Flames Have Many Options to Retool Their Defense at 2020 Draft

The Calgary Flames have made the postseason in four of the past six seasons, including 2019-20. However, they’ve had limited success in their recent quest for the Stanley Cup, with only one playoff series win against the Vancouver Canucks in 2015. The team’s outlook is mixed; promising forward prospects like Jakob Pelletier and Mathias Petterson will eventually add to the Flames’ scoring depth, but the farm system’s defense needs an overhaul. The club must use the 2020 Draft to rebuild their defense if they want to return to the top of the league.

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The top NHL teams have a balanced roster with three scoring lines and several two-way players on offense and defense. On the contrary, Calgary is underwhelming in this regard. Their roster only has two scoring lines with two lines of almost no value. Their top-six defensemen are solid in the defensive zone but provide very little in the offensive third. Mark Giordano is the best blueliner, but he’s 36 and an unrestricted free agent in 2022.

Jakob Pelletier
Moncton Wildcats’ Jakob Pelletier (Courtesy of Daniel St Pierre)

His offensive contribution plummeted this season after his Norris-winning season in 2018-19. Scoring 0.95 points-per-game (PPG) helped him win the trophy and this season, he scored just 0.52 PPG. Not surprisingly, the Flames’ expected goals for with Giordano on the ice was a sparkling 71.3 last season but bottomed out at 39.0 in 2019-20.

The Flames’ defensemen contributed the 7th fewest standings points (3.6) from their offense (called offensive point shares) this season. That is almost three times less than the NHL leaders, the Nashville Predators (11.6) and Colorado Avalanche (10.3). Also, the Flames’ farm system lacks good defensive prospects after Juuso Valimaki, who is only 10 months removed from ACL reconstructive surgery in his right knee. Fortunately, the 2020 Draft is stacked with two-way blueliners who have NHL potential and who fit the Flames’ penchant for stockpiling stocky defenders over 6-feet tall. 

Calgary Flames Mark Giordano
Calgary Flames’ Mark Giordano (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

I’ve laid out the safest and riskiest defensemen targets for the Flames in each round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft in which they have a pick. There’s an exception in the 1st round as you’ll see in a minute. The safe picks are based on my evaluations and research. The reach picks are those that I’ve seen mocked on various sites with which I disagree. Finally, the numbers in parentheses are from THW’s Final Top 500 2020 Draft Prospect Rankings.  

1st Round – Pick No. 16 

Safe pick – Jack Quinn, RW, 6-feet, 176 lbs (15)

Reach pick – Kaiden Guhle, LD, 6-foot-2, 186 lbs (22)

The Flames will find themselves in a bit of a pickle in the first round if they decide to draft a defenseman. At No. 16, the club picks too late to land Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson, but too early to get good value if they select the third-best defender in the draft, Kaiden Guhle. Since the organization still needs to develop talent to ice an additional scoring line, it makes sense to select the strong goal-scoring forward Jack Quinn instead of Guhle. 

Jack Quinn Ottawa 67's
Jack Quinn of the Ottawa 67’s (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Quinn is a potential top-line sniper and not a player a team should pass on to draft Guhle in the 1st round or right winger Sam Colangelo in the 2nd, for instance. Granted, many of the best two-way defensemen in Guhle’s tier (Justin Barron, Braden Schneider, Joni Jurmo, William Wallinder) will likely be gone by the next projected Flames selection (No. 47), but Quinn is too special to pass up for a top-four blue line prospect. For what it’s worth, Calgary selected Jack Quinn in the 1st round of the THW Writers’ Mock Draft in May.

2nd Round – Pick No. 47 

Safe pick – William Villeneuve, RD, 6-foot-1, 175 lbs (62)

Reach pick – Tyler Kleven, LD, 6-foot-4, 201 lbs (76) 

The middle of the 2nd round is an awkward spot to draft a defenseman. The Flames will need to reach for projects if they want quality offensive upside from this selection. Jurmo, Helge Grans, Barron, and Guhle will be no longer be available at No. 47, and the club doesn’t have a 3rd-round pick. Villeneuve is a pre-draft riser who offers the Flames an exciting all-around defenseman.

