We have reached the point of the season when games matter for lottery odds and pride, with little else to care for. The Calgary Flames have just two games remaining on what was a forgettable 2021 NHL season. Very little went well for the team, and now they’re pretty close to locking in their lottery odds somewhere within the range of 11th through 13th odds, depending on if they pass the Arizona Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Flames’ prospect usage
In spite of this, it has been nice to finally see the Flames playing some of their younger players. From Glenn Gawdin getting back into the lineup to Adam Ruzicka featuring in his first NHL game, the Flames have seen some good things from their rookie forwards. On the back end, the Flames have showcased Oliver Kylington of late while playing Juuso Valimki intermittently. They have also made room for Connor Mackey to draw back into the lineup. Let’s break down how they’ve done and what’s next for each player.
Gawdin is the player that seems to have the most natural role in the Flames’ system—drawing in as the team’s fourth line centre. What is interesting is that the Flames have a number of players who are able to play centre, but elected to go with Gawdin in this spot. High praise for the rookie who’s definitely earned his reps.
And in this role, he hasn’t been terrible. Although his underlying numbers are all below 50%, his PDO is incredibly low, suggesting that he is simply not getting the bounces when on the ice. Gawdin has been training with the team for a good chunk of the season now, being elevated to the taxi squad a while back. In his 20 games with the Heat, Gawdin put up four goals and 9 assists, good for sixth on the team but having played ten fewer games than some of the Heat’s skaters.
Gawdin will likely be trying to secure his hold on this roster spot for next season. Barring him being selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft, this spot is likely his to lose. For the Flames, Gawdin is found money (having been signed out of the Swift Current Broncos after putting up a 125 point season) and has been more than worth the signing up to this point. The big question is his ceiling. He already looks like a good fit on the fourth line, but questions remain how much higher up the depth chart he can move. Something to watch going into next season, especially with no real certainty on the changes the Flames will make over the offseason.
Ruzicka had a decent first NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks. He played just over nine minutes in his first game, and threw a big hit that lead to the first Flames goal by Josh Leivo. He did not make it onto the scoresheet, but he did not standout either positively or negatively in his first game.
For Ruzicka, the goal is to try and get into the conversation for a spot in the NHL. A strong power forward, he has demonstrated his skill at the AHL level, putting up a team leading 21 points in 28 games, but has only recently bloomed this season. The question is whether this success is an anomaly or the beginning of something great. The hope, obviously, is that it is the latter, but time will tell as to how good he can be at the NHL level.
He will likely feature in the Flames’ final two games, so keep an eye on his play. The good news is that he is exempt from the Seattle Expansion Draft in two months. This gives the Flames a free chance to see what they have in their first ever Slovak-drafted player without risking him performing well and being claimed by the Kraken.
While he has not featured yet at the NHL level, he’s getting to the point where he is overdue for a look. Phillips put up 21 points this season with the Heat while playing in all 30 of the team’s games. The problem for Phillips is that he is now eligible for the expansion draft. While he has excelled at the AHL level, there is no track record for how he will do at the NHL level as of yet. If he performs well at the NHL level in the final couple of games, he would be an easy pick for the Kraken in expansion. However, if he has no NHL experience, Seattle picking him could be a huge gamble as you simply do not know how good he could be.
The Flames are not going to protect him in expansion over Dillon Dube or Mikael Backlund, so it likely does not make sense to play him in the team’s final two regular season games. While this must be incredibly frustrating for the diminutive forward who just wants to make it to the NHL, this is likely the best move forward to ensure he can play for his hometown team, ideally as soon as next season.
This is probably the most interesting of the Flames’ decisions in the final few games. With nothing left to play for and with Valimaki not eligible to be claimed in expansion, the Flames have taken him out of the lineup instead of removing veterans like Michael Stone. Coach Sutter commented on this last week and said the following:
“He’s 23 years old. We have a really young defense. You take Gio and Chris [Tanev] and Stoney out for that, you’re playing three really young guys. He’s in the same age group as Rasmus [Andersson] and Kylington and Connor [Mackey], they’re the same age group, They’re going to play their 15, 16 minutes a game when they get in, and hopefully they get in back to backs, and that’s what you want.
