Mikael Backlund remains Calgary Flames top prospect

By Kent Wilson
Photo: Flames top prospect Mikael Backlund will be trying to stick in the NHL for 2010-11. (Photo Courtesy of www.hockeypictures.se)

With the organization picking outside of the top 60 in the 2010 entry draft, not a lot has changed in Calgary’s top 20 prospect rankings. New additions include forwards Bryan Cameron, Logan Macmillan, Max Reinhart, Joey Leach and Bill Arnold while Kris Chucko, Matt Keetley, Aaron Marvin, JD Watt and Henrik Bjorklund have been bumped off the list.

1. (1)Mikael Backlund, C, 8.0C
2. (3)Tim Erixon, D, 7C
3. (2) Greg Nemisz, RW, 7.5C
4. (7) Mitch Wahl, C, 7D
5. (5) T.J. Brodie, D, 6.5C
6. (6) Ryan Howse, LW, 6.5C
7. (4) John Negrin, D, 6.5C
8. (8) Matt Pelech, D, 6B
9. (NR) Bryan Cameron, C, 6.5C
10. (11) Keith Seabrook, D, 7D
11. (9) Leland Irving, G, 7D
12. (NR) Logan MacMillan, LW, 6.5D
13. (13) Lance Bouma, LW, 6C
14. (NR) Max Reinhart – 6.C
15. (14) Brett Sutter – 5.5C
16. (15) Gord Baldwin – 5.5C
17. (NR) Joey Leach, D, 6B
18. (19) Joni Ortio, G, 6.5D
19. (NR) Bill Arnold, C, 5.5C
20. (20) Gaelan Patterson, C, 6.5D

1. (1) Mikael Backlund, C, 21
Drafted first round, 24th overall, 2007

Mikael Backlund remains the Flames best prospect, although there’s a strong possiblity he’ll graduate to the NHL for good this coming season. Backlund had a relatively unimpressive AHL debut last year, tallying 15 goals and 32 points in 54 games. His performance was solid enough, however, to convince the decision makers to recall him for a 23 game stint with the parent club, where he managed one goal and 10 points.

Backlund has all the tools to be an offensive difference maker: smooth skating, soft hands and good vision. He is able to dominate play in bursts, but can’t seem to string together more than a few quality games (and sometimes shifts) at a time. There’s some chance he’ll spend another year ripening in the AHL this season, depending on Calgary’s cap and injury situation to start the year. However, he will undoubtedly be the first injury call-up should he fail to make the team out of camp.

2. (3) Tim Erixon, D, 19

Drafted first round, 23rd overall, 2009

Scheduled to return to the Swedish Elite League for his third straight season, Tim Erixon is likely to be amongst Skelleftea’s top four defenders come the new year, even though he’ll only be turning 20 in February. A capable all around defensemen who doesn’t dominate in any one area, Erixon is a good skater and puck distributor who can man the point on the power play. His shot power is probably below average, but he makes up for that with a high degree of accuracy.

Erixon continues to make strides as a teenager in a high quality, professional league. This suggests he’s already ahead of the development curve for most other players his age.

3. (2) Greg Nemisz, RW, 20
Drafted first round, 25th overall, 2008

Another first rounder, Nemisz was somewhat hampered this past season by a deep cut on his leg that saw him miss the last quarter of the year for the CHL champion Windsor Spitfires. The big winger managed 34 goals and 70 points in just 54 games during the regular season before the injury and was able to contribute two goals and 10 assists in 15 playoff games once he returned.

Nemisz has a strong all around game and can be placed in different roles based on need. He’s got an excellent shot and a good nose for the net. Concerns remain about his somewhat passive demeanor and relatively mediocre skating, but it’s hard to ignore a three-time 30 goal scorer at the junior level. Nemisz is turning pro this year and will be a fixture on the Abbotsford Heat.

4. (7) Mitch Wahl, C, 20

Drafted second round, 48th overall, 2008

No Flames prospect selected under the Darryl Sutter regime has equaled the 96 regular season point total garnered by Mitch Wahl in 2009-10. The Spokane Chiefs leading scorer combined with first-rounder Kyle Beach to form a deadly duo for their club and both finished amongst the WHL’s leading scorers.

