With the first Battle of Alberta rookie game in the books, hockey is officially back in Calgary. While the big names have not hit the Saddledome ice yet, the Flames’ future stars are already in-game action, with guys like Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier putting on a show in the team’s 4–3 loss at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers’ rookies. Few if any of the players on the ice in last night’s game are ready for the NHL quite yet, but we wanted to know which Flames’ prospect is closest to NHL ready.
We asked and you answered!
What is most interesting about the results is how close it was between Zary and Matthew Phillips, a mere four percent between them. The other really interesting note is how far back Glenn Gawdin is from the other two. Let’s break it all down.
A former fourth-round pick, Adam Ruzicka was fine in his first season with the Heat but then exploded out of the gate last year. He was the only Stockton skater with more than 10 goals and tied for the lead in points with Phillips. He even got his first look at the NHL level, picking up his first-ever NHL assist, and while he only featured in three games, he looked decent at the NHL level.
It was a surprise that he did not receive more votes after his exceptional year, but given his performance seemingly coming out of nowhere, this makes some sense. What Ruzicka has going for him most is he is the most Sutter-esque player on this list. A big physical presence who works hard in the corners and plays a good two-way game is right up the Flames bench boss’ alley, and while the Flames do have a number of players that fit this mold, expect that he may be right near the top of the call-up list this year.
Going into last season, Gawdin seemed to be the Flames’ most NHL-ready prospect, and it showed when they called him up for seven games last year. The problem was that in his first looks in Calgary, he was absolutely cratered in, posting a 46.5% CF%, 41.5% SCF%, and a brutal 33.3% HDCF% in his time. Yikes!
These numbers did not endear himself to many, with some expecting him not to even become an NHL regular at this rate, however it feels like there is more to his game. One of the hallmarks of Gawdin’s style is his defensive responsibility, and expect that he spent a good chunk of this summer getting stronger and faster to help him adapt to the NHL game. A strong centre with two-way capabilities is something that the Flames could use, and Gawdin could be a player to push more experienced guys for an NHL roster spot. He is one to watch when main camp opens.
Zary is probably the most unique prospect in the Flames’ system simply because of how last season went. With the WHL shuttered for the first half of the year, he joined the Stockton Heat, and was dominant in his short stint with the team. He finished with seven points in nine games, good for 10th among U20 prospects in the AHL (minimum five games played). He then went back to Kamloops and put up 24 points in an injury-shortened 15 game season. Able to play centre or on the wing, Zary has high expectations on his shoulders for this season.
The problem for Zary hitting the NHL isn’t him; it’s the organization’s track record when they bring very young prospects up to the NHL. Sam Bennett was the case in point of the Flames getting too excited about their young prospect, then being unable to send him back for conditioning to improve his game at the AHL level. While Zary may get a cup of coffee at the NHL level, expect him to play the majority of the year with the Heat and continue to improve his game.
Phillips is probably the correct answer here. Not only has he been in the Flames’ prospect system for the last three seasons, but he has also been excellent for the team. Phillips tied for the lead in points last season with 21 through 30 games, and finished the season before with 33 points in 38 games, among the best points-per-game on the team. Not bad for the diminutive forward.
A hard-nosed forward, Phillips loves to play tight in the corners, and can hold his own against much bigger and stronger players. He also has dynamic vision and exceptional passing, allowing him to set up teammates for beautiful goals with passes that others may not even see. His style is a cross between the hard checking Andrew Mangiapane game with the playmaking and vision of Johnny Gaudreau. This bodes well for his future in the NHL.
Phillips also had an excellent NHL debut in the last game of the season and showed that he could be an impact NHLer down the road. He is also a right shot winger, something that the Flames have few of in their system, and someone who has a track record of scoring goals, something that the Flames have struggled with over the last few seasons. He feels like a player that could push for a roster spot on opening night.
Do any even have a shot this year?
The Flames have brought in a lot of new bodies to their NHL club, and seem to have an abundance of NHLers in their roster, however, it was the same story last year, with the Flames acquiring a lot of new faces to add organizational depth. GM Treliving was asked about playing young players last year and noted that they could either feel like the door is closed and not try hard at camp or they could push hard and blow the doors off for a spot in the NHL. Expect the same message to come out especially for these four prospects going into this season as well.
The big question mark in my mind going into this season is the Flames’ third line. They seem to have seven bona-fide top-six players in Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Blake Coleman, Mangiapane, Sean Monahan, and Mikael Backlund. Then there is Dillon Dube, who could probably become a top-six player this season, but then there is a drop-off with Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, Tyler Pitlick, and the rest of the crew vying for depth roles in the organization.
If the Flames want to have a heavy bottom-six, they have all the pieces to do that, however, if they opt for a more balanced approach, with a scoring first line, two-way second, then a depth scoring third line, similar to the Lucic-Bennett-Dube line in the 2019–20 playoffs, and a heavy fourth line, that third piece of that third line still feels open. A player like Zary or Phillips could slot right in to that role with ease and really force the Flames to make some tough choices with their lineup.
Do not count out the Flames’ young players. They have a ton to prove and could push for a spot at camp this year.