Depth and skill improving in Calgary Flames prospect pool

By David Thicke

Roman Horak - Calgary Flames

Photo: After spending most of his 2011-12 season with the Flames, center Roman Horak has opened his 2012-13 season with a goal-per-game pace for Abbotsford in the AHL. (courtesy of Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

 
After years of poor draft selections, trading away draft picks to try to win now, and bad development of their prospects, the Calgary Flames have slowly improved their organizational depth and talent pool over the last few years. The Flames still have a lot of work to do in order for their farm system to be where a smaller market team, in today's NHL cap world, needs to be for success as a franchise.

The team's future looks brighter with prospect like Sven Baertschi, John Gaudreau, Max Reinhart, Mark Jankowski, and Jon Gillies along with some others. Only time will tell if Calgary can finally develop some of their prospects into NHL players on a consistent basis but at least the Flames are heading in the right direction.

Left Wing

The left wing is one of the stronger positions in the Calgary prospect pool, but that is not saying much. The Flames' high end talent level at left winger drops off quite drastically after Baertschi and Gaudreau who are top-line players. The others are depth and role players of different types but mostly project as the bottom-nine forwards.

There are five prospects in Baertschi, Carter Bancks, Lance Bouma, Michael Ferland, and Ryan Howse that could be playing at the AHL level this season with the Abbotsford Heat.

Baertschi has started his first pro season with the Flames in the AHL on the Heat's top forward line and has easily adjusted to the speed and size of the league. The highly skilled winger is a good two-way player with high end offensive talent and a quick, accurate shot. The playmaking winger has really improved his skating explosiveness while building a better power base and strengthening his balance. The young forward has excellent vision, hockey sense, and the playmaking abilities to optimize score chances. The Flames' top prospect clearly projects as a top line forward. His work ethic, passion, desire and attitude to be the best are very evident in his game preparation and practice regime. The rookie winger is out to a hot start, scoring four goals along with seven assists and a plus-five rating in nine games. He is expected to compete for a roster spot in Calgary if or when the NHL ends the lockout.

In his sophomore season, Bancks will have to outwork the other forwards to keep a regular spot in Abbotsford's line-up. The feisty energy guy plays a physical two-way game and can produce some offense as well as play on both the power play and penalty-killing units. He is a hardworking, character guy who is not afraid to stand up for his teammates despite his smallish stature. He has jumped out to a good start to his season, scoring two goals (one shorthanded) and two assists and a plus-one rating in eight games.

Bouma has started his third year with the Abbotsford Heat of the AHL. The hardworking forward has the versatility to play at center or on the wing. He has solid defensive instincts while playing an agitating, energy role and using his physicality on the forecheck. The young forward is out indefinitely with a sprained MCL and ACL but could still return before the NHL lockout ends and the physical forward might compete for a roster spot in Calgary or get an injury call-up during the NHL season.

Ferland will start his first pro season at the AHL level in Abbotsford but needs to make the most of his opportunities when he gets into the starting line-up. The power forward has patience with the puck around the net and quick accurate release. The rugged winger can dominate a game with his size or by dropping his gloves when necessary and does not shy away from the physical play in both ends of the rink. He will need to continue improving his skating and his defensive game to make the NHL. The big winger could be spending time in the ECHL if he struggles to adjust to the size and speed at the AHL level or needs to get more playing time.

Since the start of last season, Howse has struggled with conditioning issues and injuries. The offensive scorer needs to become a more physical fore checker and improve his defensive game. The second year pro was sent to the ECHL to try to regain his scoring confidence and play top-line minutes with the Grizzlies. He could return to the AHL level if the sniper can get off to a good start and the NHL lockout is settled soon, allowing some of the Heat players to win roster spots in Calgary.

Gaudreau and Nicholas Larson are the only left wingers currently playing at the NCAA level. Gaudreau has returned to play his sophomore year at Boston College and help the Eagles defend their NCAA national title. The small offensive dynamo will play on the team's top line and power play unit while being expected to lead BC's offense with the departure of some of last year's talented forwards. The speedy winger has high end offensive skills, hockey sense , and the vision to see the whole ice very well. The sophomore is off to a quick start at Boston College, scoring four goals along five assists in the first seven games for the Eagles. The American-born forward should play for his country at the 2013 World Junior Championships. It has been his small size, not the huge offensive skills, which have made him a long shot to make the NHL but Gaudreau is quickly dismissing that notion.