Wahl’s greatest strengths are his vision and smarts. A center who is excellent at both ends of the ice, Wahl can distribute the puck on the power play and kill penalties. Not overly big or physical there is some concern he won’t be able to translate his game at the professional level. However, his 10 points in 16 games (split between the regular season and the playoffs) for Abbotsford this past spring suggest those concerns may be overblown.

5. (5) T.J. Brodie, D, 20
Drafted fourth round, 114th overall, 2008

Like Wahl and Nemisz, Brodie is a 2008 pick and will be turning pro this year
. The slick skating rearguard capped off a career season with the Barrie Colts in 2009-10, scoring seven goals and 56 points in 65 games. He also managed a near point-per-game pace in the post-season, gathering one goal and 15 points in 17 games.

Brodie is mobile with very strong puck skills and offensive instincts. His results have improved across the board since the Flames picked him in the fourth round and his progression suggests a much higher ceiling than what was originally projected for him. His primary weakness is one that afflicts most young players: size and strength. At 6’1 and just 175 pounds, Brodie will have to add some weight to his frame in order to be able to battle with professional hockey players, particularly in defensive zone situations.

6. (6) Ryan Howse, LW, 19
Drafted third round, 74th overall, 2009

Perhaps the best pure sniper selected by the Flames in recent memory, Ryan Howse’s 47 goal total was amongst the best in the WHL despite the fact that the Chiliwack Bruins were one of the worst clubs in the league. Howse led his team in all offensive categories and even added penalty killing to his repertoire this season.

Despite the apparent improvement in his all around game, Howse is still considered a mostly one-dimensional prospect. A good puck-handler with a lethal shot, Howse nevertheless doesn’t have the best vision on the ice and sometimes tries to do too much rather than find open teammates. He is also relatively small at 5’11 and 195 pounds, but doesn’t have the speed and agility typically expected of shorter pro players. In order to fulfill his potential, Howse will need to sustain his strengths while making strides in other areas of his play.

7. (4) John Negrin, D, 21
Drafted third round, 70th overall, 2007

Hailed as a player on the brink of breaking into the NHL by GM Darryl Sutter, John Negrin struggled through injury issues throughout his first pro season for the Heat. With five goals and 15 points in 45 games, he was one of the club’s leading scorers on the back-end before succumbing to both wrist and knee problems. He continues to rehab the knee this offseason and should be ready for training camp come September.

Negrin is a tall, mobile defender who is solid at both ends of the ice. He doesn’t have the kind of offense that would allow him to consistently quarterback a power play, but he can certainly contribute thanks to his strong skating and passing abilities. Negrin isn’t overly physical and probably won’t make the NHL as a shut-down defender. He could however develop into a solid, two-way defender who is able of complimenting a one-dimensional defensive partner.

8. Matt Pelech, D, 22
Drafted first round, 26th overall, 2005

Pelech is turning 23 years old in September and will be entering his fourth pro season with the organization. Unfortunately for the former first rounder, the parent club has no less than eight NHL incumbents stacked above him on the depth chart: Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Mark Giordano, Ian White, Cory Sarich, Steve Staios, Adam Pardy and Staffan Kronwall. As a result, Pelech will have to convince the brothers Sutter he is a significant upgrade over at least two of the listed players in order to have a chance at cracking the Flames roster out of camp.

Big and mean with decent enough mobility, Pelech’s quest to break into the NHL has been hampered by several factors: his ill-health, the Flames defensive depth and the league’s gradual movement away from large, defensive defenders. Pelech has no apparent offensive ability and tends to take more than a few penalties, so he’ll need to dominate in the area in which he excels: namely the defensive end of things. If he can stay healthy and continue to be one of the Heat’s top-two options on the back-end, he may be able to usurp the likes of Adam Pardy or the doddering Steve Staios this year. If not, he may instead be passed on the depth chart by some of the organizations up-and-coming blueliners.

9. (NR) Bryan Cameron, C, 21
Signed as free agent, summer 2010

Originally chosen by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the 2007 entry draft, Cameron was never signed by LA and subsequently passed over by other NHL clubs despite consistently putting up big numbers in the OHL. The relatively diminutive center managed 30+ goals in each of the last four seasons, culminating in a career best 53 goal total this past season for the Barrie Colts (a team high).

