The upcoming season for the Calgary Flames is highly anticipated—how will they do with a full season with Darryl Sutter, how will they manage with Mark Giordano, and will they make the playoffs? There’s lots to watch for, but there’s more excitement in the Flames organization this year than just the main roster. Watching the Flames’ prospects develop this upcoming year will give a insightful glance into the future.
With a very full prospect pool playing across North America and around the world, this season is primed to be a big one for a number of players. At the top end, there are a number of prospects vying to make the NHL including Glenn Gawdin, Matthew Phillips, and potentially even Connor Zary. At the other end, the Flames’ newest prospects will be looking to get their name into the conversation for entry-level contracts sooner rather than later.
A lot of eyes this season will be stateside, with a number of flashy pieces trying to make a name for themselves. On the west coast, the players that do not end up in the NHL on opening night will be pushing hard for call-ups throughout the season. This includes guys like Martin Pospisil and Adam Ruzicka, who both had excellent seasons. On the East Coast, newly acquired first-round pick Matthew Coronato will be looking to translate his USHL success to the NCAA at Harvard University.
However, there are a number of players who are flying under the radar going into this season, but could all be primed to take huge steps forward in their development. Let’s highlight one underrated Flames prospect to watch from each league.
AHL: Johannes Kinnvall
The Flames have probably one of their best AHL teams on paper in a number of years. Between former first-round picks Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary joining up-and-coming stars in Mathias Emilio Pettersen, Dmitry Zavgorodny, and Justin Kirkland, this is a team that is very gifted offensively. This without even mentioning some of Phillips, Ruzicka, Gawdin, and Pospisil, and having Dustin Wolf fighting for minutes in the crease.
The one area which hasn’t been discussed enough is defense, where the Heat have a few question marks. With Connor Mackey hoping to be a full-time NHLer in Calgary, the Heat will need a lot from their younger defencemen. Enter the Swedish standout Johannes Kinnvall joining the roster.
A right-handed shot, Kinnvall has been incredible to this point in his time with HV-71 in the SHL. Just shy of a point-per-game in both last season and this, he has all the makings of being a premier offensive defenceman and power play quarterback in the NHL in a couple years, assuming he is able to acclimatize to the NHL ice size.
The big question for Kinnvall is his defensive play, which will need to take a stride forward in Stockton for him to get a look as a potential NHL option, but thankfully the Flames’ system has a way of finding and developing premier blueliners. With all eyes up front and on net, Kinnvall could quietly be a difference maker in Stockton this season.
OHL: Rory Kerins
While the Flames have drafted extensively from the Ontario Hockey League in the past, they only have two prospects playing there currently. And while there is a good deal of excitement about Jack Beck, the Flames’ 2021 sixth round-pick, the real story for this season will be how Rory Kerins does.
A left-handed shot, Kerins took a huge step forward in his development in his draft year, putting up 59 points in 62 games. This was good for ninth among U19 skaters in the league that year, and he finished third in 5v5 points among draft eligible forwards that season.
This year, with the OHL shuttered, Kerins was with the Stockton Heat in mostly an extra forward role. While he got a lot of practice with the pro-club, he only appeared in four games. This should not be an indictment of his play, as he only had two seasons of junior hockey under his belt at that point.
That being said, this is set up to be a big year for him. With an incredible sophomore year combined with AHL experience, expectations are that Kerins should be among the top scorers on his team as well as league-wide. However, he will have to shoot more to get to that point. Kerins finished with a whopping 28.3% shooting percentage two seasons back, and will need to be able to produce even when the puck doesn’t just go in for him. There are high hopes for the Caledon kid, here is hoping he hits them.
WHL: Cole Jordan
Like the OHL, the Flames only have two prospects in the Western Hockey League, but unlike the OHL, both players were drafted this past year. While Lucas Ciona did take strides forward in his draft season, the player to watch is undoubtedly Cole Jordan.
The left shot defencemen of the Moose Jaw Warriors has been heralded as one of the biggest draft day steals when the Flames nabbed him in the fifth round. With elite skating and incredible speed, Jordan has a lot of the underlying skills to be an elite defenceman at the NHL level. His resume currently includes some of the best underlying statistics in the entire draft class this year.
The big question for Jordan will be whether he can translate that into more points this year. While he did finish 12th among defencemen under 19 years old last year, he only had ten points in 23 games. With him being one year older and one year bigger, the expectations will be that he continues to grow the offensive side of his game.
