Flames Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Brad Gardner

The Flames have a few fast risers in the new Top 20 rankings, including defenseman Keith Aulie and center Mitch Wahl vaulting into the top five. Other prospects slid the wrong way, including Juuso Puustinen and Daniel Ryder, as their careers within the Flames organization become less and less likely. While Mikael Backlund remains at the top as the lone blue-chipper among the prospects, the Flames have several strong prospects spread among all positions.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Mikael Backlund, C
2. Greg Nemisz, RW
3. Keith Aulie, D
4. Mitch Wahl, C
5. Leland Irving, G
6. John Negrin, D
7. Matt Keetley, G
8. Juuso Puustinen, RW
9. T.J. Brodie, D
10. Aaron Marvin, C
11. John Armstrong, C
12. Daniel Ryder, C
13. Kris Chucko, LW
14. Kevin Lalande, G
15. Kyle Greentree, LW
16. Matt Pelech, D
17. Jordan Fulton, LW
18. Nick Larson, LW
19. David Van der Gulik, RW
20. Brett Sutter, C

1. Mikael Backlund, C (8.5 C)
Drafted Round 1, #24 overall, 2007

The 19-year-old Backlund is continuing a successful season, having moved to the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. Though he began the year with his hometown Vasteras squad in Sweden, Backlund’s choice to begin the adjustment to the North American game is looking like a brilliant decision. With eight goals and 15 assists in 20 games, Backlund has quickly asserted himself on the playoff-bound Rockets. Backlund also saw success in the World Junior Championship, earning his second consecutive silver medal and scoring five goals and two assists in six games with Sweden. He made his NHL debut this season in a January tilt against the Islanders. Certainly an offensive force, Backlund has seen the ice in many situations for Kelowna. His quick acclimation to the North American game could mean Backlund suits up for Flames out of training camp. 

2. Greg Nemisz, RW (7.0 C)
Drafted Round 1, #25 overall, 2008

Another strong talent picked late in the first round, Nemisz is lighting it up with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. In his third year with the team, the 6’3, 197-pound center has scored 34 goals to go along with 36 assists in 58 games for the first-place Spitfires. His 70 points are good for third on the team, while his impressive plus-48 rating is tied for first. The 18-year-old Nemisz also played for the Western Conference in the 2009 OHL All-Star Classic. With the Spitfires poised to make a strong push towards the Memorial Cup, Nemisz will look to gain valuable postseason experience as one of the top forwards on the squad.

3. Keith Aulie, D (7.0 C)
Drafted Round 4, #116 overall, 2007

Easily the biggest gainer among the Flames prospects, the 19-year-old defenseman is enjoying a successful year. The 6’6, 208-pound Aulie was selected to represent Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships. Though he only recorded one assist, Aulie’s intimidating presence was felt throughout the six-game gold medal run. Aulie is also having his most prolific year in his fourth season with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. His six goals, 26 assists, and 32 points are all career highs. He has also broken the 80 PIM mark for the third straight season. Aulie has been a force on the blueline for the playoff-bound Wheat Kings and his great size is coveted at all levels of hockey.

4. Mitch Wahl, C (7.0 C)

Drafted Round 2, #48 overall, 2008

Another player on the rise, Wahl is the third player in the Flames system to play in the WJCs. The Long Beach, California native scored one goal and three assists in six games en route to a fifth-place finish for the United States. In his fourth year with the Spokane Chiefs, Wahl has surpassed his career high in goals with 26 to go along with 30 helpers for a total of 56 points in 53 games. He also has a plus-31 rating, which is tied for first on the team. As a member of the Chiefs last season, Wahl contributed six goals and eight assists in 21 playoff games for the Memorial Cup Champions. The team is ready for another run, and Wahl’s consistent production will certainly play an important role.

5. Leland Irving, G (7.0 C)

Drafted Round 1, #26 overall, 2006

While Irving’s short slide down the rankings is partly due to the improvement of others, it is also a testament to the evening out of a solid group of goaltending prospects. For much of the season, Irving has split goaltending duties with Matt Keetley for the Quad City Flames. In 27 games, the rookie Irving has a 12-11-1 record with a .905 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average. A longtime netminder for the Everett Silvertips as well as a former member of the Canadian junior team, the 20-year-old Irving benefited from talented Silvertip teams that were committed to defense. His lead on the other Flames prospects in net is dwindling.

