Skilled forwards lead the way in Calgary Flames’ Top 20 update

By David Thicke

Johnny Gaudreau - Boston College

Photo: Boston College standout and WJC gold medalist Johnny Gaudreau continues to climb in the Calgary Flames' mid-season Top 20 ranking (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

The Calgary Flames' talent pool has good depth but will need a better development plan in order to have success getting their prospects to the NHL level. The Abbotsford Heat and the Calgary Flames need to use the same systems in order to make the transition between the levels more seamless for their young prospects. With the NHL team's playoff hopes fading as each week passes, the organization might have some very difficult decisions to make that could bring more high-end prospects and draft selections to Calgary.

Christopher Breen, Ryan Culkin, and Brady Lamb are all new to the rankings while some prospects like Tyler Wotherspoon, Patrick Sieloff, Laurent Brossoit, Jon Gillies, and Paul Byron made big moves up the list. Greg Nemisz has dropped the most of any player on this list both from not playing up to expectations and other players just making bigger strides in their development towards the NHL. Akim Aliu has been dropped completely out of the Top 20 ranking for the same reasons that Nemisz dropped.

T.J Brodie and Romak Horak have graduated off the Top 20 list as they have both played more than 65 NHL games which removes them as prospects as per HF's criteria.

1. (1) Sven Baertschi, LW, 8.0B
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall, 2011

Baertschi is clearly an elite offensive talent and should be a first line player in the NHL for the Flames very soon. He has suffered a couple of injuries this year and was not scoring at the NHL level, which has shaken his confidence. Flames Head Coach Bob Hartley has tried to insulate the young winger from the pressures to score goals by playing him on the third and fourth lines. The highly skilled forward just is not suited for the bottom-six forward group and needs to play with more talented linemates to produce better results.

Baertschi was returned to the Heat where he had success earlier this year before his injuries. With the Flames' struggles this season, it is best for his overall development to play at the AHL level on the team's top-six and get his game back on track. He could return to Calgary if the NHL team gets into the playoff race and he recovers his scoring touch. It has been a tough season for the Flames' best prospect but it will only make him work that much hard on his overall game.
  
2. (4) John Gaudreau, LW, 8.0D
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2011

If it were not for his small stature, Gaudreau would be considered amongst the elite NHL prospects. He is a clutch goal scorer that plays like a greased watermelon, the opposition thinks they have him but he just slips out of their grasp. The talented winger just keeps proving everyone wrong. As a freshman with Boston College, it was thought he would be too small to play against older players in the NCAA after been the leading scorer in the USHL. He played on a high powered team last season, but some expected a sophomore slump with the loss of some talented players from last year's team. This year, the highly skilled forward leads the NCAA with 1.47 points per game, is among the national leaders with six game-winning goals, and is tied for fifth in the scoring race.

Gaudreau also proved that he can play against the elite players of his age group at the 2013 World Junior Championships. He was named to the WJC all-star team with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) and Filip Forsberg (WAS) as the forwards. In the last three years, the electrifying winger has been a top scorer at each level he has played at and won a UHSL title, an NCAA National Championship, and a WJC gold medal. Sure, he needs to become much stockier and stronger over the next two years of development at the NCAA level to play in the NHL but Gaudreau's a proven winner that shows up big time for the important games.

3. (3) Max Reinhart, C, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2010

Reinhart has been the shutdown centerman at the AHL level for Abbotsford while being their best penalty killer and playing with bottom-six forwards. His stats do not show just how good he has been and since the NHL lockout ended the first year pro has seen more playing time on the top-six group. He was just missing some puck luck to get his shots off the posts to start going in more often.

In the second half of the season, Reinhart has been the displaying more of his puck handling skill along with better playmaking as his confidence has increased at the pro level. He has seen more time on the power play along with his penalty killing duties but the Heat are still a low scoring team and have really struggled to win games since the start of February. Reinhart has the potential to be a top-six forward for the Flames in the near future.