William Villeneuve Saint John Sea Dogs
William Villeneuve of the Saint John Sea Dogs (Dan Culberson/Saint John Sea Dogs)

Villeneuve was the better half of Saint John’s top defensive pairing this season; Jeremie Poirier was the other. His skating is a little wonky but he’s great at changing direction and works well in transition. Plus, he’s got the size and defensive ability that the Flames covet. Offensively, he made huge strides this season; he was a revelation. In Sept. 2019, Dobber Prospects tempered expectations of his offensive ability:

Villeneuve is a decent two-way defenseman. He will make quality shots from the perimeter and completes smart and efficient passes in the offensive zone. Fans should not expect Villeneuve to be one of the more dominant point-getters in the QMJHL as he is far from a true offensive defenseman.

This season, Villeneuve led the “Q” in scoring among defensemen, with 9 goals and 49 assists in 64 games. That was a major improvement over his 2018-19 stats when he scored a single goal and added 18 helpers in 55 games. His impressive development shot him up the draft rankings into the 2nd-round conversation.

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Ideally, Villeneuve would join the Flames’ blue line in 3-4 seasons. By then, Erik Gustafsson and Rasmus Andersson could be the top defense pairing, allowing Villeneuve to develop next to a veteran shutdown defenseman like Noah Hanifin (LD). Juuso Valimaki and Villeneuve would also be an exciting duo for a decade.

Calgary Flames' Alan Quine and Rasmus Andersson
Calgary Flames’ Alan Quine and Rasmus Andersson. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Not as refined as Villeneuve, Tyler Kleven has a big projectable frame but he is still learning the nuances of the game. (from ‘UND commit Tyler Kleven working on adding offense to his punishing style,’ Grand Forks Herald, 04/06/2019) He’s taking his talents to the University of North Dakota next season to play with fellow 2020 draftee Jake Sanderson. He projects as a mid-3rd-rounder and is below Villeneuve in his development. If Calgary reaches here, they should reach for the better prospect.

3rd round – No Pick

Calgary traded its 2020 3rd-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Erik Gustafsson.

4th round – Pick No. 96 

Safe pick – Samuel Knazko, LD, 6-feet, 192 lbs (82)

Reach pick – Simon Kubicek, RD, 6-foot-2, 205 lbs (138)

The top U-18 Slovakian National Team defender, Samuel Knazko is the cream of the crop of the middle round group of two-way blueliners which includes Thimo Nickl (99), Kasper Puutio (100), Ian Moore (120), and Donovan Sebrango (142). Several of these players will buck the trend of not having productive NHL careers. Original Six Analytics found that, historically, ten years after a defenseman is drafted in the fourth round, he has scored only around 20 points in his NHL career

Knazko is a very promising polished two-way defenseman. He can do it all on offense without sacrificing effectiveness in his own zone. I think he is underrated because of the Slovakian national team’s limited success, but there are so many traits to love about his game. He could eventually replace Giordano as Calgary’s top offensive defenseman, though he’s more of a top-four NHL blue line prospect overall. 

He has exceptional hands, vision, and skating ability. He’s a two-way player who wants the puck on his stick and has the poise to maneuver his way through congested areas. In the clip above, he’s playing down low on the power play, cycling between screening the goalie and playing behind the goal line. His versatility makes him a very special player.

Kubicek in the early 4th round is a bit of a reach for the Flames who are better off moving away from this type of player. He’s a better fit for a club that needs a physical presence and a stay-at-home mentality. The Flames need players like Knazko who give up a little in size and checking ability for offensive versatility.

5th round – Pick No. 140 

Safe pick – Wyatt Kaiser, LD, 6-feet, 173 lbs, (119)

Reach pick – Marko Stacha, LD, 6-feet, 192 lbs (124)

The Flames have a big gap between their 4th and 5th-round picks, so there’s a good chance that 4th-round prospects that drop into the 5th will be unavailable by the time Calgary picks at No. 140. That’s not great news because, historically, a 5th-rounder only has a 1.6% higher chance of becoming an NHLer than a 7th-rounder. 

It makes sense for Calgary to target Wyatt Kaiser. He exudes intelligence with how quickly he analyzes situations and is rarely wrong gauging whether he should join the attack or hang back so as not to be caught out of position. Rasmus Andersson plays a similar game and could serve as an excellent mentor for Kaiser, possibly playing alongside him down the line since they have complementary handedness.