6. John Negrin, D (6.5 C)
Drafted Round 3, #70 overall, 2007

The 6’2, 195-pound defenseman was involved in a mid-season trade this year after spending parts of five seasons with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL. He joined the Swift Current Broncos and the team is currently eyeing one of the remaining playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Despite posting only one multiple-goal season in his career, Negrin has scored eight goals to go along with 37 assists in 55 total games this season. The 19-year-old also has a plus-6 rating since joining the Broncos. As one of the alternate captains for the squad, Negrin has been an integral part on the blueline in all situations for the team currently standing at fifth in the conference.

7. Matt Keetley, G (6.5 C)

Drafted Round 5, #158 overall, 2005

The 22-year-old goalie began the year with the Quad City Flames, going 7-17-4 in 30 games with a .899 save percentage and 2.70 goals against average. The team currently is near the bottom in the West Division, but even given this, Keetley’s play was such that he was demoted recently to ECHL affiliate Las Vegas Wranglers.  Kevin Lalande was promoted to take his place. In five games with the Wranglers, Keetley is 1-3-1 with a strong .939 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average. Getting as many starts as possible has to be the best situation for the second-year pro. He should have plenty of opportunities to prove himself next year.

8. Juuso Puustinen, RW (7.0 D)
Drafted Round 5, #149 overall, 2006

Following two successful seasons with the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, the skilled winger returned to his native Finland. In 47 games with the SM-Liiga’s Blues, Puustinen has 13 goals and 17 assists. Having returned to Europe, the 20-year-old’s future within the Flames organization is unclear. He put his great talent on display in the WHL for two years, scoring 32 goals and 71 points in 64 games his first year and following that up with a fairly consistent 26 goals and 53 points in 60 games in his second season. His offensive upside keeps him in the top half of the Flames system at this point.

9. T.J. Brodie, D (6.5 C)

Drafted Round 4, #114 overall, 2008

Another riser among the Flames prospects, Brodie is enjoying a career year for the Saginaw Spirit. In 55 games, the defenseman has 12 goals and 38 assists for 50 points – all career highs. He has also contributed 59 penalty minutes to go along with a solid plus-10 rating. The Spirit have already clinched a playoff spot in the OHL’s Western Conference, just behind a couple of heavyweights in the Windsor Spitfires and London Knights. The 6’1, 170-pounder has solid offensive skills, proven by his production for the Spirit this season, and should be looking to round out his game as he continues his OHL career.

10. Aaron Marvin, C (6.5 C)
Drafted Round 3, #89 overall, 2006

The Warroad, Minnesota native is another player enjoying a career year. In his second season with St. Cloud State in the WCHA, Marvin has already gotten career-highs with 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points. His 40 PIM and plus-10 rating are also personal bests. The 20-year-old center is the fourth-leading scorer for the Huskies, who are currently ranked sixth in the crowded WCHA. Marvin’s statistical improvement is certainly a great sign for a player trying to put his tools together. He has already been recognized on his team, having won a Most-Improved Player award last season, and will look to continue to make an impact on the team moving forward.

11. John Armstrong, C (6.5 C)
Drafted Round 3, #87 overall, 2006

In his first professional season out of the OHL, Armstrong has four goals, 10 assists, and 52 PIM in 45 games for the Quad City Flames. The 6’2, 188-pound center enjoyed a solid OHL career with the Plymouth Whalers and Peterborough Petes, where he improved each season by totaling 37, 45, and 57 points in each of his final three OHL campaigns. At 21 years old, the offensively-oriented Armstrong should be looking to continue this improvement trend at the professional level. While he is not a surefire prospect, Armstrong provides solid depth in the bottom half of the Flames system.

12. Daniel Ryder, C (7.0 F)

Drafted Round 3, #74 overall, 2005

The brother of Bruins winger Michael Ryder, Daniel Ryder is once again on the outs with the Flames organization and his future in hockey is in question. After leaving the Quad City Flames six games into last season, Ryder returned to salvage a promising hockey career. Ryder again began the year in the Quad Cities, scoring three goals and six assists in 19 games. However, he was assigned to the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL, where he played in four scoreless games, before being suspended by the Flames organization for conduct detrimental to the team. While his ability on the ice is not in question, Ryder’s commitment to playing professional hockey is obviously in doubt.

