Finally, the 2020-21 NHL season is around the corner. The Calgary Flames will open training camp on Sunday, with a 36 skater group and likely six goaltenders.
Very few players under contract have been able to skate in actual competitive games since the 2020 playoffs ended. Outside of the players who managed to dress for teams in the NCAA or QMJHL, nobody has played games in North America. Only a handful of players, the majority being prospects, were able to get into games overseas.
The most notable players who have player competitive hockey this year are the four Flames prospects who are currently playing at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton: Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, Yan Kuznetsov, and Dustin Wolf.
With the Flames signing Garrett Sparks to a PTO last week, he probably slots in as the sixth goalie leaving Wolf off the list. Kuznetsov has yet to be signed by the Flames to his entry level deal, and he still needs some more seasoning. He will be heading back to Connecticut.
The big question surrounds the two Canadians, with both playing very well in this year’s tournament. Both have signed their entry-level deals, and project to be impact NHL players down the road. There are compelling arguments on both sides of whether the Flames should invite them to training camp this season.
The arguTments against bringing them to camp
To be frank, the arguments against bringing Pelletier and Zary to camp are much more plentiful than those for.
With the maximum of 36 skaters allowed to come to the Flames’ camp, there already isn’t enough room for those under NHL contracts this season. The Flames have 37 players who should be in camp and will have to not invite one of them to satisfy the NHL requirements. If they also want to invite Pelletier and Zary, that’s just another two players who should be in camp that the Flames will have to omit from their list.
It’s not a great look when all offseason they’ve been focused on increasing NHL depth and making their roster more complete in every position. To now say that you aren’t going to invite players who will absolutely be playing professional hockey this year isn’t just a bad look, it’s not great planning for what could be a very weird and extenuating year.
Even this was a normal year, for either of Pelletier or Zary to make the Flames they would have to be truly sensational in training camp, probably among the best players at camp, period. The Flames’ roster is basically set, let’s be honest about that. Really the only way for them to make the team is to outplay many established NHL players in camp and show that they deserve to play in the NHL beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s a tall order.
For that to happen, they need to be dialed in, ready to go, and dominating from the minute training camp starts. Another issue there is that if Canada advances to the gold medal game at the World Juniors, that game would happen on January 5th, two days after Flames camp begins. Camp is already going to be shorter this year, and there won’t be any preseason games, so the window to impress is smaller right off the bat. If they also miss the first two or three days of camp? The likelihood of them making the team is incredibly low.
It just seems like there might not be a point in inviting them to camp. If they aren’t going to be selected to join the team anyway, why slot them in over pro players just to see them skate with NHLers for a week?
The arguments for bringing them to camp
The reason to bring the in to skate with NHLers for a week is that they deserve to be there.
Not only have both Pelletier and Zary impressed for Canada in the best junior tournament on the planet, but they’ve been growing in their roles as the tournament has gone on. They’re just a couple players who have played real games this year so to jump right into NHL training camp from the World Juniors makes a lot of sense. They’ll be fresh and ready to go, at a high energy level from the very beginning, and those fighting for bottom-six ice-time on the Flames will not waste any time trying to be better than these two kids.
If they’re good enough to be in camp, isn’t it better to get an up-close look at them over players that are longer shots to make the Flames like Eetu Tuulola and Justin Kirkland? Isn’t it better long term to see exactly where Zary and Pelletier are to better plan for their careers? If you’re choosing between players who project to play meaningful minutes in the NHL at some point and those who might crack the fourth line in a couple years, the decision should be pretty easy.
Seeing how these two players stack up agaisnt NHL competition, even if it is just in training camp, is a very valuable evaluation tool and can help the Flames address their long term depth and planning.
If they do perform well in camp and are on the cusp of making the team in a normal year, there’s also the option to keep them in the lineup for up to seven games for free, at which point the Flames can send both back to junior without burning a year of their contracts. If they end up being some of the best players in camp, which could very well happen due to them being fresh out of a competitive tournament and ready to play meaningful games, then you can see how they actually do in NHL games and make a decision then.
The only real risk is that the Flames would have to place a player like Joakim Nordstrom on waivers to start the season, but it’s unlikely anybody would claim him. Then you can rotate Zary and/or Pelletier into the lineup as needed and evaluate from there. The risk is low.
On top of that, there is a real possibility Zary plays in the AHL this year. Pelletier could go back to the QMJHL since it is still operational, but there is a lot of skepticism around whether the WHL will resume. If the league doesn’t start up again, Zary will likely be playing professional hockey in the AHL, and seeing how he does in a professional training camp is very important. As an AHLer, Zary would be eligible to be called up to the taxi squad like any other AHLer and that greatly increases the chances of him playing in the NHL this season.
Wait and see
The Flames will be announcing their training camp roster soon, and it will be interesting to see if Zary and Pelletier are on the list. It makes sense to invite both of them given how ready they are to compete for an NHL job, and it’s important not to be so rigid in your roster composition to allow players to exceed expectations and earn spots.
If Zary and Pelletier do end up in camp, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them both push extremely hard and fight to make the team. With how much practice they’ve had battling the best players in their age group from around the world, they could turn some heads at camp, even if they do get there two days late because of a gold medal bid.
Both have contracts, both are playing well, and both deserve a shot. Let’s see what happens.