With the turn of the year approaching and the smells of turkey dinner and socially distanced Christmas cheer upon us, let’s take a look back at how the Flames’ prospects have done through the first half of the season.
Overall, there were far more surprises than disappointments. The Flames’ best prospects were broadly their best prospects, their new prospects from 2021 put up exceptional starts to the year, and even those who started the year off on a weaker foot have come around in the last few weeks.
Having watched them closely for the first half of the season, we have broken down the top-10 Flames prospects of the first half of the season as well as two honourable mentions. This list is not broken down by who is closest to NHL ready, but by who has the highest ceiling at the highest level in our eyes to this point. Let’s break it down:
The Heat’s top defenceman has been excellent over the first half of the season, and Connor Mackey has taken strides in his development since his time in Calgary at the beginning of last season. The question still remains regarding his ceiling. He likely ends up as a bottom-pairing guy, but given he was a free agent signing out of college, that in itself is a win for this team.
Probably the biggest story out of this year’s draft class, Sergeev has been lights out in the USHL, boasting four shutouts and leading the league in every statistical category. The problem is it’s the USHL, and the road from here to the NHL is long still. Will he be as good next season in the NCAA? Maybe. Then will he continue to impress at the AHL level? Hopefully. However, the potential for a dropoff in production is there, so it is still far too early to think of him battling Dustin Wolf for the Flames’ starter job in the future.
The other real big surprise from this year’s draft class has been Jack Beck who has put up a great season for the Ottawa 67’s. With 17 points in 12 games, Beck has shown that he can play with the best in the league despite being a sixth-round pick. While he is currently nursing an injury, he has seen his value rise, and could prove to be a sneaky good pick for the Flames.
Yan Kuznetsov is a really interesting prospect in the Flames system. After two years in the NCAA, he signed his entry-level contract with the Flames, played a handful of games with Stockton, then was sent to the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL. This non-linear development has raised questions around his potential—could he be the elite shutdown guy the Flames expected when they drafted him or would he be more of a replacement defenceman who does better in a limited role—if he makes the NHL at all? Time will tell.
Without further ado, here’s the list of of the Flames’ top-ten prospects in 2021–22.
#10 – Ryan Francis
Like Kuznetsov, Francis had a really interesting year. He had an excellent training camp and followed that up with a few games in Stockton on an amateur tryout. However, he was good but not exceptional in a limited role, and was subsequently reassigned to Saint John.
Through 16 games, Francis has 21 points, over the point-per-game level but nowhere near torching it as a 20-year-old. On top of that, he hasn’t been exceptional on his team, floating around the top-nine of a deep Sea Dogs’ forward group. Some nights, he has absolutely looked electric, but others he has struggled substantially, not quite as good as he could be.
The road ahead from Francis probably means a couple of years in the AHL, where the hope is that he grows his game. From there, he likely tops out of a bottom-six guy who brings a ton of energy and scoring potential if he does end up developing as expected. A Paul Byron-esque player.
#9 – Glenn Gawdin
Glenn Gawdin is probably one of the most interesting prospects on the Flames’ roster. He is clearly very good at the AHL level, but the production at the NHL just has not been there. He has struggled in every look he has had, but then back in Stockton, he continues to be among the best in the entire league.
I think the realistic scenario for Gawdin is he ends up being a fringe NHLer. A bottom line centre who can play a reliable two-way game in limited minutes, but likely ends up splitting time between the NHL and AHL. Best case, he ends up as a bottom-six centre, who can play a little more often than not. I just cannot see him being more than that, although if he can be the guy to help the Flames’ other prospects improve their two-way game for the NHL, that in itself is a win for the organization.
#8 – Matthew Phillips
It’s hard to know what to make of Matthew Phillips. He looked phenomenal in his one game audition in the NHL then was nothing short of disappointing at camp this year. However, despite entering COVID protocol, he has been one of the Heat’s most productive players this season, and has been a staple on the team’s top line. Currently, he has received no love from the big club, as they just haven’t shown interest in giving him a look at this point.
While Ruzicka, Froese, and Gawdin all could fit on the team’s fourth line, Phillips is a nifty playmaker, who likely needs a middle-six spot. This just hasn’t been a possibility to this point, but depending on how this COVID outbreak ends up for the Flames, things can change quickly. How the Flames come out of their situation will have an immediate impact on Phillips’ place in the NHL. It’s an unfortunately bet to be making, but Phillips could be a perennial star in the AHL, or could be a middle-six NHLer—we just don’t know yet.
#7 – Rory Kerins
The CHL is a strong organization, and the OHL has historically been among the strongest of the three leagues. It is incredibly difficult to be among the top scorers in the league as a top pick let alone as a sixth-round selection, but Rory Kerins has been among the best this season. Over 1.6 points per game, Kerins has been absolutely torching it this season with the Soo Greyhounds.