He’s played a lot of games and a lot of hockey this year. Irregardless of where he was picked and irregardless of injury and all that, there’s an experience factor there and there’s a development factor and who he’s on the ice against factor. His game-to-game preparation and game-to-game consistency, it all comes into it. He’s a really young player with lots of growth. So, what’s he got to do? When he gets in there, just get in there and play, that’s all.”Coach Darryl Sutter
There’s a lot in here, but the gist is that he has played a lot of games this season, and while sometimes he just has not been good enough, he has the skills to get better and when he does he will play. This has been pretty evident from his performance this season. Valimaki has featured in 67 games this season spread between playing with Ilves in Liiga and of course the Flames. This amounts to the second-most of any player in the entire North Division over the course of the season. It has been a long season for the Finn, and expect as a rookie, this season has been especially tough.
On top of that, his consistency has been an issue. While he has been quite good for stretches of the games he played this season, sometimes it felt like he would take his eye of the puck or make an errant pass that would end up in the back of the Flames’ net. This is normal for a rookie, but at some point it needs to stop happening as often. It seems likely that he will feature in the Flames’ final two games this season, and there’s no reason not to believe that he will continue to be an NHL regular next season. His contract negotiation this summer will be very interesting in terms of how the Flames choose to pay him.
Kylington seems to be stuck. He has clearly shown himself to be too good for the AHL, but not quite good enough for the NHL. He has hung around the Flames team all season, training with the main roster and the taxi squad, but has only featured in eight games this season. Not great for a rookie defenceman who’s still in search of his first goal of the year.
Perhaps most difficult for him is that he is being passed by fellow rookie defenceman Connor Mackey, an undrafted college signee. Like Victor Mete moving from Montreal to Ottawa, Kylington may be better served by a move to another market, and that move may be to Seattle. He seems like the most likely candidate for the Kraken to select, and someone who would fit right in on the second or third pairing of the Kraken’s defence.
While this is obviously sad for Flames fans, who have followed his career since being drafted in the second round of the 2015 draft, it is probably the best move for everyone. The Flames keep Phillips and Gawdin, the Kraken get an NHL calibre defenceman, and Kylington gets the playing time he needs to really determine what he is. Expect him to feature in one, if not both, of the Flames’ final two games, if nothing else than to give the Kraken one more look at why they should select the smooth-skating Swede.
In his first few games with the Flames earlier in the season, Mackey looked, well, not great. This after receiving warm praise from his coaches and captain Mark Giordano going into the shortened season. Expectations were sky high for the college product, with some expecting him to challenge for the full-time role at the NHL level.
That was not to be. Mackey struggled to make an impact in his first few games, and was sent down to the Heat, where he put up 16 points in 27 games. What’s more, it felt like his game got better with each game he played with in the AHL, growing into his role both offensively and defensively. While he has featured in one game since being recalled, he did not really stand out positively or negatively. Given he is exempt from the Seattle Expansion Draft, he can also be a player to close by playing in the final two games.
Looking to the future
There’s a lot of takeaways here for how the Flames are managing their prospects at this point in the season. Truth be told, there’s little focus on the Flames or Canucks at all as the 2021 NHL Playoffs are well underway. However, these are still NHL games and as hard as it is to play out, these are professional players and they’re aware of the eyes that will definitely still be on them, whether from the Flames’ management or even other teams.
With just two games left, these games are now closer to being exhibition level games, and for these young prospects, that’s almost exactly what they need to make their mark. There’s little to no pressure remaining for anyone at this point, not to mention the atmosphere of closing out of regular season while every other non-playoff team is done for the year.
Finding some extra minutes for their prospects is pretty much the only good thing the Flames have remaining for them, so both the teams and the players should make the most of it. Goodbye 2021 regular season, you won’t be missed.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images