Larson has returned to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for his senior year in the CCHA. The big forward will see more overall playing time on one of the top two forward lines and should put up better offensive numbers. Larson has started to flourish in a checking role but also has all the tools to be the prototypical power forward. The big, physical winger has a strong shot with a quick release but can also create offense using his strength out of the corners and drives hard to the net. He will need to continue improving his skating while being consistently more physical at the pro level. He will be looking to have his best year in the NCAA in order to receive an NHL entry-level contract before the 2013 summer deadline.

The Flames have two left wingers playing at the junior level in the CHL in Turner Elson and Coda Gordon. Elson will play his fourth year with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL where he is expected to provide leadership and character as well as improve his offensive game. The tough winger has good hockey sense and can play well in all three zones. The physical winger plays a high energy, aggressive game and is not afraid to drop the gloves with anyone. He can play on both the power play and penalty-killing units with solid scoring success on either unit. The Red Deer captain needs to pick his spot when dropping the gloves due to his importance to the Rebels' specialty teams. He is off to a good start, scoring six goals along with five assists and a plus-two rating in 13 games.

Gordon was selected in the sixth round, 165th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft and will play his second year with the Swift Current Broncos this season. He has good hockey sense, poise with the puck, and is an excellent finisher who has good hands to score in tight to the net. The stocky winger battles hard in the corners and finds the open spot in front of the opposition's net. The young forward needs to improve his power skating techniques, gain more weight and strength while learning to play meaner in order to make more space for him and his linemates. The second year winger is off to a good start, scoring five goals along with 13 assists in 20 WHL games but along with a team-worst minus-seven rating.

Center

The Flames' organization has many prospects at the center ice position, but they are not necessarily ready for the NHL level. Calgary has some natural centermen with good size while others have the hockey IQ and versatility to be converted to the wing if needed in the organization. The team has done a good job improving its depth and skill level up the middle of the ice over the last couple of years. The 2012 draft additions of Mark Jankowski and Matt DeBlouw are long term projects and possible future help to the organization but it could take up to five years for Calgary to realize their potential.

There are five prospects that could be playing at the AHL level, including Paul Bryon, Roman Horak, Gaelan Patterson, Mitch Wahl, and finally Max Reinhart will be starting his first professional season in the AHL.

Byron will start the season with the Abbotsford Heat at the AHL level but needs to play on one of the top two forward lines and should bring better offensive numbers. The versatile forward could be converted to a winger in order to take advantage of his explosive speed and reduce his defensive responsibilities. He has been sidelined since training camp with an upper body injury and has not yet played an AHL game this season. If the smallish forward can get good results early in the season, he may have the chance to play in Calgary again this year should the NHL lockout get settled in time for there to be a 2012-13 season.

Horak has started the season in the AHL with the Abbotsford Heat while waiting for the NHL lockout to end. The talented forward is another one of the centermen that could benefit more from playing on the wing. He has jumped out to a hot scoring streak with 10 goals and one assist in nine games. The skilled center needs to showcase his offensive talents in order to get the opportunity to compete for a roster spot with the Flames should the 2012-13 NHL season actually start.

Patterson was assigned to Utah Grizzlies at the ECHL level for the start of the season. The two-way center is a good skater that plays a tight-checking and solid defensive game. The physical forward is a gritty team player who can excel at the penalty kill. The defensive center needs to play better offensively in order to be reassigned to Abbotsford but only if the Heat have injuries or call-ups to the Flames. He is more likely to have the opportunity to play top-nine minutes in the ECHL than at the AHL level.

Wahl has started the season in the ECHL with the Utah Grizzlies and hopes to get off to a good offensive start to his year. The second-round pick has not played up to expectations since suffering that vicious headshot in late 2010. The smooth skating centerman plays a solid two-way game but he excels at controlling the puck on the power play and can also kill penalties. Wahl has good offensive vision, playmaking skills, and a good accurate shot. The third year pro needs to play well enough to have the chance to be reassigned to Abbotsford. He has jumped out to a good start to his season, scoring two goals along with four assists and a plus two rating in seven ECHL games.

Reinhart will play his first pro season at the AHL level in Abbotsford and the talented centerman should see plenty of time on the team's top two forward lines. He can play the power play, kill penalties, and provide solid two-way play. The playmaking centerman has good speed with a quick accurate release and sees the ice well. The versatile centerman's excellent hockey smarts and vision should quicken his transition to the professional level. The all-round forward quite easily projects as a top-six forward in the NHL for Calgary. He has started slowly on the score sheet but does so many other things that go unnoticed during a game and has picked up his offensive game in the last few games. The third-round pick should be playing for the Flames in the very near future.

