Stocking the cupboard – assessing the Flames prospects

It’s no big secret that Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter isn’t the most popular guy in the world right now. Following the Flames’ 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night, the Flames sat 16-18-3, six points outside of the playoffs with most of the teams they’re chasing having games in hand.

One of the key weaknesses in the Flames organization has been drafting, scouting and player development. Currently, there are three Flames-drafted players on the team’s roster – defenseman Adam Pardy, winger David Moss and centre Mikael Backlund. If you want to be charitable, you can give the Flames credit for signing then-unheralded free agent defenseman Mark Giordano to a minor-league contract and then developing him into a bonafide NHLer.

Regardless, historically, the Flames’ Achilles’ heel has been their ability to fill the cupboard with prospects that could make a difference at the NHL level. In fact, it may have cost them the Stanley Cup in 2004 – riddled with injuries, the Flames iced young Brennan Evans on the blue-line during the latter stages of the playoffs (they were the only NHL games Evans has ever played).

With that said, the Flames have progressed a lot since 2004 in how they’ve drafted and developed players. With former Flames head coach Jim Playfair running the show in AHL Abbotsford and the Flames bringing in such notables as Hall of Famer Michel Goulet to help out with scouting, the cupboard’s not quite as bare as it has been in the past.

Under 20: Three of the Flames top four under-20 prospects can currently been seen on display at the IIHF World Junior Championships. Blueliner Tim Erixon (Stelleftea AIK, SEL) was the team’s last first round choice, back in 2009, and racked up a +5 rating in Sweden’s 7-1 trouncing of Norway on Sunday. He’s been playing with grown men in the Elitserien for the past season and a half and looked strong in the Flames prospect camp in July. Another 2009 pick, goalie Joni Ortio (TPS Turku, SM-Liiga) was named Finland’s best player in their 3-2 overtime loss to the Americans. Ortio plays with Miikka Kiprusoff’s club team and patterns himself after the Flames top goaltender. Finally, Team USA’s captain is 2010 draft choice John Ramage (University of Wisconsin, NCAA), son of former Flames veteran Rob Ramage, who’s emerged as the heart and soul of the American squad. A fourth talented teenager is winger Ryan Howse (Chilliwack, WHL), a late cut of Team Canada and fresh off a 47-goal campaign last year in the Dub. He’s continued to score at a torrid pace and dealt with the disappointment of not making Team Canada by signing a professional contract with the Flames.

AHL Rookies: Beyond recent draftees, a pair of junior players have graduated to the pro ranks and made a big impact in the American Hockey League thus far. Drafted in the first round by Calgary in 2008, Greg Nemisz won back-to-back Memorial Cups with Windsor and has emerged as a solid two-way player and scoring threat for the Abbotsford Heat. Defenseman T.J. Brodie made the Flames out of camp, played three games in the NHL and was sent down to get more ice-time in Abbotsford. Brodie’s actually second in scoring on the team, despite being a defenseman and playing fewer games than most of the team. Despite the scoring touch, Brodie is also one of the more dependable defensive players on a very young Abbotsord team.

AHL Veterans: Finally, a pair of players have used the challenge of being stuck behind tenured NHLers in Calgary as an opportunity to improve themselves. Goalie Leland Irving (the Flames first round choice in 2006) has bounced back from a shaky 2009-10 season that saw him bounce between the AHL and ECHL. Heading into post-Christmas play, Irving led the AHL in wins and minutes played and was amongst the league’s leaders in goals against average and save percentage. Irving has actually won more games already this season than he did all of last season. Meanwhile, former 2005 first rounder Matt Pelech has recovered from a handful of injuries over the past two campaigns – including a blood clot that sidelined him for much of last season – and racked up two goals and three points in eight games since returning from a shoulder injury. Not only that, Pelech’s much-vaunted mean streak, which has earned him comparisons to Flames veteran Robyn Regehr, appears alive and well.

With the Calgary Flames unlikely to make the NHL’s playoffs, it’s easy to point the finger at Darryl Sutter and blame him for everything. But those blaming him for the team’s poor development of young players are likely basing that conclusion on incomplete information – the cupboard isn’t bare right now down on the farm or in junior.