With a brand-new season just around the corner and Flames general manager (GM) Brad Treliving in the thick of strengthening his roster, it’s time to consider which Flames prospects are “untouchable.” That is to ask, who are the young guns who would never be considered as part of a trade package?
A Prospect Defined
Let me begin by saying that very few prospects are truly untouchable. If a team’s need were great enough, all but the most elite players, the likes of a Connor McDavid or a Sidney Crosby, could and would be moved in exchange for essential talent. To wax cynical, almost anything is for sale — at a price. That’s especially true in the cut-throat business of hockey.
Before the howls of outrage start over who I left off the list of untouchables, let’s define a prospect. For the purposes of this article, it’s a player who was drafted and/or signed by an NHL team and is assigned to a farm team — typically in the American Hockey League (AHL) or the ECHL. Besides these minor leagues, draft picks could continue playing for the team they were originally drafted from in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the NCAA, the United States Hockey League (USHL) or various European Leagues.
Lastly, for our purposes, a prospect is further defined as a player who has played no more than 25 games with the NHL club with which they are signed. In my view, if they’ve played 25 or more games with the big club and haven’t earned a permanent spot on the roster, they simply aren’t untouchable.
While I don’t like to pick on any particular prospect in Calgary’s stable, a case in point is Oliver Kylington. Once considered a top prospect by many Flames fans, questions surround his future in Cowtown even though he seems to have won a reprieve after signing a one-year contract with the club earlier this month. (from “Kylington ready for expanded role after re-signing with Flames”, The Post, 10/08/2021)
The fact is Kylington was a Flames’ second-round pick in 2015, has played 95 games with the team, yo-yo-ing back and forth between the Stockton Heat and the big club, yet still hasn’t earned a permanent spot on the roster. How “untouchable” could he be?
Why “Untouchable” Prospect Lists Change
Fans of every NHL team have a list of prospects who they reckon are untouchable. They believe that every player on that list will one day become part of the very soul of the club. Woe be to any GM who dares trade them away.
Yet, the truth is that any team’s list of untouchable prospects can change for many reasons. Whether a team believes it has a shot at winning a Stanley Cup or that it must scrap what it has and rebuild will decide, at least in part, who remains on the list and who moves off. So, too, do the vagaries of the free-agency market, the expiration of contracts with roster players, injuries, personality clashes and team chemistry.
Most important is the development of the prospects themselves. Why do so many top draft picks never match the lofty hopes once held out for them by management and fans? Such tales are the stuff of Shakespearian tragedies.
So, here in the dog days of an Alberta summer, we ask who really are, at least for now, the Flames’ untouchables? The team has plenty of prospects, but only a handful can be considered a potential foundation stone of a Stanley Cup champion. What’s more, if the list is longer than five, then no real choices have been made about who truly is untouchable.
As of today, here are the five on my list:
This year, the 19-year-old centreman finished up his final season with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Kamloops Blazers and played nine games with the Heat where he notched three goals and four assists. He played on the farm team’s top line with Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Saskatoon boy is noted as a playmaker, as well as a strong passer with speed and a great wrist shot that he can release in a flash. He has a high hockey IQ and is a strong two-way player. He’ll bring those skills and his work ethic to a top-6 position either at centre or on the wing in what is expected to be a full season in Stockton.
Still, some feel he may have a shot at seeing ice time in Calgary depending on trades and injuries — especially Sean Monahan’s recovery from hip surgery this summer. While Glenn Gawdin and Ruzicka will battle for a spot at centre, Zary could come up the middle to steal a spot if he can impress in training camp. He will bear watching.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound centreman with Stockton has the potential to make the big club this season as a power forward. With the Heat last season he racked up 11 goals and 10 assists in 28 games, making him the team’s leading scorer on a per-game basis. He can skate, has a blistering shot and is tough to beat on faceoffs.
The Flames are not a big team. The winners of the Stanley Cup in the last three seasons — the St. Louis Blues in 2018-19 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last two — have established that size matters. Teams that get tossed around are worn down before they ever reach the Stanley Cup Final and Ruzicka will go a long way in offsetting that weakness.
One of the best goaltenders in the Western Hockey League (WHL), 20-year-old Dustin Wolf tends the twine for the Everett Silvertips. In the 2020-21 season, the young Californian had a dazzling 1.8 goals-against average (GAA) and a .940 save percentage (SV%). In the 2019-20 season, he won USA Hockey’s goaltender of the year award, the WHL’s goaltender of the year honour, as well as the Canadian Hockey League’s Goaltender of the Year Award.
While scouts consider him small at 6-foot, 165 pounds, he plays with an aggressive edge and is a good poke-checker who doesn’t shy away from coming out of the net to challenge shooters. He is a playmaker with the ability to make passes and play the puck.
The signing of Jacob Markstrom to a six-year contract last season probably cements his position as the Flames’ No. 1 goal stopper for most of the next five seasons. With the acquisition of Daniel Vladar sewing up the No. 2 spot for at least next season, I predict Wolf will have a few years to develop in the AHL before he competes for a spot in Calgary in the 2022-23 season.
Wolf is regarded as the Flames’ future when it comes to goaltending. Stanley Cups are all but impossible to win without unsurpassed performances in the net, and so far Wolf has demonstrated the ability to deliver just that.
The 20-year-old left winger was Calgary’s first-round pick in 2019. Last year while playing for the Val-d’Or Foreurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) he notched 13 goals and 30 assists for an astonishing 43 points in 28 games during the league’s COVID-19 disrupted season. Last year at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship (WJC) he was fourth in scoring for Team Canada.
At only 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Pelletier is considered small — he’s the same size as Johnny Gaudreau and we all know how that pick worked out for the Flames!) Yet scouting reports peg him as a great puck handler, playmaker and goal scorer in possession of exceptional passing skills.
A finalist for the QMJHL’s most valuable player award last season, Pelletier is headed for the Heat this fall. (from “Foreurs captain Pelletier finalist for QMJHL’s MVP award,” Calgary Sun 17/06/2021) Given how strong the Flames are on their left-hand side, it’s doubtful fans in the Stampede City will see him in a Flaming C sweater this year. Still, rosters age and trades are made. His day in Calgary could come in the next few years if he can take the next step from junior and answer the questions about his size.
The knock against the 23-year-old native-born Calgarian is that he stands just 5-foot-7 and weighs 150 pounds after a pre-game meal. However, the flexible centre/right winger is widely regarded as having a shot at making the big club this year after three seasons in Stockton. There, last season, he tied Ruzicka for most points with eight goals and 13 assists over 30 games.
Phillips is a pure playmaker who could bring an NHL-calibre finesse combined with speed and superb passing to Calgary this season. The boys in red need help on the right-hand side and he’ll battle Brett Ritchie to earn ice time there.
Here are just a few of the other prospects who many readers will argue should be included on a list of untouchables:
Glenn Gawdin, Centre, Stockton Heat, AHL
Connor Mackey, Defense, Stockton Heat, AHL
Luke Philip, Centre, Stockton Heat, AHL
Yan Kuznetsov, Defense, Stockton Heat, AHL
Mathias Emilio Pettersen, Centre, Stockton Heat, AHL
Johannes Kinnvall, Defense, Swedish Hockey League
Jeremie Poirier, Defense, Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL
Ryan Francis, Right Wing, Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL
Passionate debates over the composition of a list of untouchable prospects for any franchise can be heard in bars and living rooms across the country. Most of the time, it is all but impossible to defend why some players did not deserve to be on the list.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
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