Will Saint John’s success carry over?

By Anthony Patrick

On the evening that the Saint John Flames clinch the Calder Cup, with a 1-0 victory over the Wilkes-Barrie Scranton Penguins, it only makes sense to look toward the future of the Calgary Flames and where they are headed. Will the club see an influx of talent from the farm next season, and will the success in the AHL translate into success in the NHL? Will the team find that their prospects are ready to make some of the veterans expendable to the point of allowing a deal to improve the top lines? What does the future hold?

With the St. John Flames winning the AHL Championship banner it might be easy to fall into the trap of thinking minor league success translates into major league success. It was pointed out by numerous people during these play-offs, that St. John did not possess the best talent of any team in the run for the Calder Cup. They didn’t have any superstars in the making, or any grizzled veterans to carry the team to victory. What they did have was a solid team approach to playing the game, an amazing chemistry in the dressing room, and an endless supply of heart that willed the team on through out the play-offs. All of this from a team that had an average age of 22. The amazing thing was that the team was lead in the playoffs by four young players, Sergei Varlamov (22), Daniel Tkaczuk (21), Steve Begin (21) and Derrick Walser (23). The only veteran to crack the top five scorers was Marty Murray (26). These young players came to play and proved their meddle through out the play-offs. That must bode well for the Flames in the long run, right?>

The Calgary Flames are indeed very fortunate. They have a very good minor league team and have been successful in developing players that end up in the NHL. Unfortunately the majority of those players have been muckers and grinders. The last top line player that the Calgary Flames developed was recently departed Cory Stillman. The Flames still have some quality young players in the tube, but where do they fit in the big picture for the team? Will they fill holes in the organization? Or will they be used as trade bait to get the players that will improve the team?

Oleg Saprykin is probably the most talented player in the Flames organization that is still considered a prospect. He has the complete package and could probably play on the top line in two or three years. Sergei Varlamov is a sniper who finally found his game this past season. He has the tools to play on the top two lines, but has to show that he deserves to be in the NHL. That will take time and effort on his part. Daniel Tkaczuk is a terribly under-rated player in my estimation. He plays at both ends of the ice and scores important points. He’s not top line talent but will definitely be a solid second line center. Rico Fata doesn’t appear to be the game breaker that some had predicted. He appears to be more like Todd Marchant or Paul Ranheim than Peter Bondra. He appears to be setting himself up for third line duty. Steve Begin is an annoying little cuss who throws his body at anything that moves and never says die. His example is an inspiration to others. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the offensive skill to play on anything but the third or fourth line. Derrick Walser is another player who found his game this past season. Like his team mate Micki Dupont, he’s a little on the small side. But with the performance of Brian Rafalski in the Stanley Cup play-offs this past season he might find a position open for him next year. Goaltenders Martin Brochu also acquitted himself very well this past year and might deserve a look-see come training camp. All of these players are worthy of a look come training camp, but do they have room available to them?

The Flames have some great young role players, and a lot of them. Clarke Wilm, Jeff Cowan, Ronald Petrovicky and Chris Clarke are all quality grinders. When you add fireball Steve Begin and lightning fast Rico Fata to the mix you have six very good players that can contribute on the third and fourth lines. Add in the veterans like Craig Conroy, Jason Wiemer, Jeff Shantz and Dave Lowry and the team starts to run into a numbers problem on the lower lines. You have ten players to service six spots. That is great player depth and might give Craig Button a body or two to swing in a deal. The story does look a little different on the top lines though.

On the lines where the scoring should take place the line-up looks a little on the thin side. Jerome Iginla, Marc Savard and Val Bure are the only players with the skill to play on the top two trios. Oleg Saprykin is still developing, and help may be on the way in the shape of Daniel Tkaczuk and Sergei Varlamov, but these three players still need time to develop their respective NHL games. There are three spots there for the taking, but do these young guns have the jam to seize them right now? I wouldn’t count on them just yet, but on the bright side those three players do add some much needed depth and allow for some flexibility in a potential deal. But it is very obvious that the Flames need a couple more veteran players that can contribute up front and make an impact on the scoresheet regularly.

On the blueline the Flames are fortunate to sport a quartet of young studs that any team would love to call their own. Derek Morris, Robyn Regehr, Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier give the Flames a rock solid foundation to build from. When you add in two quality prospects like Jordan Leopold and Kurtis Foster to the mix the blueline could be solid for years to come. Unfortunately these two young defenders are probably still three or four years away, and we need to bridge the gap until they arrive. Looking at the returning veterans the Flames have Phil Housley, Igor Kravchuk and Brad Werenka under contract. Will they be around to help out? Housley’s family is building a house in Minnesota, and there are rumblings that Phil will be moved to the Wild to be closer to his family. Werenka suffered a very serious concussion and may be forced into retirement. That leave Igor Kravchuk as the sole veteran incumbent. Derrick Walser could find himself seriously fighting for a position in training camp this fall. Beyond that it is obvious the Flames will be on the look-out for a veteran or two that can play.

In goal Martin Brochu completed an up and down season. He was the goaltender of record in the playoffs for St. John and carried the team through to victory in the Calder Cup finals. He deserves a serious look based on this performance. The big question is will Mike Vernon be back and force Brochu to bide his time in St. John yet again? It might serve the team’s best interest to move Vernon and make way for the continued development of the many goaltending prospects in the system.

As you can see there are many questions surrounding the team and its prospects. The spots that are available are not easily filled by the players coming up from the farm. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a young player like Tkaczuk or Varlamov to contribute on the second line in a big way. They need time in the NHL to find their respective games. But there is the catch-22 for the hockey club. The spots that are open are in positions that are potentially over the heads of these players. Does the team bring these players in and risk having another losing season while they learn the ropes? Or do they make a deal for some talent and then shift these young players down the line-up and let them develop at their own pace? It’s a very difficult question, one that Craig Button will have a very long summer mulling over.

What will Craig Button decide? Will the Flames be more successful next year than last? Will these young players make the team any better? All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but for now Flames fans can sit back and smile. The future may not be perfect, but it sure looks brighter when you have a championship minor league affiliate.

Note: It has been pointed out that Derrick Walser is an unrestricted free agent and will be able to field offers from all interested teams. Thanks to Aaron McCracken for pointing that out. Apologies for any confusion.