13. Kris Chucko, LW (6.0 B)
Drafted Round 1, #24 overall, 2004

A bruising power forward, the 22-year-old Chucko is improving on his steady AHL numbers. In his first two AHL seasons, Chucko played in 80 games each year with 28 points and 30 points, respectively. In just 52 games, Chucko is the Quad City Flames’ third-leading scorer with 20 goals and 18 assists for 38 points. His minus-9 rating is worrisome but there are only a handful of players on the Flames with a positive plus/minus rating. At 6’2, 190 pounds, the Burnaby, BC native is capable of being a physical force on the ice. His improved production is a great sign for the 2004 draft pick as he tries to keep his place among the Flames’ best prospects.

14. Kevin Lalande, G (6.5 C)

Drafted Round 5, #128 overall, 2005

The former Belleville Bulls backstop is in his second professional season. Though much of his time has been spent in the ECHL, he has put up solid numbers and he led the Las Vegas Wranglers to the Kelly Cup Finals last season. In 21 games with the Wranglers this season, Lalande has a 9-8-2 record with a .925 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average. He was recently called up the Quad City Flames in exchange for Keetley. Lalande has been impressive there, going 4-1-0 with a stellar .937 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average. Lalande should not be counted out of the competition in net.

15. Kyle Greentree, LW (6.0 B)

Acquired via trade with Flyers for Tim Ramholt

An offseason acquisition from the Flyers organization, Greentree is the second-leading scorer for the Quad City Flames. The Victoria, BC native played three years at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks before signing as a free agent with the Flyers in 2007. His 51 points, including 28 goals and 23 assists, in 56 games have already surpassed his rookie totals from last year. At 25 years old, Greentree is one of the older prospects in the Flames system and is nearing the end of his window of opportunity. He already made a two-game appearance in Calgary this year, including over 13 minutes of ice time.

16. Matt Pelech, D (6.0 C)

Drafted Round 1, #26 overall, 2005

A defensive prospect with good size, the 6’4, 200-pound Pelech is keeping his production consistent in his second AHL season. In 53 games, the Toronto native has three goals and five assists with a decent minus-4 rating. His 108 penalty minutes ranks third on the team and first among defensemen for Quad City. A strong, steady hand on the blueline, the 21-year-old Pelech is a good candidate for a position in the bottom pairing in the near future. Though he may not have the upside one would expect in a first rounder, Pelech provides depth on defense.

17. Jordan Fulton, LW (6.0 C)

Drafted Round 6, #179 overall, 2006

In his third season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Fulton has again improved statistically. His 10 goals, 15 points, and 50 PIM are all highs for his NCAA career. Though he played center for his first two years with the Bulldogs, the 6’1, 191-pound Fulton has switched to wing this year. Perhaps this move has sparked the offensive upside that he displayed prior to college, as he currently stands at fifth among the team’s forwards in scoring. Fulton’s willingness to play the physical game makes him a key player for the Bulldogs outside of his production, though, as the squad, currently fifth place, continues to battle for the WCHA crown.

18. Nick Larson, LW (6.0 C)

Drafted Round 4, #108 overall, 2008

Larson continues to put up solid numbers in the USHL as he prepares to begin his collegiate career in the fall with Notre Dame. Currently fifth in scoring for the Waterloo Black Hawks, Larson has 14 goals and 12 assists in 39 games. Additionally, his 103 PIM leads the team. The 19-year-old is the fourth member of the Flames 2008 draft class on these rankings. He stands 6’1, 182 pounds.

19. David Van der Gulik, RW (5.5 B)

Drafted Round 7, #206 overall, 2002

Van der Gulik opened the season with the Quad City Flames, playing in 56 games and accumulating 14 goals and 13 assists. He also had 48 PIM and a plus-3 rating. The 5’10, 173-pound winger was recently called up to the Calgary Flames, but has yet to play in a game. At 25 years old, the former Boston University Terrier will likely see time on one of Calgary’s bottom lines. While Van der Gulik plays a grinder’s game, his solid production in the AHL shows that he does have some offensive skill as well.

20. Brett Sutter, C (5.5B)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2005

Sutter made his NHL debut this year in three games with Calgary, posting one goal. The rest of the year he’s played with the Quad City Flames, posting 18 points in 52 games.  His upside is not high, but he’s a hard worker and very dependable.