There is a lot of good news to talk about with the Calgary Flames’ blueline. MacKenzie Weegar and Chris Tanev have been among the best pairings in the league, Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin have both taken enormous strides forward in their development, and Nikita Zadorov has been described by Coach Darryl Sutter as the team’s best blueliner night-in and night-out. And while there is always room for improvement—particularly in their transition play and in trying to stay healthy—generally the blueline for the Flames has been quite good.
However, in the good, there is a major underlying issue: the Flames have been very poor at drafting and developing blueliners. Among the blueliners that have played this season, the Flames have drafted and developed just one in Andersson. The others were acquired either by trade (Hanifin, Weegar) or by free agent signing (Tanev, Zadorov, Michael Stone, Dennis Gilbert, Nick DeSimone, and Connor Mackey).
Oliver Kylington was also drafted by the team, but has not played a game so far this season. Both he and Andersson were drafted in 2015 and the team has no other drafted players on their blueline.
This would be fine if the team could point to their prospect pool and show a number of promising talents in the pipeline, but the Flames’ defensive depth beyond the NHL is marginal bordering on quite bad. Let’s look at who they have in the pipeline.
Calgary’s most promising defensive prospect
Prior to being drafted, Jeremie Poirier was expected to be a mid to late-first round selection, but fell right into the Flames’ hands in the third round in 2020. Known for his offensive upside and described by some as having the best hands in the entire draft class bar none, Poirier’s big question mark has been his defensive game, which started off as being virtually non-existent but has grown to be really quite decent.
After graduating from the QMJHL with a Memorial Cup under his arm, Poirier was the best player in the Flames’ Development Camp, a premier player for the team in the Penticton Young Stars Classic, and was the best prospect in preseason this year. He was the last rookie skater cut by the team, and earned every bit of icetime that he got.
So far this season, Poirier is tied for the lead in scoring among U21 defencemen and sits sits 11th in scoring among all AHL players his age. He has had looks on the Wranglers’ top power play, and has played top pairing minutes nearly all season long.
There is a good chance he spends the entire season in the AHL, but Poirier is increasingly looking like a heck of a prospect for this team, and one who could graduate to the NHL sooner than later. His closest comparable has always been Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators, and if the Flames can get even 80% of the player that Chabot is, they have done very well.
The Flames’ middling prospects
Kuznetsov is an intreguing prospect in the Flames’ system. He moved from Russia to the US in 2018, and spent his first year in the USHL before joining UConn in the NCAA, where he was one of the youngest players in the entire league in his first season. Kuznetsov would play one more year in the NCAA as the team’s top defensive defenceman before turning pro and joining the Stockton Heat.
That spell would be short-lived, as he struggled to earn minutes in the league, and was then sent to the QMJHL to join the Memorial Cup hosting Saint John Sea Dogs. He then went on to be one of the team’s top blueliners, forming an effective partnership with Poirier, and would win the Memorial Cup with theam. Kuznetsov was named a tournament all-star in what would be his last season in the league.
This year, he started off very slowly with just two assists in his first 13 games, but added a goal and two assists in game 14 to bring him up to about 0.3 points per game in the AHL. Not bad for a defence-first defenceman.
The jury is very much still out on Kuznetsov. His numbers have never been the best part of his game; that has been his ability to shutdown opposing players. He is big bodied blueliner, built similarly to Nikita Zadorov but with far less offensive upside, but his game this season in the AHL has been fine not great.
In my mind, this is a matter of adjustment not of his actual abilities, and nothing is telling me that he cannot one day develop into an NHLer. He almost certainly is not going to be the next Chris Tanev, but if the Flames can get a serviceable bottom pair shutdown guy out of Kuznetsov, that’s not bad at all. The question is whether he actually gets there.
The Flames’ fifth-round pick in 2021 has been very good when he’s on the ice, but has been kept off of it by both the pandemic in his draft year and a major illness or injury last season. He played just 59 games in the past two seasons combined, less than most players play in each season, which is very tough on his development.
However, when Jordan is on the ice, he’s been noticeably very good. His passing is top notch, and his skating and handling are both strong. This season, he has played primarily on the top pairing ion Moose Jaw, and has quarterbacked the team’s top power play unit for much of the year. The signs are positive for Jordan.