4. (5) Mark Jankowski, C, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2012

Jankowski has performed well for a freshman coming to the NCAA level without ever playing junior hockey. He has produced at just over 0.53 points per game along with two game winning goals for the Providence Friars so far this season. He continues to improve his overall game as he adjusts to the NCAA level. The playmaker has shown to have a much better defensive game and more physical than expected this year.

Jankowski has a quick set of hands, can easily change speed with the puck and sees the ice extremely well. He has a good accurate release on his shot but just does not shoot the puck often enough because he thinks pass first as a rookie forward. The lanky centerman will need to gain muscle mass over his next three years of development at the NCAA level and he will most likely play the full four years of college hockey before turning pro. Jankowski is a longer term prospect with the potential to be a top-six centerman in the NHL.

5. (15) Tyler Wotherspoon, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2011

Wotherspoon has shown impressive maturity in his overall game in the WHL this season. He has the best plus/minus rating (+62) among defensemen in the league while playing the shutdown role every night. The big defender has really improved his defensive positioning, physicality but his puck moving skills have seen the biggest improvement of any part to his game this year.

Wotherspoon is the best defensive defenseman on the WHL's best offensive team (Portland). He plays a big role on his team's power play and penalty killing units. The second round pick surprised a lot of people at the 2013 WJC tournament with his solid two-way play for Team Canada. He has the best all-round game among the Flames' defense prospects and is close to NHL ready which is why he has jumped the most on the Top 20 ranking.

6. (10) Patrick Sieloff, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2012

Sieloff is a defender that the Flames are really missing on their blue line. He is a devastating open ice body checker and can intimidate the opposition forwards coming up the ice towards his end of the rink. He needs to continue improving his puck moving skills and decisions with the puck in the defensive zone as well as using his hard point shot more often.

The Flames second round pick had a very good showing at the 2013 WJC tournament especially against Team Russia and Team Canada with his physicality around his net and along the boards. Despite being shut down for the year with a groin injury, Sieloff had a very good first season in the OHL and will only get better as his overall game starts to mature. His leadership, physicality and character are the main reasons for his move up the rankings.

7. (11) Laurent Brossoit, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 164th overall, 2011

Brossoit should have been picked to play at the 2013 WJC tournament for Team Canada. Since being cut, the netminder has been motivated and lights out in the WHL. His numbers are amongst the top goalies in junior hockey this season. His game has improved over the end of last season when he took the Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup before tiring out from being over-played. He appears much stronger physically late in the year and could be ready for a long playoff run.

Brossoit is playing fewer games this season due to the excellent play of his back-up and it has shown in his consistency. The big goalie has really improved his mental side and does not let bad goals bother him like in the past few seasons. He has more focus and tracks the puck very well. His lateral movement and athleticism seems to have improved along with his rebound control.

He could be one of the Flames netminder prospects to replace Miikka Kipursoff. At this time, Brossoit is slightly ahead of Joni Ortio and Gillies and the raw talent will just keep improving as he gets better coaching at the pro level.

8. (9) Bill Arnold, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 108th overall, 2010

Arnold brings a better overall package at this time compared to the others below him on this Top 20 list. He is an excellent two-way player and can be a playmaker as well as a scorer. The big centerman's two biggest strengths are his hockey smarts and defensive awareness in his end of the rink. He was used by his coaches in all the key situations late in games.

Arnold has another year at the NCAA level with Boston College and has already won a National Championship while scoring some important goals for his team. The junior has been the Eagles' shutdown center, top penalty killer for the last two seasons, and plays on the power play as well. He has the potential to be a solid NHL centerman in the very near future for the Flames.

9. (12) John Ramage, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 103rd overall, 2010

Ramage has been rock steady for the University of Wisconsin and has improved his overall defensive game this season. The team's captain has been a great example for his teammates showing character, leadership, and an excellent work ethic every game. He has continued to be a very difficult player for the opposition to play against. The physical defender can be punishing in all three zones of the rink but has learned to be more disciplined when playing on the edge.

