The Calgary Flames have designed their team to have organizational depth brought in externally as opposed to building specifically around their young players. From signing Kevin Rooney to re-signing Brett Ritchie and Trevor Lewis, the Flames have built their lineup around established veterans as opposed to around their younger prospects. This is not necessarily a bad idea; many teams employ this strategy around the league, but perennial champions like the Tampa Bay Lightning have shown the importance of building from the draft as part of their recipe for success.
However, this has been changing of late. The Flames have been keen to slowly start trying their younger players in the NHL this season. In the latest episode of 32 Thoughts the Podcast, Elliotte Friedman talked about the Flames scratching Milan Lucic not in the sense of wanting to take him out of the lineup but rather to get a better handle on what they have in their younger stars. The team has brought up Matthew Phillips and Radim Zohorna to start, but the expectation is that more could be coming soon.
Here is who the team should look to try in the NHL.
The Flames’ 2019 first-round pick, Pelletier is an excellent two-way forward who can play any of the three forward positions, though he has primarily been a left winger. His defensive game has been a big hallmark of who he is as a player for years, but he can absolutely put points on the board. So far this season, the former Val d’Or Foreur has nine goals and 15 assists, good for 15th in the entire AHL in points. He is also tied for the league lead in points for players under 22 years old.
This is Pelletier’s second season in the AHL, and the second season that he has been scoring at around a point-per-game pace. He is one of the Wranglers’ best skaters, and has consistently been a top line player for the team. If he plays in Calgary, expect him to play in a top-nine role similar to where they have Adam Ruzicka right now—alongside Mikael Backlund.
While Pelletier does not have the size that Ruzicka does, he does have more two-way upside to his game and could in time be an excellent shutdown forward with immense offense in his game. He may not be lighting up the AHL like Phillips did before his callup, but Pelletier has shown he deserves a look at the next level.
Like Pelletier, Zary has shown he has a ton of upside to his game and probably deserves a look at the next level. The former Kamloops Blazer has 23 points this season, good for third among under-22-year-old skaters in the entire AHL. A huge step forward after being a half-point-per-game player last season.
A couple of key differences between Zary and Pelletier. First, Zary has been playing centre for the better part of the last two years in the AHL, which is a huge asset in the NHL. While he does not have the excellent two-way skills that Pelletier does, Zary has more grit to his game, which may appeal more to a Head Coach like Darryl Sutter. He also brings more size and offensive upside than Pelletier does, which makes him perhaps a higher-upside prospect down the road, although Pelletier is a year older and further ahead in his development than Pelletier at this point.
Zary could slot in wherever in the lineup, but having him in a top-nine centre role in the NHL would be ideal. There likely isn’t a home for him in the big league at this point, and he likely needs more seasoning, especially working on his two-way game, before he gets a real shot at the next level. Expect that to come soon.
Cole Schwindt was brought to the Flames as part of the Matthew Tkachuk trade, and brings a really strong two-way game to the organization. This season, he has 15 points in 20 games, good for seventh on the team in points. This should be taken with a grain of salt as he is on a brand new team with new systems. The Wranglers have also used him both at centre and on the wing, and have shuffled him up and down the lineup so far this season.
Schwindt has been on the Flames’ watchlist for some time, having been someone that they targeted in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but missed him to Florida that year. They have talked about how they see him likely slotting in as a third like centre or winger, and as someone who can bring both strong offensive upside and a responsible two-way game. He also has three NHL games under his belt from Florida, and could definitely see a few more before the season is over. A call-up for Schwindt would not be out of the question for the Flames.
Going into his second AHL season, Dustin Wolf continues to be not only the Flames’ best prospect but also one of the best young goalie prospects in the entire league. He has played the third most minutes of all netminders in the league, and leads the league in shutouts right now. He is also sixth in the league in save percentage, but the best among goalies under 22 years old.
Wolf is continuing to show that he is too good for the AHL, but with Daniel Vladar and Jacob Markstrom ahead of him, it is hard to see him earning a role in the NHL unless there is an injury. For now, he must continue to show that he is everything and more than the Flames know that he is and that he can step in seamlessly to an NHL job when the time is right.
Prospects not ready yet but may be soon
An AHL rookie, Poirier has been among the best blueliners in the entire league. He sits ninth in the AHL in points among defencemen this season, and leads the AHL in points among U-21 defencemen this season. He was the best prospect all summer long, and in particular in training camp this season.
It is hard to imagine the Flames giving the rookie AHLer a shot at the next level this season simply because of how little experience he has, but he has shown that he has a ton to offer at the next level. Expect him to earn a long look as early as next season.
Coronato is among the best skaters in the entire NCAA this season, but he remains in the NCAA until at least the end of Harvard’s season in the spring. He has shown that he is entirely too good for the league he is in, and plays both powerplay and penalty kill for the Crimson this season. He could join the Flames as early as this spring, and may end up sliding into an NHL role at the end of this season just like Cole Caufield did for the Montreal Canadiens in 2021.
What to watch for
The most likely route is that the Flames try out a prospect like Pelletier first, simply because he has the highest upside and is the most NHL-ready high-end prospect. They likely explore playing a guy like Walker Duehr or Ben Jones if they need more bottom line depth, but if they want anyone with more upside, it is likely Pelletier who gets the call.
Schwindt or Zary likely get a look towards the end of the season, and is there is an injury to one of the goalies, it’s likely Wolf who earns the call over Oscar Dansk. It would be excellent to see Poirier earn a role in the NHL this season, but getting him lots of minutes at the AHL level is likely more important at this point.
Whatever happens, seeing the Flames play their young players is really good for both the team and the prospects. For the team, they get elite young talent on cheap contracts without having to spend assets in trades to bring in those types of players. On top of that, their players get much needed NHL reps and gives them a chance to show that they could play in the top league this season. However, if the Flames continue to play their top prospects, the real winner in all of this will be the fans who get to watch all these players on the biggest stage in the hockey world.
Photo by Marissa Baecker via NHL.com