Simply given the number of games that he has played in his career, it’s too early to say much about Jordan other than that he’s got the underlying talent to be seemingly quite good down the road. But that road to get there is quite long and anything can happen along the way.
Marginal prospects down Calgary’s depth chart
A 2021 third-round pick, Whynot has spent the last couple of seasons in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads, and has played almost exclusively in the team’s top-four. Now being a third round selection, the expectation was that the Kentville, Nova Scotia native would be able to separate himself from the pack and be one of the team’s top players, but to this point that simply has not happened.
Whynot currently sits 34th in points and 35th in points-per-game among defencemen in the league. He is also third in points among blueliners on his team, and while Halifax does sit at the top of the Maritimes Division, being far from the best blueliner on his team is really not a great sign for the Flames draft pick.
It’s hard to see the Flames offering Whynot an entry-level deal based on his performance to this point. He quite simply has not earned one. And while the season is not even halfway done, it is unlikely he develops into anything of note at this point.
Ilya Solovyov has looked very good in both the KHL and previously in the OHL, but has struggled to really make a name for himself in the AHL. Solovyov is a well-rounded blueliner, decent defensively and reasonably good offensively, but not particularly good at either end of the ice. There isn’t much to really criticize about the way he plays, but again, nothing that really pushes him up the depth chart.
On the one hand, it’s obviously not ideal that Solovyov is unlikely to be an NHLer. He likely tops out as a very decent AHLer. On the other hand, he was an over-ager taken in the seventh round of the 2020 NHL Draft, and to get anything at all that late isn’t bad at all.
Boltmann was an off-the-board pick when the Flames took him in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft, and he has been puzzling ever since. The Flames talked about trusting their area scouts when they took Boltmann from the USHL’s Lincoln Stars and USHS’s Edina High, but even at the time, the pick was very suspect.
Since then, Boltmann has been very fine for Notre Dame, playing typically in the middle pair for the last two seasons. And while that’s not bad at all, Boltmann has not been able to put much up on the board at all. This season, he has just one goal in 15 games, which is remarkably low. Even highly defensive defenceman Yan Kuznetsov had six points in 15 games in his final season with UConn.
Boltmann is probably more offensively gifted than his numbers suggest. He put up just around 0.3 points per game last season, but will need to start hitting the scoresheet more reliably for Notre Dame for the rest of the season if he wants to earn a look.
The outlook on the Flames’ defensive depth chart
Right away, the Flames will fill the holes on their blueline from their signees. Dennis Gilbert, Nick DeSimone, and Connor Mackey have been fine substitutes in a pinch for the team, but not one of them look like NHL regulars at this point. None of them were even drafted by the team, with Mackey being the only one really developed by the Flames after being signed out of the NCAA.
In the longer term, the Flames will need to look externally to find replacements on the blueline. And this is a fine strategy to employ for an NHL team. The problem is that the team is going to spend assets to acquire those pieces, including other NHL roster players, draft picks, and prospects, as well as having to likely acquire them at an older age, meaning those players will command a higher salary than those who the Flames could utilize on entry-level contracts. This means less money left over to spend on the rest of their team. Not ideal.
It is hard to say that the Flames are bad at drafting and developing blueliners though, with the team having drafted Andersson and Kylington, as well as Adam Fox and Juuso Valimaki. It is however hard to look at the Valimaki situation without thinking about what could have been. One of the Flames’ best prospects for years, the Flames couldn’t even get reliable AHL minutes out of him last season before losing him to Arizona on waivers this season where he has gone on to put up five points in 15 NHL games.
The Flames definitely tried to get an asset back for him last season and this, but it was clear there was no market for that. If there is no trade coming, it’s hard to force one in this league, but for the Flames to lose a player who could slot into a top-four NHL role, even in Arizona, is at best an oversight and at worst a serious failing in their ability to identify and manage talent.
At the end of the day, the Valimaki situation is what it is, but the Flames’ defensive pipeline is a major organizational weak spot that is going to rear its head sooner than later. With injuries and absences on the blueline currently, there is little to look to in terms of high-end defensive talent within the organization. This is an area that the Flames are going to need to address imminently.
Photo by Marissa Baecker via NHL.com