
are suiting up for the Baby Flames, wherever they may be, with
aspirations of playing in the Saddledome.


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