Flames’ Darryl Sutter Negating Opportunities for the Prospects

It is now getting into the thick of December and the NHL is past the quarter mark of the season. The Calgary Flames find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in as they have had an underwhelming season to this point. There are many concerns and places to improve, but one that can be helped is the forward group.

The Flames have the best line in the American Hockey League (AHL) on the Calgary Wranglers, but none of them have gotten the call to even get a sniff in the NHL this season while the Flames have struggled to score. The forward lines have been messed around with often to get a number of different forwards going, but it has been a struggle.

Darryl Sutter, the Flames’ head coach, has always preferred the veteran over the younger player. That is clearly showing this season. Seeing what is going on in the AHL with a number of the Flames’ prospects, that will need to change fast.

Prospects Lighting It Up for Wranglers

As far as prospects go for the Flames, they have a few very good ones who have either taken big steps forward or are playing well enough to get the call to the NHL. These players include Matthew Phillips, Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, Ben Jones, Cole Schwindt, Radim Zohorna, and Jeremie Poirier. Six of those players are forwards while six of them are also prospects. Poirier is the defender while Zohorna is on the fence of being a prospect anymore.

Phillips has been exceptional in the AHL this season and is leading the league in points with 30 in 20 games. He has 15 goals and 15 assists. Tied for ninth in the league is Pelletier with nine goals and 23 points in 20 games. Then there is breakout player Zary with eight goals and 21 points in 20 games. These three are the most impressive considering they should be considered big pieces for the future of Calgary.

Matthew Phillips Calgary Flames
Matthew Phillips, Calgary Flames (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

The other four prospects mentioned above are also having great starts to the season. Jones came over to Calgary after spending the last five seasons as part of the Vegas Golden Knights organization. He was their seventh-round pick in the team’s first draft year. It took the 23-year-old until last season to finally break out in the AHL, but he now has five goals and 20 points in 19 games for the Wranglers and is still young enough to get better and be a potential NHL player in the future.

Schwindt was acquired alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar and has been solid this season, scoring six goals and 13 points in 18 games. Zohorna, the 26-year-old, has five goals and 16 points in the first 20 games, while rookie defenceman Poirier has three goals and 16 points. I’m just mentioning Poirier since he’s off to an impressive start, not because he has any chance to play for the Flames this season unless there are a ton of injuries.

Sutter’s Comments Don’t Bode Well for Prospects’ Opportunities

Sutter was asked by Salim Nadim Valji about the possibility of recalling Phillips since he leads the AHL in goals and points while the Flames have struggled to have consistent scoring.

Related: Flames in Desperate Need of a Scoring Forward

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The first question asked from Salim was, “Matthew Phillips is coming off of a pretty impressive month on the farm team. Have you looked at the farm as sort of an option maybe to add a little bit to your group right now?” Sutter replied with the same energy he normally approaches every question from the media with, “So are we talking about the farm or are we talking about Matthew Phillips?” Salim explained how the fans are curious when Phillips will get a shot in the NHL. To this point in his career, the 24-year-old has played one game and a total of 14:19 in the NHL.

Phillips is approaching the age where it is time to make a decision on him. He hasn’t been given the fair shot in the NHL to judge whether he can handle it while he is proving to be too good for the AHL. He isn’t just showing this talent either as he has nearly been playing at a point-per-game pace since 2019-20, scoring 15 goals and 33 points in 38 games. The Wranglers’ forward also scored 31 goals and 68 points in 65 games last season and didn’t earn one game in the NHL.

Darryl Sutter Calgary Flames
Darryl Sutter, Head Coach of the Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sutter didn’t hold back regarding the comment on curiosity for Phillips, saying, “Yeah well you were curious about it three years ago, so you can keep your curiosity.” He continued with, “I’ve watched the farm team live more than I have at any point since I’ve been here… there’s a big difference between the American League and the NHL in terms of production.”

Prospects aren’t expected to produce at the same level they do in the NHL as they are in the AHL, but eventually players must make the jump. It may take time, but young players then learn how to transition to the quicker and more skilled play of the NHL and start producing. If there are any prospects in the entire AHL that are ready or close to it, the Wranglers have three of them. The young players the Flames need to give a chance don’t have to come in and play at a point per game or on the first line. But they would likely be able to produce more than the likes of Milan Lucic and Kevin Rooney who have combined for six assists in 42 games.

If the Flames want to be a playoff team, they need more than just a few players contributing. But with Sutter in control of who he is putting in the lineup every game, there’s no guarantee one of those prospects who deserve to be called up will even play. He is acting as a gatekeeper and favouring veterans rather than the future. It hasn’t worked great so far this season and a change should come.

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