Bill Arnold, DeBlouw, and Jankowski are currently the centermen playing at the NCAA level for Calgary. Arnold has returned to Boston College for his junior year where he plays on one of the top two lines for the Eagles. The hardworking center is expected to help lead BC's offense but still provide stability in the defensive zone as well. The solidly built forward is a physical two-way centerman with great character and an excellent work ethic. He has the hockey smarts to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses and recognize where his highly talented wingers are on the ice. The junior center is off to a good start to his season, scoring three goals along with five assists and a plus-one rating in seven games. Arnold projects as a top-nine forward with some offensive upside at the NHL level.

DeBlouw was chosen in the seventh round, 186th overall in the 2012 draft and has started his freshman year at Michigan State University. He should see playing time in the top-nine forwards for the Spartans. The quick skating centerman could see some time on the team's power play and will get the opportunity to showcase his defensive game on the penalty kill. He has impressed his coaches, scoring three goals along with four assists in his first eight NCCA games. DeBlouw should have four years of development at the NCAA level to improve his overall game.

Jankowski was the Flames' first round, 21st overall pick in 2012 and has started his freshman year at Providence College. He should play on the top line and be the main offensive threat for the Friars this year. The two-way centerman has a high hockey IQ, sees the ice very well, and can make his linemates better players. The 18-year-old has an outstanding work ethic and plays hard every shift. The highly skilled center was off to a good start with two goals along with one assist and a minus two rating in his first four NCAA games, but he was held scoreless in his next four games. The freshman could struggle at times to adjust to the older and stronger players at the NCAA level but should progressively improve his overall game over the year. He is really raw but has all the tools and will only get better at the NCAA level. The lanky forward will need to fill out and increase his physicality over his four years at Providence.
  
Markus Granlund is the only centerman playing in Europe. He will continue his overall development while playing in his native Finland for the 2012-13 season. The young centerman will play for HIFK in the SM-liiga but needs to show what he can do without his talented brother, Mikael (MIN). The playmaking center has good hockey sense, excellent passing skills, and sees the ice really well. His defensive game is considered a work in progress. He is off to a bit of a slow start to his year, scoring only four goals along with seven assists and a good plus three rating in 19 SM-liiga games. The Flames' second round forward should get another chance to represent his country and shine at the 2013 WJC tournament this year.

Right Wing

The right wing position is the weakest of the Flames' talent pool in terms of its depth and the skill level. Akim Aliu, Bryan Cameron, and Greg Nemisz could all play at the AHL level with the Heat this season. David Eddy will start his first pro season in Abbotsford. Calgary has no prospects playing right wing in the CHL, NCAA, or Europe this season which is not good for the team's long term depth at this position.

Aliu will play his second season with the Abbotsford Heat at the AHL level. He has all the characteristics of your prototypical power forward; he is big and strong, has a devastating wrist shot with a lightning quick release, and recognizes offensive opportunities. The tough winger owns all of the necessary skills to be a prolific power forward but has to show better discipline if his potential is going to be realized. Aliu will compete to stay in the Abbotsford Heat line-up with the NHL lockout still unsettled. The big physical forward is hoping to get another chance to play in the NHL with the Flames after a good performance in Calgary at the end of last season.

Cameron was assigned to the ECHL level to play for the Utah Grizzlies again this season. He will need to regain his offensive confidence and get off to an excellent start in order to be given the chance to play in the AHL for the Heat. The hardworking winger has good skills, hockey intelligence, speed, and a solid overall game. The third-round pick has struggled to regain his scoring touch and find his offensive game. Injuries and poor play have him in jeopardy of falling further behind on the Flames depth chart and possibly not being re-signed at the end of the 2012-13 season. He's off to a good start, scoring one goal along with five assists and a plus four rating in seven ECHL games.

Nemisz will be playing his third season in the AHL with the Heat. He has been sidelined with a lower body injury since training camp and has yet to play an AHL game this season. The big winger drives the net hard while showing his soft hands in tight and has solid decision-making skills along with good defensive instincts. The good skating forward must increase his offensive output and establish himself on the Heat's top two forward lines. Nemisz might be ready for a breakout year as he should be surrounded with better talent on his line this season. If the NHL lockout is settled in time for the 2012-13 season, then good offensive results could help the big right winger obtain another chance to play in the Flames' starting lineup this year.