Ramage's game has become much more complete with the improvement of his puck moving skills, decision making, and his consistency on each shift. He is maturing into the blueliner that the Flames were hoping for when they drafted him in 2010. There might be more offensive potential to his game but he is going to be a tough, defensive defenseman at the NHL level.

10. (8) Michael Ferland, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2010

It has been a difficult year for Ferland, who started the year at the AHL level but saw action in just 10 pro games before the Flames decided to return the big winger to junior as an over-ager. His skating is still lacking the speed for the pro level and the Heat are a more veteran team than most AHL teams. The organization felt it was best for his development and confidence to return to the Brandon Wheat Kings to play on their top line.

Ferland's luck changed when he was traded to Saskatoon, where he will have the opportunity to play for the 2013 Memorial Cup as the Blades are the hosts this year. His offensive game is starting to heating up since the trade and he has provided the physical game his new team needed. It is too early for the Flames to give up on a young physical prospect that has some offense to his game.

11. (16) Jon Gillies, G, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2012

Gillies has played incredible in his freshman season with the Providence Friars and might be the main reason for his team getting to the playoffs. His skills are really good for a big goalie with a 6'5 frame; lateral speed, stays up tall in butterfly, good positioning, reads the play well and has the mental game for the position. As a tall goalie, he will need to work on leg speed to close the big five-hole and tightening up his holes under the arm pits. The athletic netminder also has work to do on his stick work with the puck and increasing his glove hand speed.

Gillies is the real deal and will probably be competing with Brossoit for the starter’s job with Calgary Flames in the near future. He could move up on the next Top 20 list but needs to show more than one good season at the NCAA level. Goalies are much harder to gauge as far as there overall development and tend to take a longer time to mature. With his poise, patience and solid technique, Gillies potential upside is that of an elite starting goaltender if all goes well with his development over the next several years.

12. (13) Joni Ortio, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2009

This year, Ortio has been playing much better in the SM-liiga for HIFK team. He has been the team's starter and appeared in 54 games putting up excellent numbers. The athletic netminder posted a good 2.42 goals against average and a solid .916 save percentage while getting his team into the playoffs.
 
His confidence in his game has returned and he has shown the ability to play big minutes but there are still questions as to whether Ortio will ever return to North America. His game seems better suited to the bigger ice surface in Europe but with Kipursoff aging and Leland Irving's future with the Flames seemingly unclear, there could be a chance Ortio returns to Calgary in the near future.

13. (19) Paul Byron, C/RW, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Buffalo on June 25th, 2011

Byron played well during the NHL lockout once he returned to the Heat line-up from an early season injury. He was part of the team's offensive success and strong play in the first half of the year. His move to the wing in Abbotsford gave him the same boost to both the defensive and offensive sides of his game as teammate, Roman Horak. It was unfortunate that the speedy forward broke his wrist in his first NHL game when called-up on February 13th after getting his offensive game together.

Byron has moved up because he has been better than the others below him and his speedy style of play fits very well with coach Hartley's system for the Flames. He played a similar system in the QMJHL for Benoit Groulx and had good success so he could get the opportunity to play in Calgary again this season or next.

14. (7) Greg Nemisz, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2008

Nemisz has had two sniffs at the NHL as a fourth line checker and at this time his offensive game is not good enough to play in the top-six forward group. His solid defensive game and physical play could get him on the bottom-six with the Flames. The first round selection has improved his skating but needs to play with better offensive players in order to put the puck in the net. He has good hands around the net and in the tight dirty areas of the rink.

An upper-body injury slowed his start this year and Nemisz struggled to regain his game and confidence when he finally returned to the Heat's line-up on November 30th. He has not put up the offensive numbers like the last two seasons in Abbotsford, but to the defense, the team has played poorly since the beginning of February. The 23-year-old still has the potential to play in the NHL but will need to be used properly by the Flames' organization going forward.

