Flames Top 20 prospects, Spring 2010

By Kent Wilson

Calgary’s stable of forward prospects remains lackluster, though Greg Nemisz, Mitch Wahl, Ryan Howse and Gaelan Patterson have had strong seasons. The organization’s strength remains on defense, with Tim Erixon, John Negrin, T.J. Brodie and Matt Pelech in the team’s top 10. 

Top 20 at a glance

1. Mikael Backlund
2. Greg Nemisz
3. Tim Erixon
4. John Negrin
5. T.J. Brodie
6. Ryan Howse
7. Mitch Wahl
8. Matt Pelech
9. Leland Irving
10. Matt Keetley
11. Keith Seabrook
12. Kris Chucko
13. Lance Bouma
14. Brett Sutter
15. Gord Baldwin
16. Henrik Bjorklund
17. Aaron Marvin
18. J.D. Watt
19. Joni Ortio
20. Gaelan Patterson

1. (1) Mikael Backlund, C, 8.5C
Acquired: first round, 24th overall, 2007

Despite a relatively lackluster rookie campaign in the AHL, 21-year-old Mikael Backlund remains the Flames most promising prospect. Through 51 games for the Abbotsford Heat, Backlund has recorded just 13 goals and 26 points, a relatively disappointing total for such a highly-touted forward, although his production has improved somewhat recently. Since returning from a short stint with the parent club, Backlund has put up three goals, four points and an impressive 20 shots on net in just four games. Due to marginal depth and a rash of injuries, the Heat have struggled to score goals and remain competitive this year. Backlund’s 26 points represent the third highest total on the club, behind veterans Jason Jaffray (43 points) and Colin Stuart (28 points). As a result, the environment hasn’t been conducive to offensive output, which no doubt has had some dampening effect on Backlund’s production.

Perhaps more encouraging is Backlund’s performance at the NHL level this year. Although he’s tallied just two assists in nine games, the slick-skating center hasn’t looked out of place on the Flames third line, which is a significant step forward relative to his previous efforts at that level. Backlund has displayed his ability to read plays and react appropriately on both sides of the puck and has frequently looked strong on his skates during board battles. His effectiveness convinced coach Brent Sutter to play him over the relatively more proven Dustin Boyd in Calgary’s final game before the Olympic break and there are suggestions Backlund might make the leap for good once NHL action resumes.

2. (2) Greg Nemisz, RW, 7.5C
Acquired: first round, 25th overall, 2008

The only Flames prospect to make Canada’s World Junior Championship squad, 19-year-old Greg Nemisz continues to put up very good results for the Windsor Spitfires. With 33 goals and 69 points in 50 games, Nemisz is currently the 13th-highest scorer in the OHL, and second behind probable future first overall choice Taylor Hall on his team. Nemisz is also +21 this year, about average on his powerhouse team. 

A big winger with decent hands, Nemisz co-leads his team in power-play goals with 13. His strengths remain winning puck battles in the offensive zone and scoring goals in tight. During the WJCs, however, Nemisz’s merely average skating was exposed to some degree, resulting in his being relegated mostly to third and fourth-line duty. In addition, the strength of his junior squad continues to make it difficult to properly evaluate his numbers. There’s little doubt that playing for the Memorial Cup-winning Spitfires is augmenting his stats to some degree, but it remains to be seen how much that’s the case.

3. (5) Tim Erixon, D, 7.0C
Acquired: first round, 23rd overall, 2009

The strong puck-moving defender managed to work his way into regular rotation for Skellefteå in the Swedish Elite League, scoring seven goals and nine points in 38 games before being felled by a broken wrist. Despite missing 10 games due to his injury, Erixon’s seven goals represent the most of any defender on his club, an impressive feat for a teenager playing against men. Erixon, who recently turned 19, is a smooth skater who can move the puck effectively through the neutral zone and quarterback a power play. He isn’t overly physical, but makes up for it by being positionally sound. He’ll likely develop in Sweden until he’s ready to crack the Flames NHL roster a year or two down the road. 

4. (6) John Negrin, D, 6.5C
 Acquired: third round, 70th overall, 2007

Like the rest of the Heat, it’s been a bit of a bumpy road for Negrin this year. He has looked comfortable at times during his rookie campaign and somewhat overwhelmed at others. The Heat’s defense corps features a lot of young players finding their legs at the professional level, which has led to some defensive inconsistencies across the board. Like Erixon, Negrin is a good two-way defender who can move the puck with aplomb and staff a power play competently. He has missed 14 games thus far due to various ailments, but remains among the team leaders in terms of scoring from the blueline with five goals and 15 points in 45 games. Only Keith Seabrook (20 points) and the suddenly emergent Gord Baldwin (21 points) have more, and both have played significantly more games this season.

