The Calgary Flames will add two more Memorial Cup winners to their team in Yan Kuznetsov and Jeremie Poirier whose Saint John Sea Dogs took home the top trophy in the CHL. After not winning a single round of the QMJHL playoffs this year, the host Sea Dogs went 2–0–1–0 to take top seed in the tournament and earn a bye to the finals. They then beat Mason McTavish and the Hamilton Bulldogs to win the toughest trophy the junior hockey.
While the Flames have let Ryan Francis’ rights elapse, they got phenomenal production from both Poirier and Kuznetsov. Each finished with a goal and two assists through four games, and both goals were big ones for the team. Let’s break down both players’ run and what they bring to the Flames organization next season.
This was by no means a coming out party for Poirier, but in a lot of ways that was the best part of his tournament. He quietly had himself a very excellent tournament, capped off by a fantastic power play goal. The Sea Dogs went a brutal 2-for-14 on the man advantage through the tournament, but this goal from Poirier was a huge one for the team. Take a look here:
In a different year, Poirier would have been in the slot already preparing for that pass, but what was particularly impressive was how defensively responsible he was throughout the tournament. He was rarely the player going up to pinch or driving up the ice on the zone exits. When he did pinch, by and large he was in the right place at the right time. More often than not, he was the last man into the offensive zone as Kuznetsov roamed up to create zone entries—and was the first man back into the defensive zone too.
It is hard to overstate just how cool this is to see. Poirier was drafted as almost a pure offensive defenseman, with some going so far as to say he would be a better winger than a defenceman. His plus-minus in his draft year was among the worst in the entire league at -25, but this year he finished an incredible +30, inside the top-40 in the league and 13th among defencemen. He has noticeably improved in this regard, and it will make a world of difference next season as he transitions to the AHL.
This was also evidenced in his offensive totals, where he put up 57 points in 67 regular season games, good for seventh among blueliners in the Q. It was expected that he would have been at or above a point-per-game this season, and while he did break the Sea Dogs’ all-time record for points as a defenceman, it was clear his focus was on improving his two-way game. This can only bode well for his future.
The one thing that stood out as an area of improvement was his decision making with the puck in his own zone. When he had a forechecker pressuring him, sometimes it felt as though he would throw the puck away quickly as opposed to using his strong skating to get away from trouble.
This feels fixable as he continues to develop. While the AHL is a much faster league, Poirier has a lot of the underlying skills to be able to work on these things. He has incredible hands and strong skating which should allow him to better get away from a forechecking opponent not to mention he will be working with a coach and a system that will last longer than just the month that the Sea Dogs had hired Gardiner MacDougall for.
There is so much to get excited about in Poirier’s game, but ironically, it is his lack of enormous production that is most special.
This was a real coming-out party for Kuznetsov, who absolutely was the best defenceman on the team, and one of the best in the tournament. He capped off his season by earning a nod on the Memorial Cup All-Star team this week—a nod he absolutely deserved. While his numbers do not jump off the page, the big blueliner was absolutely flying for the Sea Dogs, and even recorded a beautiful goal in the tournament. Take a look here:
What is especially cool about this play is the way in which he was able to delay his release just a second to fool the goaltender into moving early. His shot beat the Hamilton netminder clean, and was a key moment for the Dogs to show that they absolutely belonged at the tournament.
On the back end, Kuznetsov’s vision to create zone exits was excellent. His passes, both long and short, rarely missed the mark, and he was excellent in getting the puck out of the zone. And when the passing option was not there, he was not afraid to take the puck up ice himself, using his long strides to get out of the zone and weaving his way into the offensive zone to set-up.
One that was noticeable previously in his game was that when the opposing team came close to gaining puck possession in their own defensive zone, Kuznetsov would be already around the red line preparing for a transition up ice. While a great defensive thought, it would happen very early in the play and he would almost never pinch. This weekend, he made some very smart pinches at the blueline that led to numerous scoring chances.
Kuznetsov also has a little bit of Nikita Zadorov in him—able to use his big body to keep defenders to the outside while throwing a big hit to regain puck control in his own end. This is very much a stylistic comparison not a ceiling one as Kuznetsov is still very much developing and it is too soon to say what he can be. He was also the team’s best penalty killer by some distance, and at this tournament, their best defenceman.
What does this mean for next season?
Both Poirier and Kuznetsov have officially finished their junior hockey careers and both will start next season in Calgary, almost certainly in the AHL. At this point neither is NHL-ready for full time work, but either has the possibility with a good training camp of earning a game or two.
Both have areas of their game to work on. For Poirier, that is defensive decision-making and working to translate that side of his game to the next level. For Kuznetsov, it’s developing the confidence on the offensive side at the AHL level to have success at both ends of the ice. However, both have the tools and skills to develop into NHLers down the line.
Given his season, I’d say Kuznetsov is slightly ahead of Poirier in his development at this point, but transitioning to the AHL is hard at the best of times. Expect both to take at least a season if not two or three before they start being talked about consistently in the call-up category. The Flames have been very patient with their prospect development, making their young player break down the barn doors in the AHL before giving them a look at the NHL level, and expect that trend to continue for the foreseeable future.
However, this system seems to work for the Flames quite well, with two very strong teams in the AHL and NHL, winning two Coach of the Year Awards and four combined playoff series. The AHL club will benefit greatly from having a ready-made defensive pairing in Poirier and Kuznetsov, who have spent the better part of this season playing together and developing chemistry. The team could have used more defensive strength this past year that adding the two is nothing but good for them.
Experience playing and winning big games is big for NHL clubs, and the Flames have two Memorial Cup Champions joining their professional side next season. Both have accomplished so much over their young careers, and have the capacity to take a step forward to being NHLers in a couple years. Both are worth getting excited about.