Flames’ Veteran Free-Agent Signings Shut Door on Prospect Opportunities

I always get super excited to see the young prospects get a shot playing in the big leagues. At various points of the truncated 2020-21 season, fans in the C of Red got a chance to witness Glenn Gawdin, Connor Mackey, Adam Ruzicka, Oliver Kylington and even the diminutive Matthew Phillips suit up and play some NHL hockey for the Calgary Flames.

Last season was a disappointing campaign that saw all of the depth players brought in on one-year contracts have very underwhelming performances. So, I was certain we might see one, two, or even three of the organization’s top prospects get a real shot at playing for the big club to start 2021-22. But, after an offseason that saw General Manager Brad Treliving bring a boatload of veteran bottom six forwards and depth defencemen, I’m not so sure we will see any of the young guns get a promotion.

Calgary Flames Recent Depth Signings Brad Richardson, Michael Stone and Erik Gudbranson
Calgary Flames, Brad Richardson, Michael Stone, Erik Gudbranson (The Hockey Writers)

While Treliving made a pretty big splash with the Blake Coleman signing, the rest of the moves he made this summer could be described as ‘shuffling in aging players’ in the hope something clicks. Outside of 26-year-old Nakita Zadorov, the average age of the seven other guys brought in via trade or signing is a whopping 30.8 years old. These are all veteran NHL players, and some of them have even played under head coach Darryl Sutter previously. Knowing all of this, do any of the Flames’ hotshot prospects have any chance to make the opening night roster? Let’s break it down, starting with the defencemen.

Mackey or Kylington Were a Lock to Make the Big Club – Not Anymore!

If you had asked me last week, I would have bet the farm that Mackey was about to get the nod on the Flames’ third pairing. I had him beating out veteran D-man and offseason signing Andy Welinski for a spot, but can he really move past recent acquisitions Erik Gudbranson and Micheal Stone on the depth chart? Gudbranson was just inked for $1.95 million, so I don’t think the team expects him to spend any time playing for the American Hockey League farm club in Stockton.

Erik Gudbranson Ottawa Senators
Erik Gudbranson, former Ottawa Senator (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Micheal Stone is like that bad penny that keeps turning up. Calgary actually bought him out in 2019, but they keep on bringing him back on league-minimum, one-year deals. And here’s the crazy thing – he keeps working his way back into the lineup. Last season, he played his way onto the roster 21 times, so I’m not counting him out this year either.

So where does that leave Kylington? The Swedish defender only got into eight games with the Flames last season, but after they re-signed the 24-year-old to another one-year deal, I saw that as a vote of confidence and had him penciled in as the team’s seventh defenceman. I think we can throw that theory out the window, with my new best guess telling me both Mackey and Kylington will start the season down on the farm, with Gudbranson on the third pairing and Stone as the seventh defenceman.

Gawdin Won’t Be Getting the 4th Line Center Job After All

Gawdin has been such a good soldier for the Flames organization. After three successful seasons of development playing for the Stockton Heat (standing out as the club’s best center), and seven games playing for the Flames in 2020-21, I was sure the 24-year-old was a lock for the vacant fourth line slot. I figured he’d be the perfect replacement for Derek Ryan, who opted to sign three hours up the highway in Edmonton. Well, I think we can also throw that theory out the window now that Calgary signed 36-year-old centerman Brad Richardson.

Brad Richardson Nashville Predators
Brad Richardson, former Nashville Predator (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last week the Flames inked Richardson to a one-year, $800,000 contract that reunites the Belleville, Ontario native with his 2012 Stanley Cup winning coach. After signing in Cowtown, the rugged center told the media he’s looking forward to playing Sutter-style hockey once again. (from ‘Flames’ free-agent signing Richardson excited to reunite with Sutter in Calgary’, The Calgary Sun, 09/08/2021)

“I think anytime you win with someone, you’re kind of attached to them for life,” Richardson said. “I had a good chat with Darryl. You know, everything with him is pretty straightforward. He’s a straight shooter. He tells you what’s up, obviously what he expects. And then having that history together, it was a pretty easy conversation.”

Brad Richardson, on signing with the Flames

So, with Richardson penciled in to skate up the middle on the fourth unit, that means Gawdin will likely have to keep waiting for his chance to become a full-time NHLer, but he’s not the only one who will have to remain patient. The Flames have a bunch of other really good prospects that thought they had a decent shot to crack the bottom six if they had a stellar training camp. They thought wrong.

What About Guys Like Phillips, Ruzicka, Pelletier or Zary?

I’ve already written a couple of articles praising Phillips and pushing for the Flames to give the small winger an extended look at training camp, but with the offseason moves that brought in Tyler Pitlick and Trevor Lewis to round out the bottom six, I think the little guy will have to hope for a rash of injuries to decimate the lineup before he’ll get a call up. That also goes for Ruzicka, the big Slovakian who is coming off a great year in Stockton and actually saw three games with the big club last season.

Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips (Marissa Baecker/Shootthebreeze.ca)

Before the plethora of moves made by Treliving this past summer, I was also thinking there was an outside chance that a couple of the true youngsters could get a real look at the Flames’ main training camp. I’m talking about 20-year-old Jakob Pelletier and 19-year-old Connor Zary, who actually looked pretty good when he suited up nine times for the Stockton Heat last season. Neither of these young players can expect to make the opening night roster, which I think will make for a pretty uneventful training camp.

Sutter Wants Players Who Will Buy Into His Brand of Hockey

Both Lewis and Richardson have won Stanley Cups with Sutter and know exactly what he expects of them, while Pitlick’s solid defensive style should also make him a good fit with the brand of hockey the Flames are expected to play in 2021-22. And we haven’t even talked about Brett Richie, who made the team last year on a PTO, was slotted into 32 games and was given a one-year contact extension in the offseason.

All of this makes it that much harder for a young rookie prospect to break through and prove to the coaching staff that he’s a better option than one of these recent depth signings. There’s an old adage that comes to mind when choosing between a rookie and a veteran player for a roster spot: “the tie goes to the vet”. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for any of the young guns to steal a spot in the lineup, but with the influx of proven NHLers coming to camp, it will be a very tall order indeed.

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