Negrin is a few years away from battling convincingly for a spot on the parent club, but his performance this year is a step in the right direction.

5. T.J. Brodie, D, 6.5C
Acquired: fourth round, 114th overall, 2008

Since being selected in the 114th overall by the Flames in 2008, T.J. Brodie has improved by leaps and bounds. The offensively-minded rearguard garnered 30 points in his draft year, 50 points the following season and is currently on pace for a career year with 52 points in 56 games played. Brodie was a better than point-per-game player for Saginaw earlier in the season (23 points in 19 games), but the trade that saw him moved to the Barrie Colts put a slight dent into his production. In his first five games for the Colts, he was held scoreless and went -2. He has since rebounded, however, managing 25 points in 32 games.

Perhaps most encouraging is his improvement in the plus/minus category. Concerns around Brodie’s defensive game have begun to melt away since his draft season since, like his production, his plus/minus has steadily improved. Brodie was a +8 for Saginaw last season and is an impressive +26 thus far this season. With Brodie turning 20 in June, look for him to crack the Heat’s roster next season.

6. (10) Ryan Howse, LW, 6.5C
Acquired: third round, 74th overall, 2009

A big mover on the Flames prospect depth chart this year is Ryan Howse. The former third-round draft pick has been a revelation for the Chilliwack Bruins, leading the team in just about every significant offensive category including goals (39), points (60), power-play goals (14) and points per game (.97). Considered a lukewarm prospect with good hands and little else during his draft-eligible year, Howse has worked hard to round out his game this season, a bonus on top of his significant offensive step forward. Although somewhat under-sized at 5’11 and 185 pounds, the 18 year-old will have another season in the WHL to increase in size and strength and continue to hone his overall game.

7. (6) Mitch Wahl, C, 7.0D
Acquired: second round, 48th overall, 2008

The Spokane Chiefs top centerman failed to make the US World Junior Championship team this season, but that disappointment hasn’t been reflected in his play or production. In fact, Wahl has been on fire in the new year, scoring 40 points in his last 25 games. With that outburst, Wahl now leads his team in scoring by a full 10 points over second-place Kyle Beach (CHI) and is nearly 30 points up on third-ranked Tyler Johnson. Wahl’s team-best point total (83) is propelled by his 56 assists, by far the most on Spokane and indeed one of the best totals in the WHL.

Wahl is a smart, smooth-skating pivot with good vision and excellent puck distribution skills. He isn’t quite as adept at scoring goals, but his ability to contribute on the scoresheet while playing against other teams’ top lines has been noted by appreciative coaches in the past. Having turned 20 in January, this will likely be Wahl’s last season in junior and should head for the Abbotsford Heat next year.

8. (14) Matt Pelech, D, 6.0B
Acquired: first round, 26th overall, 2005

Like many defensive defensemen, Pelech’s development has been steady but glacial in its pace. The big 220-pounder is in his third professional season for the Flames and was starting to show signs of taking the next step before he pinched a nerve in January, an injury he has yet to return from. Pelech also battled a variety of ailments during his junior career, missing significant portions of time in each of his final three seasons and perhaps hurting his development to a degree.

Pelech is strong and relatively mobile for a large man, but has yet to sufficiently dominate enough at the AHL level to convince the powers-that-be to grant him a regular spot in the Flames line-up. He was narrowly beat out by Adam Pardy for a roster spot two summers ago and was a victim of Calgary’s defensive depth this past offseason due to the addition of Jay Bouwmeester. His stats have been nominal during his pro career thus far, but, like other shut-down defenders, Pelech’s worth isn’t captured by traditional counting numbers. Look for the 22-year-old to be an injury call-up down the stretch and into the playoffs and to press for a third-pairing duty at the NHL level next season.

9. (4) Leland Irving, G, 7.0D
Acquired: first round, 26th overall, 2006

It’s been a disappointing step backwards this year for Leland Irving. Just a single season after usurping Matt Keetley as the organization’s AHL starter, Irving has struggled to retain that performance level behind the Heat’s young and inexperienced defense. As a result, Irving’s save percentage fell to a mediocre .909 in 30 games this year before he was sent down to the ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings, where he has won just two of his first seven starts.

With Miikka Kiprusoff playing well and signed long term, the 21-year-old Irving will have plenty of time to figure things out at the minor level.