Eddy will start his professional career in the AHL with the Abbotsford Heat, but with the extra players in the minors due to the NHL lockout, the physical two-way winger could find himself in the ECHL if he struggles with his offense to start the season. The physical agitator is a hard worker who goes to the high-traffic areas on the ice and plays the game with grit and passion. The tough winger has good hands and vision along with solid offensive instincts. He is very strong on his skates and difficult to move from in front of the opposition's net but the biggest strengths of his game is the energy that he brings to every shift. The first year pro has only played in two of the team's first nine games without any points and was a healthy scratch for the other games.

Defense

Calgary has good depth and some possible future NHL players at the defensive position but only T.J Brodie is an NHL quality, offensive puck mover. There is a good mix of grit, character, some skill, and very physical defenders who can be difficult to play against. This position is missing that really high end talent on the back end but it still has some pretty good pieces and only time will tell if their potential is reached.

At the AHL level, the Flames have only three returning prospects from the Heats' team of last year with Brodie, Christopher Breen, and James Martin. Brady Lamb will play his first pro season at the AHL level after finishing four years of university.

Brodie has an excellent opportunity to make the Flames' lineup if the NHL lockout ends. The mobile defender will start the season at the AHL level with the Abbotsford Heat where he will play on the top pairing and both special team units. The puck-moving defenseman is an excellent skater who has patience and poise with the puck while making on the tape outlet passes to his forwards. He has a hard, accurate shot from the point along with plenty of offensive upside to his game and can control the back end of the power play. Brodie is clearly the Heat's best defenseman, having scored one goal along with five assists and a plus-four rating in nine AHL games.

Breen will play his third season with the Abbotsford Heat but could be a call-up for injuries to replace any of the big defensive defensemen for the Flames. The big, hardworking defenseman will play on the shutdown pairing while adding leadership, character, and protection to the team. He has a quiet, laid back demeanor but has a great work ethic. The tall defender skates well and has a hard, accurate shot from the blue line. The giant blueliner has played steady to start the season and has contributed an assist while sporting a plus-seven rating in nine AHL games. He is a long term project due to his very large frame and defensive skillset.

With the NHL lockout causing a surplus of players at the AHL level for the Flames, Martin was assigned to start the season in the ECHL with the Utah Grizzlies. After suffering injuries last season, the mobile defender needs to stay healthy and bring more offense to his game. He has a very good hockey IQ along with a strong character while being a leader on and off the ice. The sturdy defenseman can play the power play with a strong accurate shot from the blue line. The puck moving blueliner has contributed four assists and a plus two rating in seven ECHL games to start his 2012-13 season. He could be the first call-up to the Heat should a player struggle or the team need an injury replacement on their defense corps.

Lamb will play his first pro year at the AHL level with the Heat but needs to play well when given the opportunities in the starting lineup as there are many capable defensemen in Abbotsford this season. He has good vision, makes quick decisions with the puck, and sends a good first pass up ice. The rookie blueliner has consistently demonstrated strong leadership skills, character, and the play of a hard-nosed competitor. The big physical defender has a solid work ethic and competes hard every shift. The NCAA graduate has offensive upside and a hard shot from the point that he gets through traffic. He has been in and out of the Heat's lineup to start the season as the big defenseman adjusts to the speed of the pro level game.

The Flames have four defensive prospects in the CHL ranks this year with Tyler Wotherspoon and the newly drafted Ryan Culkin, Brett Kulak, and Patrick Sieloff.

Wotherspoon was assigned back to the Portland Winterhawks for his fourth season in the WHL. The big defenseman will be asked to play an overall defensive game while adding more to his offensive play. The physical defender clears the front of his own net very well and fills the shooting lanes with his big body. He struggles at times with his defensive positioning and gets caught puck watching at times. He has improved his mobility and also his puck moving skills but they are far from elite. The second-round pick is hoping to have his best season this year and receive an NHL entry-level contract from the Flames before the deadline. The defensive blueliner has played well to start the season, scoring one goal along with 12 assists and an excellent plus-17 rating in 14 WHL games.

Culkin was selected in the fifth round, 124th overall in the 2012 draft and will play his third season in the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts. The mobile defenseman will be expected to play big minutes and on both specialty teams. The puck moving defender needs to bring more offense from the back end and play with more physicality each game. The alternate captain is out to an excellent start on a very strong team, scoring three goals (one on the power play), registering a plus-ten rating, and leading the defense with 16 points in 16 games.