Kaiser will spend next season developing in junior with Dubuque in the USHL. In 2021-22, he will head to NCAA powerhouse the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the No. 5 ranked Division 1 collegiate team in the country this season. He could become a steal this late if he adds more substance to his offensive game, such as on the power play. He’s poised and very reliable, so he could develop into an asset on either special teams. I like that he’s already excellent with the puck across all three zones, so his fundamentals are down.

Stacha is another underrated Slovak with great skating ability. In fact, he and Knazko are the U-18 Slovakian National Team’s top blue-line pairing. I like national team players who play tough defense and have the fundamentals down, but Stacha is more of a late-round development project than a mid-round target. He has very limited offensive upside and would be a wasted pick here for a Flames squad who’s trying to inject offense into their defense.

6th round – Pick No. 171

Safe pick – Victor Mancini, RD, 6-foot-4, 203 lbs (137)

Reach pick – Pontus Johansson, LD, 6-foot-1, 170 lbs (210)

The majority of 6th and 7th-round picks are dart throws who could easily provide the same value as those who are undrafted. Around 85%-90% of players drafted in either of these rounds never play much more than a full season in the NHL over their entire pro careers. However, there are two late-round projects who I believe should hear their name called: Victor Mancini and Daniel Baker.  

Mancini is a big defender, already standing at 6-foot-4, 203 pounds. He ranked third in SuperElit goal scoring by a defenseman this season and has a cannon from the point. He’s a cerebral player and has mature instincts about when to use the body or the stick to disrupt attacks. His skating should improve this season as he returns to Sweden, and then he’s headed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2021-22. I think he has a lot of quality development ahead and is well worth a 6th-round pick. 

Although he is ranked the 51st European skater, Pontus Johansson has not produced to justify his ranking. He dropped from 39th in the mid-season rankings to 51 in the final ones, so there is some concern about his play. Interestingly, he (Djurgardens) and Mancini (Frolunda) played in the same league in 2019-20, the U-20 SuperElit. Mancini is six months younger and it was his first season playing at that level in Sweden, while it was Johansson’s second season.

Their teams finished 2nd in their division, Djurgardens (51 points) in the North and Frolunda (56 points) in the South. Johansson outscored Mancini by four points (18 to 14), but the American more than doubled the native Swede’s goals scored, 9 to 4. I think Mancini is going to outshine Johansson this season as he becomes more comfortable living and playing overseas. He’s the better prospect going forward.

7th round – Pick No. 202

Safe pick – Daniel Baker, LD, 6-foot-4, 183 lbs (215)

Reach pick – Michael Vorlicky, RD, 6-foot-2, 190 lbs (200) 

Baker has great upside as a blueliner project. It’s rare to find a skater with a big NHL frame who’s already an elite defender in the 7th round. Like Villeneuve, he had a meteoric rise of offensive production this season, co-winning his team’s Most Improved Player Award. Baker improved from 2018-19 when he scored 2 goals and 17 points to 13 goals and 38 points this season. Even if he doesn’t develop much offensively, he has the chance to earn a role as a bottom-pair defender in the NHL. Pretty good for such a late pick.

Michael Vorlicky plays for a bad University of Wisconsin-Madison squad, which is surprising given that NHL prospects Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte, and Dylan Holloway are also on the team. In mock drafts this spring, I’ve seen him taken in the early 7th round. Initially passed over during the 2019 Draft, I don’t think he will be drafted this season either. He was billed as a two-way player with great hockey IQ, but NHL Central Scouting didn’t see it. He was ranked as the 203rd North American skater ahead of the 2019 Draft and has been dropped entirely from the rankings this season.

Stockpiling Defensive Weapons

The Flames have a great opportunity to revamp their farm system’s defensive talent. The club will need to make shrewd choices to compensate for their less-than-ideal selection slots. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for players to drop to them because of where they pick in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th rounds. If Calgary opts for defense in the 2nd round, then they’ll likely have to reach for their target.

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Hopefully, the Flames use their 4th-round pick to select an exciting two-way prospect in Knazko. It’s possible that they walk away with three solid top-four blue line prospects who have strong two-way games, to potentially solidifying their NHL defensive corps for a decade once the draftees make the big league.