10. (18) Matt Keetley, G, 6.0C
Acquired: fifth round, 158th overall, 2005

Irving’s loss is Keetley’s gain, as the former Memorial Cup winner is once again the AHL starter. The third-year pro struggled significantly last year, posting a 2.85 GAA and .892 save percentage in 33 games for the Quad City Flames. He began 2009-10 on the same poor foot. However, he’s managed to climb back up to a decent .912 save percentage over the course of the season, the best save rate among Heat goalies thus far and equal to his rookie effort back in 2007-08.

Keetley’s progress hasn’t been stable enough nor strong enough to suggest he’s capable of being a starter at the NHL level yet. He will turn 24 in April and is therefore further along in his development than Irving. 

11. (12) Keith Seabrook, D, 7.0D
Acquired: Trade with Washington Capitals

The 21-year-old brother of Chicago Blackhawk Brent Seabrook, Keith was drafted in the second round by Washington coming out of the BCHL, before he emerged as a key cog for the powerful 2008-09 Calgary Hitmen. That year, his final season as a amateur, Seabrook played on the top pairing and managed 15 goals and 40 assists from the blueline. He has seemingly carried that offensive spark forward into the AHL for the Heat, where he has managed eight goals and 20 points thus far. That’s the best goal total and second-best point total by a defender on the team. He’s also the Heat’s leader in terms of shots on goal by defenders (115).

Seabrook doesn’t have ideal size for a defenseman (6’0”, 197 pounds) and his defensive game isn’t nearly as accomplished as his brothers. However, the early returns during his rookie season represent a solid step in the right direction.

12. (11) Kris Chucko, RW, 6.0C
Acquired: first round, 24th overall, 2004

Passed by cohorts and struggling to find the next step, Kris Chucko continues his slow descent down the Flames prospect depth chart. There were some signs of progression last year when he, Jamie Lundmark and Kyle Greentreee combined to form an effective scoring unit. Unfortunately, in the absence of those players, Chucko’s production has fallen back down to his mediocre career norms this season. In 36 games for the Heat, he’s garnered just nine goals, 18 points and a disappointing -7 rating. On top of that, Chucko has been sidelined with a concussion since late December and has missed the last 24 games.

Although a capable enough forward in general, Chucko isn’t particularly good at any one thing. He’s not adept enough at scoring to be a consistent offensive threat and he’s not defensively capable enough to be a checker. He has only once in four AHL seasons finished with more than 50 points and is a cumulative minus player over the entirety of his pro career. Chucko has seen fellow draftees Brandon Prust and Dustin Boyd graduate to the next level and will soon be challenged for space and time in the organization by players like Nemisz, Backlund, Wahl, Bouma and Howse. Unless he manages to differentiate himself from his competition in soon, Chucko, who will soon turn 24, will be consigned to the “bust” category of first-round draft picks. 

13. (NR) Lance Bouma, C, 6.0C
Acquired: third round, 78th overall, 2008

Although chosen more for his character and work ethic, Bouma is enjoying a relatively strong campaign for the Vancouver Giants this year, gathering 14 goals and 43 points in 57 games, a career best. the 19-year-old’s previous high water mark was a 35-point season back in 2007-08. Bouma is a meat and potatoes forward who is unlikely to earn his keep at a professional level with goals and assists. Unafraid to play a defensive role and compete in hard areas of the ice, Bouma is the Vancouver Giants captain and a quintessential “Sutter” type player. That said, he’s a long way from pushing for an NHL job.

14. (NR) Brett Sutter, C, 5.5B
Acquired: sixth round, 179th overall, 2005

A smart and tenacious checker, Brett Sutter continues to progress as a defensive specialist in the AHL. Darryl’s son has good hockey sense and is a tireless worker in either zone. But he’s also limited offensively, having scored just 21 goals in 201 AHL career games. His 19 points in 55 games played this year puts him on pace to match the 25 points he managed in 75 games last year for Quad City. In fact, he’s even on pace to equal his shot total from last year as well (132). Perhaps his most encouraging stat this season is his +2 rating, a decent sign considering the club’s lackluster even-strength production.

Sutter’s NHL potential is rather limited. He turns 23 this year, so considering his offensive limitations he will have to develop into an elite defensive forward at the AHL level quickly in order to challenge for a regular NHL spot.

15. (NR) Gord Baldwin, D, 6.0C
Acquired: third round, 69th overall, 2005

The towering 6’5” defender split time between the AHL and ECHL last season and was considered a “depth” option for the QC Flames last year. This season, however, Baldwin has become more of a fixture on the Heat’s blueline due to injuries to Pelech, Palin and Negrin (as well as the loss of Keith Aulie via trade). Baldwin’s strong results (team-leading 21 points and +9 from the back end) in response to the increased responsibility has landed him among the Flames top 20 prospects and back in the conversation as a future NHLer –- something that was far less likely at this time last year.

