It’s almost that time of year; hockey season is right around the corner and training camps are well underway. While there will be a multitude of fresh faces in town in new draft picks, trade acquisitions and signings such as Nazem Kadri, Mackenzie Weegar, and Jonathan Huberdeau, there will also be many familiar faces trying to stand out to Flames management.
The Flames also recently signed Sonny Milano, Cody Eakin and Michael Stone to professional tryout contracts (PTOs) to increase the competition in camp. With existing prospects seemingly having even fewer roster spots to work for this year than seasons past, some will have to work much harder than others and more arduous than they have before. Let’s have a look at a few of these individuals and provide some insight as to why they must up the ante.
Drafted 16th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft with high aspirations, the now 23-year-old Juuso Välimäki has had a significantly difficult path to NHL regularity. He lost the entire 2019-20 season to a knee injury and a high ankle sprain cut him to 24 games in 2018-19. In 2020-21 there was of course COVID and he also found himself healthy scratched or in the American Hockey League (AHL) much like he did in 2021-22 (from ‘Why was Calgary’s Juuso Valimaki assigned to the AHL and what comes next?’ The Athletic, Dec. 3, 2021). There simply isn’t space for Välimäki at the moment being that he is a left-shot defenseman that plays the left side. The Flames currently have Weegar, Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, and Oliver Kylington as full-time NHLers that can cover the left side of the blue line.
No one expects him to outperform the likes of those men, but a masterful showing in camp could set Välimäki up for the rest of this season in a few ways. He could secure the spot of seventh defenseman and be first in line for an injury replacement or his efforts could make someone else on the roster seem more expendable and give him an opportunity. He could also play himself into a trade to another team that can offer him a better playing situation. His play needs to silence the critics who see him as injury-prone, unworthy of ice time, or overpriced given his $1.55 million cap hit. Perhaps a team who is weak on defence would be more likely to take a flier on trading for him after seeing a solid compete level and some ferocity out of him in camp, or while filling in for an injured player later on in the year.
One roster section that the Flames do have questions in is the forward core, and more specifically the wings. The top six is pretty concrete with Huberdeau, Kadri, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, Andrew Mangiapane, and Blake Coleman. Players like Mikael Backlund, Dillon Dube, Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Kevin Rooney likely have roster spots locked up in the bottom six as well, leaving one opening on the wing.
There will likely be an intense battle for this spot and it will include AHL standout and the 26th pick in 2019, Jakob Pelletier. He lit up the league as a 20-year-old rookie last season for 62 points in 66 games, proving he belongs as a pro. He will be up against fellow prospects Adam Ruzicka, Walker Duehr and the recently-acquired Cole Schwindt among others. Not to mention the aforementioned players on PTOs and Brett Ritchie, who just re-signed with the team.
Pelletier would definitely benefit more from top minutes in the AHL rather than serving as an extra forward for the Flames, but surely he’d rather find himself in the top nine of the big club. He needs a strong showing at camp to prove he can hang with the big guys as well as beat out the PTO players, and if he doesn’t make it on the roster he must continue putting in the work and being a star for the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers. Coasting on the success of last year is not an option if he wants to be first in line to fill in for injured forwards and get NHL ice time, as there are many fellow AHLers younger and older that will desperately want that duty. “It’s on me to force their hand and to show them that I can play in the NHL,” Pelletier said in a recent interview (from ‘Flames prospect Jakob Pelletier ready to push for roster spot’, Calgary Sun, 9/15/22).
Connor Zary‘s first full professional season did not go quite as planned. After starring for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League and getting plucked 24th overall by the Flames in 2020, many suspected he would be able to produce right out of the gate. It certainly doesn’t help him that the aforementioned Pelletier broke out immediately. It also wasn’t beneficial for him to fracture his ankle while blocking a shot in September of last season, which started him off slow and helped limit him to 53 AHL games. In that time, he only managed to score 13 goals and 25 points with a minus-4 plus/minus rating, which was underwhelming to most fans. His path to the NHL roster in 2022-23 is likely closed barring an injury or two, but this season he needs to prove himself with the Wranglers.
Zary will likely be contending for top-line centre minutes with new signing Benjamin Jones and prospects Adam Ruzicka and Rory Kerins as the Flames are set with Lindholm, Kadri, Mikael Backlund and Kevin Rooney down the middle. He must assert his dominance with a solid on-ice product. A strong camp and a better start to the AHL season will help his critics forget 2021-22 and afford him more opportunities. Zary stated that he feels much better after doing a lot of physiotherapy in the summer while getting faster and stronger. Flames management undoubtedly still has immense faith in arguably their best centre prospect, but regardless he has to improve this season.
There are cases for many other players stepping up this year, but prospect-wise these men stand out amongst the rest. This season’s NHL roster is deep and uber talented which leaves little room for opportunity unless one creates it with immaculate play.
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Derek Olsen has a Bachelor of General Studies with focuses in History and English, and is now working on a Bachelor of Education. He grew up an avid sports fan and participant, but hockey has and always will be the most important to him. Eat, sleep, and hockey. Blood, sweat, tears, and hockey. He has a relative presence in the ever-expanding sports card industry and claims his collection will “be his retirement”. He is pleased to be able to write for The Hockey Writers and to cover the Calgary Flames.