Believe it or not, but the Calgary Flames are just over a month away from playing their first preseason game of 2022–23. That means that the Flames’ training camp and Young Stars Tournament in Penticton are coming up even sooner than that. As wild as this offseason has been, it’s time to start thinking about how this upcoming season is going to look.
The Flames have added a ton of big pieces to their roster this summer in the hopes of making a playoff run this season. And while there are a lot of new faces, there are many prospects in the organization who will be looking to earn a job in Calgary this season. For some like Matthew Coronato, the earliest this will come is at the end of the regular season, but for others like Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Phillips, and more, they could be pushing for a role on opening night.
Despite only having three picks in this year’s draft, the Flames have a number of very good prospects in their system who could be wearing the flaming C sooner than later. Let’s take a look at the top-10 going into the start of the season:
#10: Cole Schwindt
The Flames’ newest prospect, Cole Schwindt finished last season sixth in U21 scoring in the AHL with 19 goals and 40 points in 72 regular season games. All this while playing primarily in a second line defensive role for the Charlotte Checkers. A third-round pick by the Panthers, the Flames acquired Schwindt as part of the Huberdeau trade this past summer.
Schwindt will likely be in the conversation for an NHL job this season. As a right-shot natural centre who can also play on the wing, he has a ton of versatility that can benefit his case. While his ceiling is not particularly high, topping out likely as a third line guy, Schwindt’s ability to play a reliable two-way game is huge for him in the prospect pool. He has also appeared in three NHL games to this point, but is yet to record his first NHL point.
He still has some work to do in terms of consistency and developing a stronger offensive presence night-in and night-out, but if he can continue to grow his game, there is a chance the Flames have a real NHLer in him.
#9: Connor Zary
Probably the hardest player to really place in the rankings, Connor Zary finished ninth in the preseason rankings, but could have been either much higher or much lower depending on who you asked. Last season was really rough for Zary.
After missing the first half of the season with a broken ankle, the Flames moved him to centre, where he really struggled to start the season and had him playing in the bottom-six with substantially weaker linemates than he had in his brief stint in the AHL in the 2020–21 season.
Ultimately, Zary finished with 25 points in 53 games for Stockton last season, which is decent for a proper rookie season, but not a great year for the 2020 first-round pick. I think of last season more as an anomaly than an indication of his potential. He took strides forward in his role last year with the Heat, and showed he could be much more than just a depth option.
This is going to be a big year to know what Zary can be. If he can elevate his game back up to where it was two seasons back, he could quickly find his way inside the top-five of the Flames’ prospect rankings and rival Jakob Pelletier and Matthew Coronato for the top forward prospect in the organization. If not, he may go the way of Juuso Valimaki and fall down the depth chart quickly. Time will tell, but the potential is definitely there for Zary.
#8: Rory Kerins
After missing a whole season of junior hockey due to the pandemic, Rory Kerins burst his way onto the scene with a massive 118-point season this past year with the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL. He finished second in points in the league, and was the most productive Flames prospect in any league last year. Not bad for being a sixth-round pick in 2020.
Kerins will join the Wrangers this coming season, and will be looking to carry his offensive prowess to the next level. While it is unlikely his 1.70 point-per-game pace carries over to the AHL this year, he has shown that he can put the puck in the back of the net reliably, and can also be counted on as a strong two-way player. He has a very high ceiling at this point, but will need to excel at the AHL level first to better evaluate his floor as a prospect.
#7: Jeremie Poirier
Once thought of as a boom-or-bust prospect, Jeremie Poirier has transitioned from being a pure-offensive defenceman into a very well-rounded player with immense upside. He finished with 57 points in 67 regular season games with the Saint John Sea Dogs, but his +30 was a huge improvement from an abysmal -41 in his first full season in the QMJHL.
Poirier’s play both with the puck and away from it makes him one of the Flames’ top defensive prospects. Not only does he have among the best hands in the entire organization, his skating and body positioning make him one of the team’s best all-around defencemen. He was also far and away the best player at this year’s Development Camp Scrimmage.
Whether he will be able to transition his strong play from the Q to the AHL then to the NHL remains to be seen but he has the skills to be a top defenceman for this team in a few years if he can.
#6: Connor Mackey
It is wild to think that undrafted Connor Mackey could be the Flames’ top defensive prospect on the team, and have a shot of cracking the team’s lineup this season ahead of Juuso Valimaki. The former Minnesota State Mankato star was the Heat’s best blueliner by some distance last year and has the skills to be an NHLer this season.
Where Poirier is an offence-first blueliner and Yan Kuznetsov is a defense-first defenceman, Mackey is more of a jack-of-all-trades. He has really strong offensive insticts, able to really shoot the puck from the blueline while also playing a physical shutdown game in his own zone. There is no real area where he stands out as being excellent, but very little that causes concern for a coach as a defenceman.