Baldwin, who will turn 23 in March, is very big and at his best battling for the puck down low in the defensive zone. He’s not overly slow, although he sometimes struggles to keep up with more agile opposing players. He’s also still learning to read plays at the professional level and can occasionally be caught out of position. He will need to continue to impress in order to retain his ice time when Pelech and Palin return to action.  

16. (15) Henrik Bjorklund, RW, 6.5D
Acquired: fourth round, 111th overall, 2009

Described as a sniper by scouting reports during his draft year, Bjorklund has bounced around the various leagues in his native Sweden this year and put up fairly marginal results. In 19 games for Färjestad of the SEL, Bjorklund scored just one goal and four points. His results in the Allsvenskan for Boras have been a bit better (five goals, 11 points in 25 games). It should be noted, however, that both leagues are pro level and staffed by either highly-touted prospects or established veterans. They are therefore significantly more difficult to compete in than, say, the CHL, especially for a 19-year-old like Bjorklund.

Like Erixon, Bjorklund will be given time and space to develop in Sweden before making the trip over the pond. Unlike Erixon, however, Bjorklund isn’t a regular contributor at the SEL level yet and is therefore further behind in his bid to eventually become an NHL player.

17. (9) Aaron Marvin, C, 6.5D
Acquired: third round, 89th overall, 2006

It’s been a tough season for Marvin. With just five goals and 12 points in 33 games for St. Cloud State, his offensive output has taken a big step backwards relative to last year (10 goals, 27 points in 38 games). In addition, Marvin was at the center of controversial hit in November when he drove North Dakota’s Chay Genoway’s head into the boards from behind. Genoway suffered a concussion as a result and Marvin was suspended, though just for one game. Marvin will turn 22 in May of this year and his progression has seemingly plateaued at the collegiate level. Next year will be his final season in the NCAA, at which time the Flames will have to assess his development and value as a prospect. He may be AHL-bound eventually, but is a long way from challenging for an NHL job.

18. (NR) J.D. Watt, 5.5C
Acquired: Fourth round, 111th overall, 2005

After spending most of the season in the ECHL last year, 22-year-old Watt has been able to stick with Abbotsford this year and has even managed to add some offensive contributions on top of his ability to agitate. Watt has seven goals and 11 points through 50 games for the Heat thus far, as well as a team-high 180 penalty minutes. At 6’2" and 200 pounds, Watt is willing to drop the gloves whenever necessary and is a master at getting under his opponents’ skin. With the Brandon Prust moving to New York in the Olli Jokinen trade and with Jamal Mayers and Brian McGrattan unlikely to be re-signed in the off-season, Watt may have the inside track to become the Flames tough guy/pest in the near future. 
19. (NR) Joni Ortio, G, 6.5D

Acquired: sixth round, 171st overall, 2009

Eighteen-year-old Ortio was Finland‘s starting goalie in this year’s World Junior Championships. He also began the season playing for TPS of the Finnish elite league, both notable accomplishments for such a young puckstopper. That said, he struggled on both stages, managing a save percentage of .844 in the WJC and a .836 in three appearances in the SM-Liiga. He has since split time in the Finland second division and SM-Liiga jr. leagues where he’s put up up stronger results (2.96 GAA, .919 SV% and 2.72 GAA, .908 SV% respectively). 

Ortio looked spectacular at times in the WJCs and shaky at others. His reflexes and athleticism are strengths, while rebound control and consistency seem to be areas that need improvement.

20. (NR) Gaelan Patterson, C, 6.5D
Acquired: seventh round, 201st overall, 2009

Drafted at 19, Patterson’s season to date with the Saskatoon Blades has been a solid step in the right direction. With 22 goals and 50 points in 61 games, Patterson is the fourth highest point-getter on his team and is on pace to record a career-best season in both goals and points.

Patterson was likely passed over in his first year of draft eligibility due to his entirely underwhelming rookie and sophomore seasons in the WHL. Through the first 104 games of his junior career, Patterson managed just seven goals and 14 points. Since then, however, he has scored 44 goals and 107 points in 132 games played. In terms of points per game, that’s a quantum leap (.13 versus .81). In addition, Patterson is a cumulative +52 over the last season and a half, another marked improvement over his first two years (-10). So while his overall numbers aren’t terribly compelling, the steep slope of his progression suggests he may be a player to keep an eye on going forward.