From here, Kerins probably goes to Stockton this season, then likely needs a year or two of development to get his game to the pro-ready level. It’s a bit early to project where his ceiling is, but with his numbers as a 19-year-old in the OHL, the sky’s the limit at this point.
#6 – Adam Ruzicka
Of the three older Stockton prospects in the top-10, Adam Ruzicka is the most likely to develop into an NHLer. He has earned a call-up and has developed into a fine addition on the team’s bottom line, something that cannot be said for Gawdin to this point. Time will tell if he retains this role for the rest of the season, but he is clearly showing that he has more to offer at the NHL level.
The problem with Ruzicka is the same as the rest of this group: he likely tops out as a fourth line player who adds energy and grit with some scoring upside. He likely does not become much more than that. With most prospects not even earning a cup of coffee at the NHL level, this is more than could have been expected of Ruzicka when he was drafted, but is what leaves him at sixth in the rankings at this point.
#5 – Connor Zary
Zary has not had the start to the season that he, or anyone for that matter expected. After returning from an injury, he has recorded just sevenpoints in 15 games so far for the Heat, and has played primarily on the third line. This is a far cry from playing alongside Phillips and Ruzicka at the start of last season.
You can probably blame this on returning to game form and on transitioning to centre—something he did not do in his first Stockton stint. That said, don’t sleep on him yet. He has exploded in the last few games, with most of his production coming in the last three games. He is still an excellent player and someone who could easily develop into a top-six or middle-six centre or winger at the NHL level. If this happens, that’s a huge win for the Flames, but the road is likely a bit longer than some other prospects.
#4 – Jeremie Poirier
I don’t think there is a prospect in this organization who has taken as big of a step in his development over the last two seasons as Jeremie Poirier. The super offensive defenceman has done what many thought was impossible for him: learn to become an excellent shutdown defenceman. The Sea Dogs have helped him develop into probably their best defenceman at this point (Kuznetsov not included) and have done so without him losing his offensive mojo.
The Quebec-born defenceman is third among all defenders in scoring in the Q at this point and has earned every bit of his ELC. He looks more and more like a third-round steal for the Flames and someone that could be an impact blueliner for the Flames. While he probably does need a few years in the AHL, Poirier projects similar to Oliver Kylington—a middle-pairing offensive defenceman who can hold his own in all three zones.
#3 – Matthew Coronato
Everyone knew what Matthew Coronato could bring to the table and he has absolutely not disappointed to this point. The rookie plays on Harvard’s top line, top power play, and top penalty kill units, and has been a force in all three zones this season. What more can you ask from their 2021 first-round pick.
While he has not lit it up the way he did in the USHL last season, this is more due to bad luck and good goaltending than to his potential. He is the type of player that you just cannot take your eyes off of when he is on the ice, and he has an elite shot that is bound to go in even more in the second half of the season. The only reason he is third at this point is that his road is a bit longer than the other two prospects ahead of him, but Coronato looks to be an elite top-six winger in the NHL. Signing an ELC soon is definitely on his roadmap.
#2 – Jakob Pelletier
No surprises here. Jakob Pelletier is among the best players in the AHL right now despite being in his rookie year. The oft undervalued winger has blossomed even more since moving over from the QMJHL, and likely has earned a cup of coffee at the NHL level at this point. He projects to be an incredible top-six forward, probably airing more on the side of a two-way guy than just an offensive dynamo. Either way, that is incredible value for a late first-round pick.
#1 – Dustin Wolf
What more can you say about Dustin Wolf? He is having among the best seasons of all netminders in the AHL, and is having among the best season in recent memory for rookie goaltenders in the league. It may be a small sample size, but the 2019 seventh-round pick has looked elite this season. While he does not have a shutout to this point, he deserves all the praise in the world for being the Heat’s best player by a country mile in a season in which they have four of the best forwards in the league.
What sets him apart from the rest of the Flames’ prospects? He is making himself a part of the permanent conversation in Calgary as a rookie. The Flames have solid goaltenders in the NHL right now, but Wolf’s strong play is pushing the Flames to look to deal one of their NHL netminders probably much earlier than expected. This is no small feat for Wolf, but then again he has been quietly forcing his way into the conversation since he started in the WHL.
The Flames look to have something very special in Dustin Wolf, who looks finally to be the team’s Goalie of the Future. If he can play at the NHL level like he has in the AHL, the future looks very bright for the Flames.
A lot of good has been bestowed on the Flames this year when it comes to their prospects. If the Flames can return from their COVID pause and turn the tide to get back on the same winning pace as they were before, 2021–22 could be a huge year for the Flames in terms of successes from top to bottom throughout the whole organization. But rest assured, with the way their prospects have been playing this year, there’s plenty to get excited about.