We are just weeks away from the 2023 NHL Entry Draft and all eyes are on generational talent Connor Bedard, who is expected to be taken first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks. The rest of the draft is still a crapshoot, but this year’s draft is described as one of the deepest in recent memories. There are multiple elite talents who could turn into top forwards and defenders for their teams, and even more expected high-end and mid-range NHLers than in a regular draft.
Closer to home, the Calgary Flames are going into this year’s draft with five selections: a first-, second-, fourth-, sixth-, and seventh-round pick. Unlike in most years, this is probably one of the most pivotal drafts for this team in recent memory. Given the current age and stage of the team’s prospect pool, the poor draft performance in recent years, and the team’s general lack of high-end talent, the Flames desperately cannot afford to miss this year.
The state of Calgary’s prospect pool
Last season, the Calgary Flames had 31 prospects in their pool, defined as having played less than 65 NHL games and being under 25 years old. This group was made up of three goalies, six defencemen, and 22 forwards.
Of this group, three were drafted by the Flames in 2022, eight in 2021, seven in 2020, five in 2019, three from 2018, none from 2017, and just Matthew Phillips from 2016. There were also signed prospects Ben Jones, Cole Schwindt, Walker Duehr, and Adam Klapka.
Going into next season, that prospect pool is going to thin out substantially. Duehr and Phillips will age out as prospects now that they are over 25. There is also a very real chance that Phillips moves on from Calgary entirely this offseason.
Then there are the prospects that the Flames opted to now sign. Cole Huckins, Cameron Whynot, Jack Beck, Cole Jordan, and Lucas Feuk were all passed on when it came to tendering to entry-level deals. As a result, the 2021 NHL Draft is looking particularly weak in the Flames draft performances and being just a couple of years removed from it, this is not a good sign.
Beyond that, there is a very low chance that Demetrios Koumontzis and Josh Nodler earn a contracts too. Koumontzis finished the season with the Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL and Josh Nodler barely played in the NCAA at all this season, spending more time away from the ice than on it at UMass. Both are highly unlikely to be signed by the Flames.
This is to say nothing of restricted free agents Emilio Pettersen, Ben Jones, and Martin Pospisil who are all RFAs. There is a good chance that at least two of the three are signed by the Flames and a reasonable chance all three are.
But at best, if all three are signed, the Flames’ prospect pool is going to look much smaller going into next season. If all three sign, the Flames prospect pool will drop to 22, and that includes all the prospects that played NHL games this year.
Limited high-end talent outside the NHL
Look, having 22 prospects in an organization is not the worst thing in the world. The Colorado Avalanche have done a good job getting really good talent out of just a handful of prospects. However, the Flames simply do not have that.
The top end of the prospect pool looks quite good. Dustin Wolf looks like an elite netminder who should play NHL games next season. Both Jakob Pelletier and Matt Coronato also look like NHLers, with Coronato having higher offensive upside and Pelletier having higher two-way upside. Both are likely top-six forwards in the NHL.
Beyond that, the pool is starting to look weaker. Connor Zary and Jeremie Poirier are both probably NHLers, but there is still some doubt simply because of their performances. Zary had a rough first season but took a step forward this year. Poirier meanwhile was really good offensively, but struggled with his two-way game. They are still likely NHLers, but there are still lots of questions there.
From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Lucas Ciona, Parker Bell, Arseni Sergeev, Cole Schwindt, Emilio Pettersen, and beyond all have upside for sure, but they all have lots of questions surrounding them. Maybe they are all NHLers, but more likely than not, none of them are. Even if they are, the odds are that they top out as replacement-level NHLers.
This is a huge liability for the organization. There is simply not enough high-end talent right now. Even more than that, the top players in this team are all likely NHL bound this season. Wolf looks to be NHL-ready, Pelletier spent the entire rest of the season in the NHL, even though he didn’t play under Darryl Sutter. Coronato finished up at Harvard and is likely an NHLer next season.
From there, Zary and Poirier likely are NHL call-ups next season. Even if they spend most of the season in the AHL, it points to a larger issue of the team’s pipeline dwindling down to nothing.
Poor draft performances will hurt in the near future
The biggest issue for the organization is that the last two drafts are looking highly suspect at this point. The 2022 draft class was a small one, with just three picks as the team was in the middle of a playoff push, but the fact that the three picks made are middling at best is a red flag. The Topi Ronni draft pick in the second round looks fine at best, with Parker Bell looking at this point like the best pick.
Then there’s the 2021 NHL Draft. Aside from Coronato, this draft is looking like a nightmare. Four players have already not been signed to ELCs by the Flames. Lucas Ciona and William Stromgren earned ELCs but both likely top out as replacement-level NHLers. Arseni Sergeev is an intriguing goalie prospect, but goalie development is not worth banking on.
It has been a long time since the Flames have absolutely nailed their draft picks. The last time they walked away like bandits from the draft was 2016, when they took Matthew Tkachuk, Dillon Dube, Phillips and Adam Fox. And while Fox didn’t sign with the team and off-ice issues plagued Tyler Parsons, the Flames came out of that draft looking like they knew something other teams did not. This year they need to do the same.
What do the Flames need to do this year?
The Flames need to repeat their performance from 2016 and hopefully do even better. That starts obviously with their first-round pick, where they need to not only get the best player that they can, but really need to get a player with high-end skill. The Flames have been really good at taking safe two-way players from the CHL, but this year they need to go for explosive skill and high-end ability with their firs-round selection.
Perhaps where the most need is with their second-round pick. If the Flames do what they always do and go for a high-floor prospect like William Stromgren or Topi Ronni, they’re doing it wrong. This is the year to swing bigger and go for the guy with more upside in their game and higher potential ceiling. The well-documented 2021 Stromgren selection looms large in memories when the Flames had the chance to take Logan Stankoven, Artem Grushnikov, Nikita Chibrikov, Aatu Raty, Matthew Knies, J.J. Moser, or Sasha Pastjuov. Any of these would have been better than Stromgren at this point, but the Flames opted for a replacement-level NHLer over a high-skill prospect. This was a philosophical choice that they should have gone the other way.
From there, they need to get lucky. With their late-round picks, they need to swing for guys with high upside and growth potential. They do really well in the sixth round typically, having taken Rory Kerins, Phillips, Andrew Mangiapane, and Laurent Brossoit in this round. If they can snag another great player with high upside, the Flames will come out looking like winners from this year’s draft.
This all seems so simple. Make good picks, select good players, profit. The problem is the Flames simply haven’t done that, and the last two drafts in particular are going to hurt this team’s prospect pipeline for the next few years. If they again make odd decisions or prioritize size or other intangibles over skill, the future of this team’s prospect pool will be in jeopardy.
Good luck, Conroy.