15. (14) Lance Bouma, C/LW, 6.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2008

Bouma has moved down on the Top 20 rankings only because he is out for the season after surgery to his MCL and ACL. If the physical forward can return to pre-injury form, then he could be at worst a fourth line forward for the Flames next season. He had a better chance of playing in the NHL than Nemisz or Ferland before his season ending injury. His slight drop is more due to the good play of Byron and Gillies who deserved to move up ahead of Bouma.

16. (NR) Chris Breen, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent on May 30th, 2010

Breen has really improved his overall game and has been steady force on the Heat's blue line. His puck handling, passing, and board play have improved as the year has moved along and there are glimpses of his offensive potential along with a hard point shot. The big defender makes the smart, simple plays, is very good one-on-one, and can be intimidating in his end of the rink.

Breen is primarily a shutdown stay-at-home defenseman whose character and leadership on the ice are appreciated by his teammates. The big defender works hard on his game both on and off the ice and could be a call-up to the Flames as an injury replacement at some point this season. It is his overall steady play that puts Breen securely on this Top 20 list.

17. (17) Markus Granlund, C, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 45th overall, 2011

This year for HIFK, Granlund has not played as well without his brother, Mikael, and maybe the expectations were too high for him in the SM-liiga. He did play well for Team Finland against the elite of his own age group at the 2013 WJC, but his team struggled and found themselves in the relegation round. His overall game and strength need to improve to play in the NHL.

The playmaking centerman's game is not there yet to handle the physical style in North America at the pro level. His contract with HIFK has been extended through the 2013-14 season. Granlund will continue his development in Europe and will likely decide what is best for him, depending on his brother's success with the Wild's organization at the NHL level.

18. (NR) Ryan Culkin, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2012

Culkin has a solid all-round game and he is a gamer with character as well as leadership skills. The puck mover is a fluid skater in all four directions, makes a very good outlet pass and possesses a hard accurate point shot. The physical defender has played big minutes in the shutdown role as well as on both specialty team units. He moves the Quebec Remparts' power play up the ice and controls the offensive zone distribution of the puck from the top of the umbrella.

Culkin's game has improved as the season has progressed and his coach, Patrick Roy relies heavily on the 19-year-old in all key situations during a game. He still needs to add strength and size to play his style of game at the NHL level. There is potential to be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level if his development is handled properly by the Flames' organization over the next several years.

19. (NR) Brady Lamb, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent on March 29th, 2012

Lamb has played better as the season has progressed with the Heat. He is a good depth defenseman at the AHL level but needs to improve his defensive positioning and use his hard point shot more effectively. It is his first pro season so it has been an adjustment from the NCAA level and minor injuries have slowed his offensive progress.

Lamb has the potential offensive upside to his game and could be a top-six defenseman at the NHL level. He has the skating, physicality, and puck-moving skills to get to the next level, it just a matter of more consistency on a nightly basis. His skating still needs some work to become fluid in all directions which will help in all facets of his game. He could get an opportunity in the near future if the Flames decide to shake things up in the whole organization.

20. (18) Ryan Howse, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2009

Howse has not played well at either the ECHL or AHL level yet but he can be a streaky scorer and a slow starter. He is not playing on the top-six forwards where better players can get him the puck. The natural scorer still does not do enough other things to succeed without the puck and is not paying the price in the dirty areas to score goals. His overall game is a work in progress.

Howse has to regain his confidence and his scoring touch from junior. He is still young and more time for his development is needed. His overall fitness and work ethic are both improving from last year but there is still work to be done. Howse is learning how to be a pro hockey player and could still mature into the sniper that the Flames were looking for when they selected him in the 2009 draft. It is way too early to give up on this prospect's potential.