Kulak was taken in the fourth round, 105th overall and will play his second full season in the WHL for the Vancouver Giants. He is expected to bring more offense and play on the team's power play. The steady performer plays a controlled, efficient game with very few mistakes. The mobile defender relies on good decision-making, solid positioning, and playing the angles well. The fourth-round pick will need to increase his strength and physical play over the few years of development at the junior level. He has played as advertised, scoring three goals along with six assists in 17 games for the last place Giants.

Sieloff was selected in the second round, 42nd overall in 2012. He was slated to play for Miami University in the NCAA but shortly after the draft decided to sign with the OHL Windsor Spitfires. The first year OHL player is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman with some offensive upside to his game. The solid defender is quickly making a name for himself with his devastating bodychecks and will drop the gloves when needed. The alternate captain is an effective penalty killer and has some leadership skills to go along with his grit. He is out to good start with some crushing hits, scoring three goals (one on the power play) along with three assists and a minus-two rating in 14 OHL games. He has taken 31 penalty minutes, including two fighting majors. The American-born defenseman should be representing his country at the 2013 WJC tournament.

John Ramage is the only Flames' prospect playing defense at the NCAA level this season. After a difficult junior season at Wisconsin, he decided to return for his senior year with the Badgers and captain his team to a better year. Ramage plays physical but smart in all zones of the ice and gives a maximum effort while exerting his presence throughout the game. The defensive defenseman plays with patience, poise, and has a good puck moving game. The physical defender is looking to have his best season this year and obtain an NHL entry-level contract from Calgary before the deadline this coming summer.

Goaltending

The Flames have three goalies prospects, Laurent Brossoit, Jon Gillies, and Joni Ortio, in the organization but they are all on very different developmental paths. Leland Irving, who just graduated off the prospect list, and Henrik Karlsson, the Flames' back-up, leave Calgary with a lot of depth and talent. The goaltender position is becoming one of the strongest positions in the organizations' talent pool. The projecting and developing of a netminder is the most difficult of all hockey positions, and it also takes the longest to see the end results. If the team's young prospects play is any indication of their future skills, then the Flames will be quite solid at the goaltending spot.

Brossoit will play his third season in the WHL for the Edmonton Oil Kings and will be expected to play the majority of the team's games as the starter. The agile goaltender is strong and athletic, and he can extend his large frame to fill the upper section of the net. His biggest weakness is that he can be susceptible to letting in soft goals and losing his mental focus. The talented goalie could become a dominant NHL goaltender and his boom or bust potential makes him an excellent sleeper pick for the Calgary Flames. He has gotten off to a slow start this season but has improved his record to 7-1-3, with a 2.76 goals against average and an improving .897 save percentage. To the defense of the big netminder, his Oil King teammates have not yet played to their skill level of last season, but the team as a whole is starting to come around. After such a successful WHL playoff run last season, Brossoit will be trying to play even better this year in order to obtain an entry-level contract from the Flames before the deadline. The big goalie could get the chance to represent Team Canada at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Gillies was taken in the third round, 75th overall in the 2012 draft and is in his freshman year for Providence College at the NCAA level. The big goaltender comes out to challenge the shooters and does a good job of playing the angles. The butterfly goalie needs to work on his rebound control, lateral speed, and improve his footwork. He is off to a great start for the Friars with a 4-3-1 record, an excellent 1.80 goals against average and an incredible .932 save percentage along with recording his first NCAA shutout, in eight games. The big netminder was named Hockey East Rookie of the Week for three consecutive weeks to start the season. Gillies might end up being one of the top goaltenders from his draft class, and if he can continue his stellar play, then it is highly likely that the American-Born will represent his country at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Ortio is looking to regain some of his lost confidence while playing as a starter in Europe instead of a back-up at the AHL level in Abbotsford. Ortio has good reflexes, rebound control and quick lateral movement while playing with great composure and poise under pressure. The young netminder can at times show flashes of brilliance and has the mental strength to excel on breakaways or shootouts. He's off to a good start to his year with HIFK, sporting a 8-8-3 (two shutouts) with a 2.24 goals against average and an excellent .918 save percentage in 19 SM-liiga games. The Flames' fans could see Ortio return to play in North America in the near future if he has the chance to be a starter somewhere in Calgary's organization.