The Calgary Flames are in a bit of a rut. The team went 0–3 on their road trip, and were outscored 16-6 in that time. Then they returned to the Saddledome and dropped a game 4–1 to the Ottawa Senators. With just six games played over the past calendar month, they have no rhythm to their game and are struggling in a few areas of their on-ice product.
The overarching theme from this time has been the team’s inability to get scoring beyond their top line. Of the six goals the team got on this road trip, three came from their top line, and two came from Blake Coleman—who has finally started to heat up after a slow start to the season.
It is clear that the Flames need an upgrade, but finding reliable scoring on the trade market is going to cost a pretty penny. The Flames are close to the cap ceiling, meaning that almost any piece that they bring in will require them to send money out the other way and they will need to attach a sweetener like a high draft pick to do so.
Calling up from Stockton
To get under the cap, they might have to—and quite frankly should do anyway regardless of cap implications—call up a player from the Stockton Heat. Darryl Sutter recently voiced his opinion on player development in the AHL, but the Flames would be amiss if they didn’t start giving opportunities to players that deserve it.
The Flames have a stable of prospects that are close to NHL-ready, each of whom brings a different toolkit and costs just their salary to bring up to the main club. Here are some of the prospects that they could call up and what they bring.
A college signee, Walker Duehr has been remarkably good for the Heat and the Flames over the course of the season. He has put up 10 points in 21 games, playing mostly in a middle-six role for the Heat, and has played in one game with Calgary, but did not record a goal.
Duehr plays a very similar style of game to Garnett Hathaway, a speedy heavy forward who likes to battle in the corners but can beat you offensively as well. The big difference between him and the rest of the Flames’ forwards is his skating, which is remarkably good for the role that he is expected to play. On top of that, he is solid in both ends of the ice—he’s not the type of player who will be irresponsible or will be cratered in defensively.
Is this footspeed enough for him to displace a Brad Richardson or Tyler Pitlick? Probably not at this point, but the potential is there for him to be called up should one go down with an injury. Duehr feels like a guy who probably is inches not miles ahead of what the Flames’ currently have in the lineup. If they go down a skater due to injury, he would be a good replacement option.
Once one of the top producers in the WHL, Glenn Gawdin was signed out of Swift Current in his overage season. Since then, he has developed into a reliable nearly point-per-game player for the Stockton Heat. He currently sits third in team scoring, just one point back of Matthew Phillips.
Gawdin has also played in a handful of NHL games between last season and this, with the hallmark of his game being his two-way reliability. The downside with Gawdin is that his two-way game, which has been so good at the AHL level, has just not been there in the NHL. Last season, he put up his first assist, but was sub-50% in nearly every stats category, including putting up a 39.3% xGF. Yikes!
This season through two games has been better, but he just has not been good enough to push anyone out of the lineup. Gawdin probably projects as a replacement level forward and playing centre is definitely a skill needed at the NHL level, but he probably is not good enough to push anyone out of the roster. He simply has not done enough to this point to justify a look until and unless they end up short of centres.
Pelletier has quickly become one of he Flames’ best prospects. Most expected that from him anyway, but his rookie season in the AHL confirms this. He sits second in AHL scoring to this point, and has been the Heat’s best forward option this season as a rookie. He has 31 points in 29 games this season, and has been a driver on the team’s top line.
Although he’s not a big player, Pelletier’s style is bigger than he is. He is unafraid to get into the corners, and has been very effective on the forecheck at breaking up rushes and forcing turnovers in the offensive zone. When he gets to dangerous areas of the ice, he has a shot that can beat goalies clean, and one that is hard enough to beat them from all over the ice.
Defensively, Pelletier is incredibly responsible and positionally aware enough to minimize chances against. This bodes well for his NHL future.
Pelletier is going to be in Calgary at some point, and he is almost certainly going to earn himself permanent NHL playing time. The question of calling him up is not an “if” but a “when”. Is now the time? I just don’t think so. If I’m the Flames, I want Pelletier to play at least a full AHL season this year and be among the best players in the league over the course of a year before he gets the call-up.
It is not worth calling him up until they have a role for him where he will succeed and grow. Throwing him onto the bottom line is not it. Pelletier’s development is exactly what Sutter was referring to when it came to his philosophy on call-ups.
But what Pelletier brings to the organization is going to pay dividends for them in the long-run. He is an incredibly good player, who plays an excellent two-way game at the AHL level. He may not acclimatize to the NHL immediately, as the gap between the two leagues is quite big, but he will figure it out and almost certainly will be a part of this team’s future.
Phillips has been one of the Heat’s best players over the last two and a half seasons. Game in and game out he puts points on the board while also being incredibly defensively responsible. Phillips is one of two Heat players above a point-per-game this season, while being the only Heat player in the top 10 of even strength primary points per 60 in the AHL this season. The other nine have already played in the NHL this season.
Aside from eleven minutes of ice time in the final game of the season last year, Phillips has not played in the NHL to this point in his career. Despite putting up among the best numbers in the entire AHL, Phillips simply has not gotten a look at the NHL level in Calgary. This may be due to his size, standing just 5’7″, but he plays much bigger than his size suggests. His one game last season showed that he is not a liability but an asset for this organization.
It is probably time to for the Flames to give Phillips a look, if for no other reason than to know exactly what they have in him. He has shown that he deserves one, and has seasoned in the AHL for the better part of the last three and a half years. He may top out as a replacement level NHLer, but until the Flames see him at that level with a sizeable sample, they’ll never know.
The one prospect who has already been called up with success is Adam Ruzicka. He has scored his first ever NHL goal and when in the AHL, he’s been one of the Heat’s best players this season. While he did start off slower than most to his AHL career, the power forward has been elite in the last season and a half en route to his call-up.
Initially in the AHL, I felt Ruzicka was a very good complementary player to the Heat’s top two skaters, but through his time in the NHL, he has been a driver in the bottom six and has earned himself even more ice time than many expected. He has even earned power play time, and has looked very good with this increased responsibility. His star has absolutely risen with this recent call-up, and barring a drop-off in his play or the removal of the taxi squad, he may be up for a while.
While it has only been five games, Ruzicka has impressed in his new home. The Flames will likely keep trying him in new roles until they find the best fit. He seems like he would be a good fit with Andrew Mangiapane and Dilon Dube, but time will tell.
The only problem is he probably is not enough to help solidify this team’s bottom-six. The Flames probably need more than just Ruzicka at this point, and unless they can do so or miraculously get Mikael Backlund and Sean Monahan going again, this season may not end the way that want. There are some great internal options available as well as all the ups and downs of the trade market, but something has got to give for this team.
Reconfiguring Calgary’s lineup
The Flames have to fix things if they want to see an extended playoff run. This team might be good enough to make the playoffs and win a round or two, but their current losing streak has revealed some potentially fatal flaws in their game.
While their approach to solving this problem remains to be known, there are a batch of players in the system that can be a part of the solution. Getting their roster scoring more goals across all lines is simply a necessity at this point. It helps them for every step of their roadmap: immediately to get out of the rut, for the rest of the season to get into the playoffs, and in the actual playoffs with depth scoring being more important.
Turning to their AHL talent has to be on the table. Whether the Flames go with Sutter’s approach to development or are cornered into making call-ups cause nothing else works, decisions will have to be made sooner rather than later.