There are plenty of reasons to look forward to next season if you’re a Calgary Flames fan. The opening night roster will look immensely different than the last, given the losses of longtime Flames Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk as well as the additions of Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar, among others, this offseason. Gaudreau’s number had been called 602 times for Calgary and Tkachuk’s 431, so it will be strange not hearing their names again unless they line up against the team as opponents. Next to Huberdeau and Weegar, the team will be stitching new nameplates onto a couple more jerseys for 2022-23, including Massachusetts native Kevin Rooney as well as Quebec-born defensemen Nicolas Meloche.
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But what about the young guys? The Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League (AHL) and the Kansas City Mavericks of the ECHL currently house Calgary’s non-NHL talent and have provided over 40 games of player service when called on by the big club. There are still holes on the roster as it stands, and surely those spots will be filled by the start of the season, but by whom? The team has many tantalizing prospects in their system as it stands, and perhaps it is time for one or more of them to get their shot with the Flames.
The Flames’ development camp just wrapped up, giving brass an inside look at what they have to look forward to in the future. Some will be given another chance to impress at the fall training camp that doesn’t have an official start date yet. For now, let’s take a deeper look into the younger members of the Flames organization that could don the flaming ‘C’ this upcoming campaign.
Dustin Wolf, Goaltender
Undoubtedly the brightest gem shining in Stockton, Dustin Wolf was voted by his peers as the best goaltender in the AHL last year, winning the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award. He was also named a first-team all-star and given all-rookie team honours. He looked superhuman many times throughout the season, stealing and/or saving games for the team on a regular basis. The 21-year-old hails from Gilroy, California which is a mere two-hour and 15-minute drive from Stockton, and won a gold medal for the United States at the 2021 World Juniors. He played junior hockey for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he also won Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Goalie of the Year in 2019-20 and WHL Goalie of the Year, twice.
It could be argued that Wolf is the best goalie not in the NHL, though perhaps some fans of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League would have something to say about that. His numbers don’t lie, however. In fact, they pop off the page as his 33 wins in 47 appearances led the AHL, and his 2.35 goals-against average and .924 save percentage are certainly enough to warrant a higher level of respect. Heck, he even chipped in with four assists on the campaign. He got to dress for two games in Calgary last season as a backup, but unfortunately never got any playing time. With Jacob Markstrom firmly entrenched as the starter and the worthy Dan Vladar as backup, it will be tough to get him reps next season. Unfortunately, it will likely only come if the Flames decide to move Vladar or one or both of him and Markstrom spend time on the injured list next season. Simply put, he is too good not to be in the NHL next year.
Adam Ruzicka, Center
Next up on the list is towering centre Adam Ruzicka. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Slovak got into 28 games with Calgary last year and impressed both management and fans with his play, as he put up five goals and five assists in a fourth line role, averaging only 10:13 of ice time per game. He was pretty responsible for a rookie too, having a plus/minus rating of plus-8, only committing four penalties as well as giving away the puck only 11 times. He also controlled puck possession in his limited ice time which was made evident by his 57 Corsi For percentage.
One area that Ruzicka could use a little extra work in is the face-off department, where he won only 46 percent of his draws. This is historically an area of struggle for young centres, however, and shouldn’t worry fans as not many players win face-offs at a high percentage right out of the gate. He should have the inside track on the same fourth-line centre role, though a player like Rooney might give him a run for his money. Should fellow centre and longtime Flame Sean Monahan remain on the injured list to start the year, both players may be fortunate enough to find themselves as members of the opening night lineup.
Ruzicka may even be given a more expanded role, as he can certainly drive play offensively. He put up 196 points in 189 games in junior hockey, making him look like a steal as a fourth-round pick in 2017. All in all, it would be a surprise if we did not see him playing with the Flames in 2022-23.
Jakob Pelletier, Left Wing
Not many predicted Jakob Pelletier to have the first pro season that he did. In 66 games with the Heat he erupted, scoring 27 times and adding 35 assists for 62 points which placed him second on the team and 17th in the league. Everyone knew he was a dominant offensive force after watching him tear up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for four seasons from 2017-18 to 2020-21, but translating to the pro game usually involves more growing pains. His play earned him a spot alongside aforementioned teammate Dustin Wolf on the 2021-22 AHL All-Rookie Team, and not to mention broke Mark Jankowski’s team record for points by a rookie by six points.
With wing depth being one of the biggest problems on the Calgary roster as it stands, Pelletier has a very solid chance of getting a roster spot. Especially if he plays as well as he did last season during the team’s upcoming training camp. However, general manager Brad Treliving and company may make the tough decision to give him another season of conditioning in the AHL and go with a more veteran winger given that he is only just 20 years old. Like Wolf, he is likely too good to not be in the NHL next year and will be a player to watch regardless of what jersey he is wearing.
Connor Mackey, Defence
The current top defensive prospect for the Flames has to be Illinois native Connor Mackey. The 6-foot-2 blueliner already has a combined nine NHL games under his belt, suiting up for the big club in both 2020-21 and 2021-22. The 25-year-old is a mobile, steady defender that is responsible in his own zone and makes a great first pass. He’s also not afraid to mix it up a bit, finding himself in the top 50 in the AHL in penalty minutes with 83. Calgary snagged him as an undrafted free agent after playing three seasons for the dominant Minnesota State University program, and the move has and will continue to pay them dividends.
Mackey’s 36 points in 53 games ranked him 16th league-wide among defensemen, and he interestingly led all of them with two shorthanded goals on the year. Additionally, in his nine NHL games, he’s already crossed off scoring his first goal and adding three assists to boot. Defense is probably the strongest aspect of the roster for the Flames as of now, and like Wolf, he will likely only get to play for Calgary if one of the six regulars goes down with an injury or is traded. His name will be high on the list to cover any openings on the back end, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him dressed as a seventh defenseman and going in and out of the lineup.
Matthew Phillips, Right Wing
Last but certainly not least is homegrown Calgary boy Matthew Phillips. A sixth-round draft pick of the Flames back in 2016, he has plied his trade in the AHL for the last four seasons. He suited up for a lone NHL game in 2020-21, going scoreless but certainly not looking out of place by any means. After all, he’s notched 161 points in 199 AHL games, and was a prolific scorer in his junior days for the Victoria Royals of the WHL, with a whopping 281 points in 215 games. His last season was his most impressive yet, leading Stockton with 31 goals and 68 points in 65 games. The 24-year-old just re-upped with the squad signing a one-year contract worth $750,000 and will likely be trying to play himself into a much larger contract in the future.
One reason to like Phillips’ odds is his size; 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds gives him a tremendous amount of speed and agility which he uses to create his offence. Perhaps he could replace some of the speed lost with Gaudreau and Tkachuk’s departures, but to hold him to the same offensive standards as them would be quite unfair. He will most definitely be motivated to stick with his hometown club for the upcoming season, and as said with Pelletier, wing depth is very much needed. Who’s to say he wouldn’t flourish in a top-nine role alongside a player like Mikael Backlund, feeding passes to the gritty Blake Coleman, or perhaps even sharing the ice with AHL linemate Pelletier?
To sum it up, the Flames have done a wonderful job in the drafting, scouting, and player development aspects of the game. This is made evident due to the success of the team built in Stockton, and to the players on this list as well as the many others that don’t appear on it. The team’s future is in good hands, and hopefully, we see these players wearing Calgary sweaters in 2022-23.