While he probably tops out as a second or third pairing guy, he has the chops to be an everyday NHLer as early as this season. With the Flames’ blueline being as deep as it is, it probably makes sense for Mackey to get regular playing time in the AHL at least to start the year. However, if there are any injuries on the team’s blueline, expect Mackey to be the first guy called up. If he really impresses, he could force GM Brad Treliving to make a move or two to fit him in.
#5: Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips was one of the Flames’ best forward prospects in the AHL last season, and one of the best players in the entire league. He finished the season with 68 points in 65 games, good for ninth in the league in points and the best on the Heat.
However, because there were so few injuries to the Flames’ forward group through the regular season and Adam Ruzicka sparkled in his call-up, Phillips did not get into a single NHL game last season. I’m not convinced it is because he’s small or just is deemed to be not good enough for the NHL, and fully expect him to play NHL games this year.
The Flames need to know what they have in him at this point at the NHL level, but they need to put him in a position to succeed. With space on the wings, it is very possible for Phillips to make the team right out of camp, but he will need to really perform and show he is the Flames’ best option for that spot. He has the speed, hands, and strength to do so this year. Phillips could be a middle-six forward for this team if he does.
#4: Adam Ruzicka
Adam Ruzicka takes the fourth spot, not because he has a higher ceiling than Phillips which he likely doesn’t, but because at worst Ruzicka is a replacement-level NHLer while that’s not a certainty for Phillips. Ruzicka did not dazzle in his NHL debut, but showed he could be a real player in this league at this point in his career. Not bad for a fourth-round pick from 2017.
In 28 regular season games with the Flames, Ruzicka had 10 points and looks poised to be an NHLer next season assuming he has a good camp. He probably tops out as a reliable bottom-six centre, but even those are hard to find in the draft. He is aging out of the prospect category, but has shown he is among the best Flames players not in the NHL.
#3: Matthew Coronato
The highest Flames draft pick in the organization currently, having Matthew Coronato at third almost feels too low, but this is a product of his age and amount of runway he has left as opposed to his actual potential, which is top line winger as soon as the end of this season if all goes well with him at Harvard in the NCAA.
An elite forward who can play both sides of the special teams battle, Coronato was one of Team USA’s best players in this year’s World Juniors, and is poised for a huge year in the NCAA with the Crimson. He has a wicked release, able to beat goalies from anywhere on the ice and exceptional playmaking skills. For the Flames to have gotten him at 13th overall in 2021 seems almost like a miracle.
He is the Flames’ best prospect not in the AHL this season, and will be pushing for an NHL job before the end of the year.
#2: Jakob Pelletier
Jakob Pelletier is the Flames’ top forward product by some distance. He blew the barn doors off the AHL this season, putting up 62 points in 67 games in the regular season as a rookie, and was one of the top rookies in the league. Pelletier was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team this season, and could have won the Rookie of the Year in the league. Finally, he also broke the Stockton Heat’s rookie scoring record this past season.
This was his first year in the league, and you can only expect him to grow going into next season. Pelletier is an elite playmaker with a strong shot, but perhaps most impressive of all is his phenomenal two-way play. He is defensively responsible while also being able to put points on the board with ease in the second highest league in North America. It’s only a matter of time before he’s in the NHL. With a strong camp, he could earn a spot with the Flames.
#1: Dustin Wolf
The AHL’s top goalie and first-team all-star, Dustin Wolf is the Flames’ best prospect going into the 2022-23 season. He went into the AHL this season and was expected to be the backup netminder for Stockton, but stole the starter’s job almost right away and did not give it back for the rest of the season. Wolf finished with a 0.924 save percentage through 47 regular season games, good for fourth in the league. He then posted a 0.929 save percentage with three shutouts in the playoffs. Just unbelievable.
It would not be a surprise to see him playing NHL games this season if either Jacob Markstrom or Daniel Vladar catch the injury bug. If he does, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make it very hard for the Flames to send him back down to the AHL. The kid from Gilroy California has excelled at every level he has played, and deserves a proper look at the NHL level soon.
How much will this change this season?
These prospect rankings are not cemented. One bad stretch or bad season can see a prospect go from top of the rankings right down to the whatever happened to category. Conversely, a prospect who had a down season last year could storm up the charts with a few strong months of play.
The one spot to watch this year is the top spot. Any of the Flames’ top three prospects, Wolf, Pelletier, or Coronato, could take that spot easily and make it their own. It will really depend on performance in their respective leagues, in particular if Pelletier or Wolf end up playing and excelling at the NHL level.
Conversely, at the bottom of the top-10 and those on the outside looking in, there are a lot of prospects with a lot to prove. Zary and Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Cole Jordan both had injury-plagued seasons, but clearly have a ton of potential. Expect both to take big strides forward.
Conversely, Poirier, Kerins, Ilya Nikolayev, and Arseni Sergeev had huge years in lower leagues, but will be facing much tougher competition in the AHL and for Sergeev the NCAA. How they handle these new challenges will be key to determining whether they earn spots in the mid-season top-10 or are on the outside looking in.
There’s only one way to know for sure, and it’s almost time for players to hit the ice to really find out.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire