Flames AHL/ECHL prospects review

By Jared Ramsden

The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights had a very successful season on the ice, finishing on top of the AHL‘s Western Conference with a record of 49-25-5-1, good enough for 104 points. But they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Iowa Stars, putting an end to their season, and as was just recently announced, putting an end to the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights team after only two seasons in Nebraska.

While the parent Calgary Flames were more than pleased with the on-ice results they were seeing in Omaha, the Knights were having major attendance problems despite having one of the best teams in the AHL. Going into a market that already had a team in the NCAA and USHL, it was a bit of a risk to try to put a third team in Omaha and regrettably after losing more than $4 million dollars in two seasons, the Flames were forced to move the franchise to another city.

After looking into a few different locations to place the franchise, the Flames decided on moving the Knights franchise to the Quad Cities area of Illinois/Iowa where they will be known as the Quad City Flames. Quad City had been home to the Mallards of the UHL for the past 12 years, but now with the Flames moving in, the Mallards have officially ceased operations. With teams such as Iowa, Chicago, Peoria and Milwaukee nearby, the Quad City Flames should have no problem getting to know their division rivals and the Calgary Flames hope to be able to see their AHL franchise combine on and off the ice success in the Quad Cities, something they could not do in Omaha.

The Flames finally started to reap the benefits of some strong drafting and free-agent signings over the past few seasons as they saw some of their top prospects start to develop into legitimate NHL prospects. Head Coach Ryan McGill and the rest of the coaching staff also played a major role in that development process. The Flames dipped into the farm on multiple occasions over the course of the season, and the Knights did not miss a beat, a testament to the depth in prospects the Flames now have in the organization.

That depth spread down to the Flames ECHL affiliate in Las Vegas where the Wranglers again were one of the top teams in the league with 106 points, before bowing out in the semi-final round of the playoffs.

With the Flames announcement of a plethora of prospect signings earlier in the month combined with the likelihood of a handful of prospect graduations to Calgary, look for plenty of new faces in both Quad City and Las Vegas in 2007-08.

Forwards

The Knights got great production out of a collection of forwards making their professional hockey debuts. Andrei Taratuhkin, Dustin Boyd and David Van der Gulik were all at or near the top of most of the major offensive statistics for the team.

Taratuhkin, a 24-year-old Russian centerman, suited up in all 80 Knights games, finishing with 17 goals and a team-high 43 assists. The 60 points he put up put him in a three-way tie for the team lead with Carsen Germyn and Boyd. Unfortunately for Taratuhkin, an injury sidelined him for the playoffs and the team certainly missed having him in the line-up.
Taratuhkin got off to a bit of a sluggish start in Omaha, but once his family arrived from Russia and got settled, he took his game to another level. Taratuhkin contributed in all facets for the Knights, playing significant minutes on the power play and penalty kill. He was effective offensively both off the rush and along the boards, showing his great playmaking ability on a regular basis. With Calgary likely looking for more talent and youth on the checking lines this coming season, expect Taratuhkin to be in the running for a regular spot on the big club this fall.

Boyd had a fantastic training camp and preseason in Calgary and if not for the Flames having so much depth up front, he very likely could have made the team to start the season. Instead, Boyd returned to Omaha to start the season and when the Flames ran into injury problems up front, he was up and down from Omaha multiple times during the early portion of the season. In Calgary, he scored two goals and two assists in 13 games. Despite playing in 11 fewer games than Taratuhkin and Germyn, Boyd still managed to tie those two for the team scoring lead with 60 points. He was second on the club with 27 goals, including a team best 15 on the power play. Though he appeared to tire down the stretch and into the playoffs, Boyd showed excellent speed, skill and effort in his first pro season of hockey. Boyd would likely be best served by having one more full season in the AHL to bulk up and get stronger before becoming a full-time NHL’er, but there could be an opening for him in Calgary on the wing should he have as strong a preseason as he did last year.

Van der Gulik was perhaps the most pleasant surprise among Flames prospects in Omaha. The Boston University graduate excelled defensively as evidenced by his team-best +27 rating and was a stalwart on the Knights penalty-killing unit with Warren Peters. He suited up in all 80 games for the Knights, scoring 16 goals and 27 assists. The 43 points he put up was good enough to place him fourth among all Knights players. While somewhat undersized at 5’11, 183 lbs, Van der Gulik showed plenty of feistiness and energy throughout the year. He showed the ability to create offensively off the rush and on the cycle and became more consistent as the season wore on. While he may not crack the Flames right at the outset of the 2007-08 season, a strong start to the year on the farm combined with his performance last season should make him one of the top candidates for a call-up should injuries strike in Calgary.

Another first-year Knight who didn’t have quite the impact of the above three players but still had a solid rookie pro debut was Kris Chucko. His decision to turn pro after only two seasons at the University of Minnesota was surprising to some, but the Flames felt that it would be better for his development to be in the AHL. Like Taratuhkin and Van der Gulik, he suited up for all 80 games during the season where he scored 14 goals and 14 assists to go along with 72 PIM’s and a nice +7 rating. Despite the solid numbers, Chucko still has wrinkles in his game that he needs to work on before he will be ready to challenge for a job in the NHL. His skating, defensive zone coverage and stick handling top the list of things he needs to work on over the course of next season. The Flames are going to have to be patient with Chucko as he continues to adapt and becomes comfortable playing pro hockey before considering him for a promotion.

Second-year forward Brandon Prust didn’t provide the same time of rambunctious energy he displayed in his rookie debut last season, but that was mostly due to the fact that he was thrust into a more offensive role with injuries to the Flames and Knights. He did see early season action in Calgary when Darren McCarty was injured, suiting up for 10 games and putting up 25 PIM’s. For the Knights, Prust scored 17 goals and 10 assists in 63 games. He was tops on the team with 211 PIM’s, displaying his usual agitating style. However Prust still needs to learn to channel that aggressiveness as he often takes needless and selfish penalties. Prust doesn’t have a ton of natural skill, as evidenced by his below-average finishing skills but he still managed to be a productive player for the Knights. He should get himself a long look in Calgary in training camp to play on the fourth line next season.

Former first-round draft choice Eric Nystrom was thought to be a leading contender to graduate to the NHL this season, but a shoulder injury suffered during the preseason resulted in Nystrom having to undergo major surgery and miss the majority of the season. He suited up for 12 games in Omaha, scoring a pair of goals. Nystrom has the necessary skills to be an effective third or fourth line player for Calgary, but he first must show that he can successfully return from his shoulder injury before making a permanent full-time jump to the NHL.

A handful of other Knights forwards suited up on a full-time or semi-full-time basis during the course of the regular season. After splitting time between junior and the AHL during the 2005-06 season, winger Cam Cunning looked much more comfortable in his second go around. He dressed for 60 games, scoring 12 goals and five assists while playing the role of energizer and physical pest. Cunning still needs to work on the finer points of the defensive side of the game, but he showed great all-around improvement in his first full pro season and could be in line for a breakout type season next year. Finnish sparkplug Tomi Maki was not nearly as effective as he was last season, and spent the majority of the season playing in defensive role on the top line. In 67 games, he scored four goals and 11 assists. Justin Taylor has a great offensive skill set, but often appeared disinterested and did not appear to put forth a great effort on a regular basis. He may not return to the organization next year.

Derek Couture couldn’t get into the line-up on a regular basis to start the season but started to put things together in the second half before getting injured. Should he stay healthy next year, he could significantly improve on his three goal, six assist season of 2006-07.

Defensemen

Tim Ramholt‘s professional hockey debut was solid, yet unspectacular. After playing a year of junior in the QMJHL in 2003-04, Ramholt returned to his native Switzerland to play for the last two seasons before signing with the Flames over the summer of 2006. It took some time for Ramholt to adjust and he himself even admitted that returning to play home for two seasons set back his development some. However, as the season wore on, Ramholt’s play improved dramatically as his comfort level with playing pro hockey in North America increased. When the Knights defense was depleted by injuries, Ramholt really asserted himself when given more responsibility, though he did hit the wall somewhat in the playoffs. In 67 games, Ramholt scored two goals and 10 assists to go along with a steady +8 rating. Ramholt is strong skating, two-way defender who has more offensive flair to his game than he showed last season. Expect Ramholt’s numbers to increase in 2007-08 as he continues to gain confidence, and though the parent Flames are deep on defense, Ramholt could be one of the first players summoned from the minors should injuries strike Calgary’s blueline.

One of the most improved players on the Knights team this season was Adam Pardy. After spending most of 2005-06 in the ECHL with Las Vegas, Pardy established himself as one of Omaha’s top four defensemen and was arguably the best defender on the team in the playoffs. Pardy suited up in 70 games, scoring two goals and six assists to go along with a +1 rating and 60 PIM’s. Pardy’s forte is strong defensive zone play and playing physical, however, he surprisingly also showed the ability to skate the puck up the ice and lead the rush to enter the offensive zone. Pardy’s drastic improvement in his second year playing professional hockey has likely moved him up Calgary’s depth chart, but he will need to show continued improvement over the course of next season to continue to keep himself in the Flames future plans.

A trio of other defense prospects suited up for the Knights in 2006-07. Second-year blueliner Brett Palin continues to held back by below-average skating, but often does the little things well that often go unnoticed to help the team win. He played in 78 games, scoring once and adding nine assists. Somewhat of a poor-man’s version of current Flame Rhett Warrener, Palin needs to ramp his game up one more notch next season before other young defenders start to work their way up the system. Steve Marr spent the majority of the season as the Knights extra defenseman suiting up in only 34 games over the course of the season. He will need a good showing early next season to stick with Quad City. Tim Hambly played in mostly a defensive role last season and suited up in 61 games, scoring three goals and 15 assists. Hambly needs to be more assertive and show more improvement next season to move up the depth chart.

Richie Regehr had a great start to the season in Omaha after failing to beat out fellow prospect Mark Giordano for the seventh defenseman spot in Calgary, earning himself a place on the AHL All-Star squad. He scored five goals and nine assists in only 22 games and posted a fantastic +16 rating. He was called up to the Flames late in December and was playing well until a subsequent concussion ended his season. Regehr will have to prove that he is 100 percent recovered next season before the Flames will give serious consideration to promoting him to the NHL full time.

Goaltending

With Brent Krahn battling injuries for a good part of the season, Curtis McElhinney firmly established himself as the Knights No. 1 goaltender, and in fact was one of the top goaltenders in the entire AHL. Without McElhinney, it would have been hard to imagine the Knights finishing atop the AHL’s Western Conference. He can still be rattled on occasion, but showed much more consistency than last season. The 6’2, 207 lb McElhinney’s overall numbers were fantastic. With 35 wins, a 2.13 goals against average, a .917 save percentage and seven shutouts, he was right near the top of most of the major goaltending statistics. While there could be an opening for McElhinney in Calgary as the backup goaltender next year, the Flames will likely let him get one more full season of starting under his belt in the AHL before promoting him. Regardless of where he ends up next season, he has put himself into the Flames future plans.

ECHL

A couple of Flames forward prospects spent most of the season with Calgary’s ECHL affiliate in Las Vegas. Big-bodied Finnish forward Aki Seitsonen played in a few games for the Knights, scoring a goal and three assists in 13 games, but spent the majority of the season with the Wranglers. In Las Vegas, Seitsonen played in 59 games, scoring 14 goals and 18 assists. After a full year of seasoning in the ECHL, the Flames will likely promote Seitsonen to the AHL full time next season. He is a somewhat slow developing prospect, but he has good all-around potential and the Flames will be patient with him. Adam Cracknell spent the season in Las Vegas as well. He suited up in 31 games, scoring eight goals and 14 assists on the season. He really cranked it up in the playoffs, scoring three goals and three assists in only six games. Like Seitsonen, he likely will be getting a full-time promotion to the AHL for 2007-08.

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