While the 2021 NHL Draft is still a few weeks away, the recent CHL Import Draft added some real intrigue for Flames fans. At #22, the Saint John Sea Dogs selected Yan Kuznetsov, the Calgary Flames’ 2020 second-round pick.
This was a pick that came out of nowhere for many watching for a number of reasons. First, the Flames had just signed him to an entry-level contract after completing his sophomore season in the NCAA. He became one of the youngest NCAA defencemen ever to sign an ELC, and then had gone on to play six games in the AHL.
And while his time in pro hockey had some bumps—he did not put up any points in a minimal role as a 19-year-old—the expectation was that Kuznetsov would continue to grow his game in the AHL next season. This signing throws a curveball in what was the anticipated trajectory for Kuznetsov: going from the NCAA to the AHL then hopefully to the NHL. However, assuming he reports to the Q (and there is no guarantee that this plan will even happen), this may have upside for everyone involved. Let’s break it down.
Benefits for Kuznetsov playing in the QMJHL
For Kuznetsov, on paper this feels like a step backwards. He is going from a strong UConn team that was just on the outside of the Frozen Four Tournament this season—as well as playing against players in their 20s—to playing on a strong Sea Dogs team against players his own age and often younger. While it is hard to adjudicate actual competitiveness game to game, playing against younger players does not seem like the right move for him on the face of it.
But there are a number of upsides for him. First, the QMJHL is consistently talked about as a goalscorer’s league—one where players put up a lot of points and a lot of goals. For him as a shutdown defenceman, playing in a league of high-octane offence may be good for his development. Given both his size and strength, he would likely be playing on the top pairing in Saint John, and have ample opportunity to develop.
He would also be playing in a system that the Flames have a lot of connection to. Aside from Saint John being home to the last hockey championship won by CSEC, the Saint John Flames, the Flames currently have both Jeremie Poirier and Ryan Francis with the team. And while Francis may end up in Stockton next season, the team is also coached by former Flames’ bench boss Greg Gilbert, and has Jeff Cowan (who played a few seasons with the Flames) as an assistant. There are a lot of ties to the Flames that could help Kuznetsov grow his game.
It would also be a great match to have Kuznetsov, as a super defensive defenseman, paired with the offensively skilled Poirier. Their skillsets feel very complementary, and would give both an opportunity to grow from each other through junior. Poirier credited Coach Gilbert with helping him improve on the defensive end, that it feels like there are a lot of opportunities for growth if Kuznetsov joins the Sea Dogs.
Benefits for the Saint John Sea Dogs
What an incredible win it would be for the Dogs if Kuznetsov joined them, even just for this season. Given his age at signing, Kuznetsov would be eligible for the Q for this season and next season, however it feels unlikely that if he joins them, he would play his 20 year-old season in New Brunswick.
Kuznetsov would add a lot of value to the Sea Dogs team as they try to make a run for the President’s Cup this year. While they have some very good offensively gifted defencemen in Poirier and William Villeneuve, they could really use a defensive stalwart to help solidify the back end. Kuznetsov gives that to them in spades, having been the UConn Huskies’ top defensive defenceman and having played for Team Russia at the World Juniors last year.
Team President and General Manager Trevor Georgie echoed this in a news release, “We wanted a top two-way defenseman with size who can shut down the opposition. Yan Kuznetsov is that.” However he was quick to acknowledge that there is a chance that he will not join the team: “We do not have any confirmation of the Flames’ plans for next season and respect whatever they decide… It is a risk but for a big reward, and we were willing to take that risk.”
This is an enormous swing for the Sea Dogs, who opted to use their pick on a player who has a lower chance of joining their team. However, with the Flames wanting the best development for their young prospects, and the number of connections to the organization, it doesn’t seem impossible that Kuznetsov could join the Sea Dogs this fall. If he does, it would be nothing but good for them.
Benefits for the Flames
Kuznetsov is not NHL ready, and probably needs a good deal of refining before he is ready for heavier minutes even at the AHL level. The question becomes then, what is best for his development, playing on the third pairing of an AHL team, or playing on the first pairing of a QMJHL team? Are more minutes better than tougher minutes? Should the team opt to test the waters on him by playing him up the lineup in the second highest North American league or have him refine his offence on a QMJHL team with strong Flames’ connection? These are the big questions for the Flames.
Here is what we do know: if Kuznetsov joins the Sea Dogs this season, and plays less than 10 NHL games, his ELC slides for one year. This gives the Flames one more year of development for him, without having to worry about his RFA years at this point.
However, if he joins the Q and is clearly too good for the league—which is a real possibility for a player of his talent—he cannot be brought into Stockton as it is against the rules of the CHL-NHL Transfer Agreement. This is a major risk, as the Flames clearly felt that signing him to an ELC after his sophomore season that he was clearly good enough for pro hockey. Moving him to the Q then will be a bit of a step backwards.
There is always a chance that after the six games this season they felt he wasn’t ready for the pro game and needed more refinement, and since he has signed a professional contract, he is not eligible to go back to the NCAA. Having him play with the Sea Dogs may be a way to rectify this decision, and help him grow in a league that prioritizes offense.
Finally, the Flames do have a lot of bodies that will be competing for minutes between the bottom of the NHL roster and the AHL roster. Without a taxi squad, and with a number of players on the roster, there may be a logjam on the blueline. It feels like Juuso Valimaki is probably in the NHL for good, but Connor Mackey and Oliver Kylington both had up and down years this year in the NHL. Either could fill a role in Stockton. On top of that, the Flames also have Ilya Solovyov and Johannes Kinnvall joining the Heat this season.
Best case scenario for Kuznetsov, all three of Valimaki, Mackey, and Kylington are in the NHL next year, and he ends up in a second pairing role, but more likely he ends up on the third pairing, playing minimal minutes and fighting against older and more experienced players for a chance to move up.
This could be detrimental to his confidence and would give him a limited on-ice role this season. Of course, you cannot expect to give a prospect fresh out of college top line minutes and first unit power play opportunities, but you do need to give him an opportunity to succeed. Starting a second-round pick on the third pairing in Stockton does not necessarily do that unless there is an opportunity to grow his role as the season wears on.
More possibilities for Kuznetsov
Whether the Flames end up using Kuznetsov’s option to play in the QMJHL or not, it gives them a lot of flexibility with where to play him. And while they cannot move him back from Q to the A, they can always start him in the A and move him over if the fit isn’t right yet. It is always good to have options, and having a guy hear his name called in a draft is always a special thrill. Ultimately, the Flames will do what they think is best for Kuznetsov, whether it may be in Saint John or in Stockton.