Before the start of the 2020-21 NHL season, I wrote an article about which Calgary Flames prospects would likely see some game action. By the Flames and Vancouver Canucks‘ season finale, all three prospects had made an appearance and one honourable mention. Glenn Gawdin, Connor Mackey, Matthew Phillips, and Adam Ruzicka played at least one game in the NHL this season, and all but Phillips got their first goal or point.
The organization doesn’t have a ton of exciting talent coming up the ranks, but this group may provide some new faces who could make a difference as soon as next season. There were some positives and negatives, but the hope is that at least one becomes a serviceable NHLer.
Gawdin played the most with seven games and one assist in a limited role. He only played over ten minutes twice in games against the Ottawa Senators. Other than that, it was hard to get a good read on Gawdin, who barely played seven minutes a night.
Per Evolving Hockey, Gawdin was among the lowest on the team in Corsi for (CF%) and expected goals for (xGF%) despite starting a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone. He played over 15 minutes with Joakim Nordstrom, Brett Ritchie, and Josh Leivo. A player like Leivo could help Gawdin continue to develop, and per via Natural Stat Trick, the pair had a 54.8 CF% and had more shots and scoring chances than the opposition. His single assist came in a game against Ottawa when he chipped the puck to a streaking Micheal Stone, who unloaded a slap shot past Anton Forsberg.
It’s a small sample size, especially when some nights he could only get six minutes of ice time, but if he wants to carve out an NHL career, he will have to get better. The Flames need to pair him with someone like Leivo to give him the best chance to succeed as his window as a prospect is closing quickly.
Mackey was making headlines in the prospect world as a highly sought-after free agent after he finished his career at Minnesota State University. He got his first shot at the beginning of February when he got into three games.
After a quick stint with the Flames, Mackey played most of the season with the Stockton Heat. In 27 games, he posted three goals and 13 assists which was an encouraging start to his pro career. All of his 16 points came at even-strength, and he had three multi-point outings.
In his first six NHL games, he collected three points and scored his first goal in the season finale after jumping up on the rush. According to Natural Stat Trick, he played 24 minutes with Rasmus Andersson, and the pair had a 64.6 CF% and a 50.9 xGF%, which is worth keeping in mind for next season. Mackey will turn 25 in September, which means he has nearly hit the end of the ‘prospect runway.’ He will need to make an impact in a third-pairing role if he wants to have a spot on the Flames next season.
Ruzicka found his legs near the end of the 2019-20 season before it abruptly came to a halt. But when the Stockton Heat were cleared to play their season in Calgary, he came out firing on all cylinders. In his second season with the Heat, posted 12 points in his first six games, which included four consecutive three-point games. He cooled off after that, but he finished the season with 21 points in 28 games to lead the team.
The performance earned him a call-up to the big club, and he played in three of the Flames’ four-game set against the Canucks. He looked fairly comfortable in a fourth-line role and chipped in a secondary assist on an Andrew Mangiapane goal after he won a battle behind the net and got it to Derek Ryan, who had the primary assist.
Ruzicka has speed and possesses a good shot, was on display in both the AHL and NHL. He may not project to become a star, but he has the tools and size to become a good middle-six player, and the 22-year-old still has some time to figure out his game at the pro level.
The Calgary native finally got his chance in an NHL game on Wednesday for the final game of the regular season. He couldn’t seem to contain a huge smile when he was seen walking out onto the ice for his rookie solo lap. Since his call-up last season in Arizona, when he got into the warm-up but didn’t play, fans have been championing for Phillips to get into a game.
Phillips’s height has loomed over his undeniable skill. Listed by the NHL as five-foot-seven, he is one inch shorter than one-time Flame Martin St. Louis and an inch taller than Flames legend Theo Fleury. All three players played in different decades, but if there is an era that suits small, skilled players, it’s this one.
Playing on a line with Ruzicka and Milan Lucic in his first game, the trio had a good showing. Facing Vancouver’s bottom-six, the line finished with a 62.5 CF% and 78.6 xGF%. They essentially outplayed their competition, generating more shots and chances. Phillips also nearly had his first NHL goal when he just missed on a cross-crease pass from Mikael Backlund.
Some Promising Talent in the Pipeline
The Flames don’t have a wealth of exciting blue-chip prospects, but it was encouraging to see some good play from their readiest rookies. Mackey’s performance put him ahead of the other three for a spot on the roster next season and will likely battle Juuso Välimäki for a spot on the third pairing.
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Since his days in Victoria, Phillips has shown that he has speed and skill despite his size. Over and over again, he has proven he can play in any league. The NHL is the next and final step in his journey, and playing on a line with Backlund and Mangiapane would be beneficial to his development and potential for success.
Gawdin will need to work on his game if he wants a spot on the Flames roster next season. The flat cap may keep some fourth-line spots open for prospects like him to play their way into. Ruzicka has more time than Gawdin to continue to develop and will likely play his third season with Stockton in 2021-22.
The Flames have nine picks in the first three rounds of the 2021 and 2022 NHL Drafts, and if they don’t add a roster player, they need to hit on at least three of those picks. The cupboards aren’t bare, especially with some prospects still in junior, but the organization will need to add if they want the core to remain competitive for seasons to come.
Brett is a freelance writer covering the Calgary Flames here at The Hockey Writers. He is an enthusiast of hockey stats and continues to learn every day about the sports analytics movement. Brett enjoys using both statistical analysis and the old-fashioned eye test in his writing to create the best content for readers. His work at THW has been featured on the Calgary Flames’ news feed for The Score and on Yardbarker. Brett is also part of THW’s Flames Faceoff YouTube/podcast show where he brings his opinions each week on the team’s current state of affairs.