While Cameron’s results are impressive, there are significant concerns about his package of skills. Small at just 5’10 and 175 pounds, Cameron is also a relatively poor skater: a bad combination when it comes to projecting success at the pro level. A majority of Cameron’s goals came from battling in and around the crease, further concern for scouts who think that he may not be able to fulfill that role at the NHL level given his size.

Despite those issues, there’s no question that Cameron knows how to put the puck in the net, a skill the Flames desperately need in their forward prospects. Cameron will graduate to the AHL this year with others like Nemisz and Wahl, so his ability to translate his scoring touch at that level will be instructive.

10. (11) Keith Seabrook, D, 22
Trade with the Washington Capitals in 2009

Seabrook’s stock in the Flames organization continues to rise, despite the fact he is competing with a number of other strong, young players on the back-end. With five goals and 28 points, Seabrook tied with Staffan Kronwall to lead the Heat in scoring from the blueline during the regular season.

A forward earlier in his hockey career, Seabrook brings mobility and an offensive mindset. He can move the puck forward efficiently and patrol the point on the power play. His small stature (6’, 198 pounds) sometimes means he struggles to contain bigger forwards. He also tends to get lost in the defensive end from time to time, meaning he’ll need to firm up that area of his game in order to continue to move upwards on the depth chart.

11. (9) Leland Irving, G, 22
Drafted first round, 26th overall, 2006

Irving’s disappointing sophomore season sees him slip outside the Flames top 10 prospects. Originally considered to be Miikka Kiprusoff’s heir apparent, Irving’s total lack of meaningful progression as a pro suggests he might have a lower ceiling than that. Irving’s save percentage went the wrong dir
ection over the course of his junior career, starting at .930 in his rookie season and finishing at .919. His brief AHL career has followed the same script: a .912 rookie effort followed up by a .905 save percentage last year.

Irving is a calm, technically sound goaltender with a good pedigree. He also has a lot of time and opportunity to improve and won’t be asked to take the reigns at the NHL level any time soon. However, if a free agent signing outperforms him again this year, concerns about his viability as an NHL prospect will continue to grow.

12. (NR) Logan MacMillan, LW, 21

Trade with the Anaheim Ducks, 2010

Originally picked by the Ducks 19th overall in the 2007 entry draft, Macmillan was cast as a “two way forward” by scouts, one with a meat and potatoes game that would help him to become a capable pro. Unfortunately, Macmillan’s offensive abilities have almost completely abandoned him since his draft year. He would go on to appear in just 89 more games in the QMJHL over the next three seasons and would gather a mere 72 points over that period.

Macmillan was shuttled to the Ducks ECHL affiliate for his professional debut and he struggled to make a mark even at that level. He appeared in just 30 contests due to injury and discipline concerns (back spasms and a drunk driving charge). He gathered all of two goals and six points for the Bakersfield Condors and was subsequently loaned to Heat at the end of the season where he played in seven games (scoring nary a point).

At this stage, Macmillan is all about pedigree and potential. His results since his draft season are completely underwhelming and he has a history of injury problems. A solid enough checker with a good compete level, Macmillan will need to rediscover some semblance of an offensive game in order to be a prospect of any relevance to the Flames.

13. (13) Lance Bouma, C, 20

Drafted third round, 178th overall, 2008

A hard-nosed center with defensive instincts and the will to drop the gloves, Lance Bouma is somewhat comparable to ex-Flame Brandon Prust. In fact, the two played about the same number of junior games (176 and177 respectively), scored at a similar rate (0.59 versus 0.56) and both averaged triple digit penalty numbers. Bouma is bigger at 6’1 and 210 pounds and slightly superior offensive instincts and Prust was more of a fighter, but the similarities between the two are uncanny.

That’s a positive indication for Bouma. The organization is fond of aggressive players that can drop the gloves. Bouma was also the Vancouver Giants captain during his final junior season and was frequently asked to take on tough defensive tasks. So while his ceiling probably isn’t above third line grinder, there is a good chance Bouma will challenge for a NHL job eventually.

14. (NR) Max Reinhart, C, 18
Drafted third round, 64th overall, 2010

Thanks to a second-half outburst that saw his point-per-game pace jump tom .39 to .91, Reinhart was something of a late riser in the draft. The son of former Flame Paul Reinhart, Max’s vast improvement made him Calgary’s first choice of the 2010 entry draft (albeit in the third round).

