The 2021 Calgary Flames rookie camp got underway starting with fitness training and medicals at the WinSport facility. A total of 27 prospects and invitees have come to camp to show their stuff and to make an impact on the Flames’ coaching staff and management.
Today, prospects hit the ice for their first practice with the club. They will be competing against each other for playing time, opportunities on the ice, but most importantly for the right to stay in Calgary for longer. For some, their destiny this season is all but set, with many who play in the CHL or USHL almost certainly destined to go back to their original clubs, but they will be looking to show their parent club that they will be able to wear the Flaming C in a few years.
For the rest, the question becomes how high can they climb. Will they top out in the ECHL this season, the AHL with Stockton, or could they make a push for the NHL come October? Here are three things to watch for this week at camp.
1. Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary
Most of the attention at this year’s rookie camp is on the Flames two first-round picks who will be at camp. With both Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary present, there will be plenty of comparisons will be made about the two for better or for worse. Who looks better? Who is ready to make the jump to the NHL sooner? Who could be playing more minutes in Stockton this season? And so many more.
While fans and observers have seen both play independently in Val d’Or and Kamloops, respectively, and have seen both play together for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Championships, there hasn’t been an opportunity to see both suit up in practice for the same team outside of a tournament structure.
This will be a very interesting camp to watch both prospects. Both had very different years last season. Jakob Pelletier had a phenomenal year in the QMJHL, ending as one of the top scorers in the league. However, there are always questions around how players from that league adapt to the much more structured professional game.
Connor Zary on the other hand had a shorter season which was cut short by a concussion brought on by a bad hit midway through the season. However, Zary started last season with the Stockton Heat and was one of the team’s top players at the start of the season. Pelletier has not had the chance to play pro hockey as of yet, but being one year older and more defensively proficient, there is a lot to love about Pelletier’s game going into this season.
Both are expected to be standouts at rookie camp this week, but perhaps the bigger question will be how much ahead will they be than their teammates. Pelletier is in his D+3 season (third season after being drafted) while Zary will be in his D+2 year. Both were high picks by the organization, and the hope is both will be difference-makers on the ice at camp.
They will also have a lot of bodies to pass if they want to make a run at the NHL. They will both face a lot of competition for minutes in the AHL this year if they are not successful, with a number of newly signed players in Calgary this year. As Matthew Phillips mentioned when he was last interviewed by The Win Column: “You don’t go into Stockton and they hand you top line minutes and first power play time; you have to earn them”. Phillips definitely knows a thing or two about playing in the AHL.
Both Pelletier and Zary will need to work hard to earn those highly coveted minutes, but under the direction of new Stockton head coach Mitch Love, the duo will have opportunities to show where they are at in their development.
2. The rookie battle on the blueline
Flames general manager Brad Treliving has acquired a number of bodies so far this offseason, and whether you like the signings or not, there are going to be tough decisions on who to play where and how much this season. Assuming Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Rasmus Andersson, Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson, Juuso Valimaki, and Michael Stone end up in the NHL, there will be nine prospects competing for six regular and one alternate spot in Stockton.
You can knock off two of those spots for sure which will be for Connor Mackey and Oliver Kylington, unless either or both can force their way onto the Flames’ roster. From there the roster separates into three groups: the older veterans, the younger prospects, and the others. The older veterans are Nick DeSimone, Kevin Gravel, and Andy Welinski, all of whom have lots of AHL experience, and Gravel and Welinski both have NHL experience as well. Expect them all to be on the roster.
Then you have the younger prospects and players, which comprise Ilya Solovyov, Johannes Kinnvall, Colton Poolman, Koletrane Wilson, and Yan Kuznetsov. Solovyov and Kinnvall are both making the jump from Europe, with Solovyov coming in from the KHL while Kinnvall is coming from the Swedish SHL. Both are expected to make the Stockton roster.
Poolman spent last season in Stockton with decent not spectacular results. Wilson spent part of the season with Stockton, then spent the balance in the ECHL with Kansas City, with decent results. He will be looking to make an impact at camp to stay in sunny California.
Kuznetsov’s NCAA career was cut short after his second season with UConn, becoming one of just a handful of defencemen to sign their entry-level contract after their sophomore season. While he will likely stay in the AHL, he has also been drafted by the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL, and could be placed there for the season should he not be getting enough playing time in the AHL.
While not all of these players will be at rookie camp, how the younger players perform now will set the tone for how they slot in when the main camp opens next week. Keeping an eye on the blueline now will be key.
3. The future Flames depth chart
Prospects like Jeremie Poirier, Ryan Francis, Cole Jordan, and Cameron Whynot are not going to be playing for the Flames this season. However, this is an opportunity for all of them to make a name for themselves going into the season. At the last Flames development camp in 2019, Demetrios Koumontzis put himself on the map because of his phenomenal play that week. While he could not maintain his level of play through his college career to this point, he became a known commodity in the prospect pool as a result.
This season, the door is open for draft picks from last season and this to really stand out from one another at this year’s rookie camp. This is especially true this year with most prospects not having full seasons last year to demonstrate their hockey talent.
There are opportunities for all sorts of prospects to stand out. Whether it is someone older like Martin Pospisil who had his season cut short last year or someone younger like Rory Kerins. It may even be someone off-the-board like Koletrane Wilson who is coming off an impressive WHL career and looking to make his mark in pro hockey. To put it succinctly, the prospect picture for all teams—not just the Flames—got a major reset after the pandemic. Making a mark as a prospect now just became all the more important.
Prospect storylines galore
It’s a guarantee that someone will make waves at camp this year and inject excitement into the Flames prospect system. The Win Column will have you covered with everything that you need to know from rookie camp, the Flames’ main camp and throughout the whole season. Don’t miss a thing as hockey’s return for the 2021–22 season is going to pick up fast.