QMJHL: Ryan Francis
The QMJHL is the league to turn to for Flames prospect development. With at least four, and if Yan Kuznetsov ends up joining the Saint John Sea Dogs—a distant but not impossible situation—then five prospects playing in the league, there is a lot to watch for. The big name to watch this season is obviously Jeremie Poirier, who took yet another huge stride forward last season, but it is his teammate who has the most to prove this season.
It was strongly expected that Francis would earn himself an entry-level deal this offseason and join the Stockton Heat after his 19-year-old season in Saint John. Having put up 50 points in 32 games last year, he finished sixth in points league-wide, ahead of Pelletier by some ways. However, unlike Pelletier, Francis will be back in the Q this season to help the Sea Dogs try to win the league and hopefully the Memorial Cup.
Francis will also have to keep growing his two-way game, which is already quite good but could use even more refinement. He will also need to continue working on driving play, as the majority of his assists were secondary assists. That being said, he is still 19, and does not turn 20 until the middle of December.
This will be a year where Francis will need to bring his best both on the ice, where he is expected to be among the top point producers in the league, as well as off the ice, where he will be expected to take on a leadership role mentoring younger players. The diminutive forward will have a lot to prove this year, but if he can continue to put up the types of points that he did last season, the future looks bright for Francis.
NCAA: Josh Nodler
Undoubtedly, all eyes this season will be on Coronato at Harvard University as he hopes to translate his success in the USHL to a very stacked Crimsons’ squad. However, overlooked south of the border is Josh Nodler, who quietly had a very good season on a tremendously poor Michigan State University team. The team finished with a 0.250 win percentage and had a goal differential of -38, but Nodler was one of just two players to finish even in plus-minus, and finished third on the team with 11 points in 27 games.
These are pretty unremarkable numbers on the face of it, but let’s add some context. All but two of these points were primary points, and he put up these numbers in spite of shooting a horrific 6.3% all season. Nodler only played about 14 minutes a night, and was tasked primarily with handling tougher minutes against better lines.
This will be Nodler’s junior year, and he will be looking to make a splash on the ice this year. If he is able to up his point totals on what one would hope would be a slightly better Spartans’ team, Nodler could find his way into the conversation for a contract as early as the end of this season. Don’t sleep on the former fifth-round pick.
USHL: Ilya Nikolayev
The Flames could have up to three players in the USHL this season, all of who would be Russians. So far the two confirmed joinees to this program are Arseni Sergeev, fresh from the NAHL, and Ilya Nikolayev, fresh from the Russian VHL. As interesting as Sergeev is as a prospect, Nikolayev is arguably the one with more to prove this season.
A highly-valued third-round pick, Nikolayev had a really strong first year in the MHL, but struggled to make as much of an impact in his second season as he moved up to the VHL (most closely comparable to the Russian AHL). He was subsequently cut, found a new home in Belarus, but then made the move to North America to continue his career this side of the pond.
A strong two-way option, Nikolayev has historically been compared to Patrice Bergeron in terms of style, but it will take a big season from him in Tri-City to show that he is worth investing in further for the Flames. If this season goes well, he could be looking at an entry-level deal and a call-up to the AHL next year, but if not, it may be back to Russia for the centreman from Yaroslavl.
Sweden: Emil Heineman
The Flames almost never trade for prospects, and have only one traded prospect in their system currently in Emil Heineman. With due respect to Lucas Feuk, this discussion was between Heineman and recently drafted William Stromgren, but with Stromgren at least a couple years from making the jump to North America, the eyes this year should be on Heineman.
An absolute hound with the puck, Heineman is a relentless skater with a wicked shot that can beat goalies clean. While his point totals do not jump off the board from last year, recording just 13 in 43 games, he did finish eighth among all U-20 players in the SHL (Sweden’s top men’s league). Not bad for a second-round pick.
A relatively unknown quantity at this point, Heineman will be looking to make his mark on the scoresheet this season. He already plays a North American-style game, which is demonstrated by his hard hitting and tough-checking nature, but will be looking to take another big step forward in anticipation of a call-up to Stockton as early as next season. He is one player to keep an eye on across the pond this season.
What happens next?
Training camps are underway in a number of leagues already, and some prospects have already started to get into game action. With eight new prospects to go along with their already established prospect pool, there is a lot to get excited about in the next few years. Here’s hoping a good chunk become impact NHLers in a few years.