Mixing in youthful energy, skill and speed with veteran savvy, grit and experience will be a fine line for the Calgary Flames as they begin preparations for the 2019-20 NHL season.
With rookie camp set to open, there are a few prospects who could dazzle, get invited to main camp in a few weeks and take a run at an opening-night roster position. Think it can’t happen? Look no further than centre Dillon Dube who unexpectedly made the Flames last year as a 20-year-old based on his extremely strong camp and preseason performance.
Although he had limited success — 25 games, 1 goal, 4 assists — in a sheltered third/fourth-line role, the exposure Dube had to the best players in the world was invaluable for his development. He was eventually sent to Calgary’s AHL farm team, the Stockton Heat, where he was a valuable and productive player (15 goals and 24 assists in 37 games) and his progression suggests he may be ready to play full-time with the big club this year. Flames head coach Bill Peters will have to show patience and trust with a younger player such as Dube as he hones his craft in the NHL. (from ‘What to Expect From Dillon Dube,’ The Athletic, 06-19-2019)
The path may not be as clear for many other Flames’ prospects this year. Outside of injured 21-year-old defenseman Juuso Valimaki and still-unsigned RFA forward Andrew Mangiapane (23), there are only a few younger skaters who have an outside chance of cracking the roster. It’s not hard to see why.
A quick look back a few years shows that trading for defenseman Travis Hamonic in 2017 (for a first-round pick in 2018, second-round picks in 2018 and 2019, as well as forward Curtis Lazar, himself a 2017 second-round pick) depleted the Flames’ farm substantially.
Throw in trades for goalies Mike Smith (2018 third-round pick) and Brian Elliot (2016 third-round pick, 2018 third-round pick) and the cupboards get really thin.
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General manager Brad Treliving has been trying to bring in more experienced players, either through trades or signings, for quite some time. That has come at a cost. Elite young prospects simply aren’t in the Flames’ system right now, although there are high hopes for 2019 first-round pick Jakob Pelletier down the road.
Still, the Flames hit paydirt drafting core players Johnny Gaudreau (fourth-round, 2011), and Sean Monahan (first-round, 2013) as well as 22-year-old RFA Matthew Tkachuk (first-round, 2016). They are also still nurturing the development of Sam Bennett (first-round, 2014) who has played in the NHL since he was 19, but has still not matched his potential from junior.
This is not an especially old team, with Norris Trophy-winner Mark Giordano the eldest at age 36. Only five others are over 30 (Michael Frolik, Mikael Backlund, Milan Lucic, Derek Ryan and Cam Talbot).
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The question Treliving has to address is, how willing are the Flames to play their younger players in more meaningful roles this year? They took it on the chin in the playoffs last season because there simply wasn’t enough playoff experience from the veterans and maturity from the young guys to handle the intensity. Not lost on others is the fact that the lower-ranked Colorado Avalanche (who beat Calgary) didn’t have much experience either and simply outplayed the Flames.
Colorado took their lumps playing their young players for three years — and it is now starting to pay off. Calgary does have some decent young players that are already on the roster. Maybe it’s time for Peters to give them expanded roles, use their speed and skill and reduce the older players’ ice time slightly so they can act more as mentors and stay fresh for the playoffs.
Play the Young’uns
As the Flames progress through the season, the coaching staff could gradually start to lean more on their younger players to match other teams’ speed, while maintaining a small core of veteran leaders who can keep them grounded.
The pain of losing in the first round of the playoffs should act as a great learning tool for these younger players. Bennett, Mangiapane and Dube could stand to be given more ice time (even on the second power-play) so they can progress and contribute more as their confidence grows. It could also take a bit of stress off the Flames top line if they cultivated some more secondary scoring.
On defense, young players such as Valimaki, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington are all in line to become everyday players this season. Andersson could even see some duty on the top pairing with Giordano this year if his play keeps improving. Noah Hanifin is still only 22 years old.
In net, both Tyler Parsons and Dustin Wolf are being groomed to take over eventually. Parsons will see a lot of playing time in Stockton this season and the recently-drafted Wolf will go back to junior for at least another year.
Now is the time to see what they’re all really made of.