Although it was an improvement in his offensive game that saw his stock rise, Reinhart is considered more of a two-way center. The seventh highest scorer for the Kootenay Ice in 2009-10 with 21 goals and 51 points, Reinhart is a decent skater with good vision and an ability to distribute the puck. He’s also a capable enough defensive player, although he’ll have to add some meat to his 175 pound, 6’ frame in order to play that role as a professional.

15. (14) Brett Sutter, C, 23
Drafted sixth round, 179th overall, 2005

Darryl’s son is the Flames only 2005 draft pick to see more than five NHL games thus far. He may press for an NHL job out of camp this season, although with Craig Conroy, Mikael Backlund and the newly acquired Ryan Stone ahead of him on the depth chart, it’ll likely take a number of injuries for his to crack the parent squad.

Sutter is a smart, tenacious checker and smart penalty killer. His lack of size and offensive prowess limits his upside and means he’ll likely remain an NHL ‘tweener for the rest of his career.

16. (15) Gord Baldwin, D, 23
Drafted third round, 69th overall, 2005

Despite being selected five years ago, last season was Gord Baldwin’s first as a regular in the AHL. Thanks to injuries to many of the Heat’s defenders, Baldwin skated a regular shift and was able to put up career bests in goals (4), assists (20), points (24) and penalty minutes (84).

A big guy at 6’5, Baldwin is a somewhat awkward skater who can struggle to contain faster opponents. Neither as mobile nor as aggressive as fellow draftee Matt Pelech, Baldwin projects more as a depth defender at the NHL level, should he ever make the leap.

17. (NR) Joey Leach, D, 18
Drafted third round, 73rd overall, 2010

Max Reinhart’s teammate led the Kootenay Ice in plus/minus this season with an impressive plus-33 rating. In his first full WHL season, Leach also managed three goals and 23 points, good for third most amongst Kootenay defenders.

Despite the decent offensive totals, Leach is projected as a pure defensive presence at the NHL level. Tall with a long reach and a will to take the body, Leach is strong and aggressive along the boards and likes to make life miserable for opposing forwards.

Like most big defenders, Leach’s skating isn’t his strong suit, although it showed signs of steady improvement over the past year. Leach will likely be a mainstay in the Ice’s top-four rotation for the next couple of seasons, giving him ample opportunity to develop.

18. (19) Joni Ortio, G, 19
Drafted sixth round, 171st overall, 2009

The only Finnish player in the Flames development system, Joni Ortio spent most of 2009-10 as a back-up goaltender for TPS of the Finnish Elite League. The youngster bounced between the parent club (TPS) and minor league iteration (TPS U20), playing a total of 19 games for both (16 of them for the latter). He also started for the Finland during the World junior championships.

Considered one of the best young puck stoppers in Finland currently, Ortio will be battling for the starting position in TPS this coming year. A bump to the number one role would do a lot to propel his development going forward.

19. (NR) Bill Arnold, C, 18
Drafted fourth round, 108th overall, 2010

The 5’11”, 218 pound Bill Arnold is a capable two-way forward like many of the Flames prospects. A product of the US National Development Team, Arnold managed eight goals and 23 points in 26 games in USHL last year.

Arnold was also the captain of the 2008 US U-17 Selects team and was named the most outstanding player of the Five Nations tournament after scoring seven points in four games.

Arnold is praised by scouts for his work ethic, strength along the boards and defensive acumen. His offensive game and skating are considered weaknesses. Arnold is headed to Boston College this coming season.

20. (20) Gaelan Patterson, C, 20
Drafted seventh round, 201st overall, 2009

The Flames final selection in the 2009 entry draft, Gaelan Patterson has been a pleasant surprise since his selection. With 26 goals and 59 points last season, Patterson placed fourth on the Saskatoon Blades in scoring. He also appeared in three playoff games for the Abbotsford Heat, tallying a single goal.

Although still a long-shot to challenge for an NHL job, Patterson has an above average touch around the net. He’s also rapidly improved since his first two WHL seasons, suggesting an unusually steep development curve which may have kept him off most scouts radars until later in his career.

Patterson will likely turn pro this year and will pressing for a job with Abbotsford.