The Calgary Flames have not had a great couple of seasons. From Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau leaving to the cursed 2022-23 season last year, to the team making few moves this summer to either sign or ship out their multiple pending UFAs next summer, it’s a bit of a hard time to support this team right now. Bubbling below the surface is an impending organizational depth issue that is starting to hurt this team now from a couple of years of bad drafting. Here’s how it came about and why it’s going to hurt down the line.
How did the Flames end up with an organizational depth issue?
Every year, teams start with seven draft picks, one per round, that they can use to fill holes in their organization, ideally in the NHL but oftentimes in the AHL as well. The hope is that if a team can select well, they get better players on cost-controlled contracts to start to help them be more successful down the line. Sure teams can just sign players to fill holes in their organization if they don’t want to draft, but that often is more costly than drafting, does not give them the chance to build a core around younger players, and does not always breed a strong culture in the room, with new faces coming and going more often.
While the Flames have not always been blessed with the ability to draft high-end players, due to not getting the highest picks, bad asset management, or what feels like very bad luck, they have been reasonably good at finding diamonds in the rough over the past decade. This includes Micheal Ferland as a fifth-round pick, Andrew Mangiapane as a sixth-round pick, Dustin Wolf as a seventh-round pick, and more. They were also lucky to have second round picks Dillon Dube, Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, and more make it into the NHL full-time. All in all, not bad.
When drafting, you roughly have a five-year window to see what you have in a prospect. In that time, you find out whether you have an NHLer, AHLer, or nothing at all. With every year that a prospect is in the organization, the more you get to know exactly what you have. Over the past five years, the Flames have drafted as follows:
The Flames made just five selections this year but came out like bandits. They took Jakob Pelletier, who is likely an NHLer this season, in the first round then took Dustin Wolf, who has won nearly every individual award he can in the AHL, in the seventh round. There is some hope for Ilya Nikolayev still, but it’s diminishing. The other two picks are no longer in the organization.
This was a very good draft for the Flames. They took Connor Zary in the first round, who looks like he could be an NHLer as early as midway through this season. Then they went and took two defencemen, Yan Kuznetsov and Jeremie Poirier with their next two picks. Poirier is a standout who should be in the NHL soon. They also have goaltender Daniil Chechelev, forward Rory Kerins, and defenceman Ilya Solovyov in the organization, but of the three only Solovyov looks to have a real shot at NHL minutes at this point. Still, to have this many players who have made it to the AHL and with NHL promise is very impressive.
This is where the wheels start to fall off the bus. The Flames took Matt Coronato in the first round, who looks to be a star for this team. From there, they took William Stromgren who struggled to make an impact in the SHL last season, but will be in North America for his first season here this coming year. Then their next four picks were all unsigned by the team. Lucas Ciona and Arseni Sergeev are still in the organization, with the former earning an ELC with the Flames this past season, but at this point, only Coronato looks like a winner from this draft.
Things went from bad to worse. The team had just three picks this year, and took Topi Ronni with their second round pick. He looks fine in Finland but is still a long shot to be an impact player let alone an NHLer. Parker Bell and Cade Littler are both showing flashes, but not enough to really say they are more than depth AHLers down the line.
This draft the Flames seemed to turn it around. Samuel Honzek looks like a very good player, and as a first round pick, he definitely should be. Then Etienne Morin looks like a very good offensive defenceman, but he still has a lot to work on in his game. Aydar Suniev and Jaden Lipinski are mid round picks who are both fine, but have lots of work to do to grow their games. Yegor Yegorov is a Russian goalie, which is about as big of a wildcard as you can get, then Axel Hurtig, the seventh rounder, is a large man but there are lots of questions about his abilities with the puck.
The problem is that the 2019 picks are becoming NHLers, leaving the Flames with a small cohort of prospects right now, and when the 2020 class ages out of the prospect pool, that organizational depth is going to look even weaker. While they have done well with their top picks, with Coronato and Honzek, in particular, standing out of late, there are very few late-round standouts who have shown they can be impact players. Many in the prospect pool like to be fine, which is a really bad sign for a team looking to become a contender over the next few years.
If the Flames were pushing their chips into the middle and making playoff runs regularly, it would be a different story. The Tampa Bay Lightning have done this exceptionally well, making just two draft picks this past year but instead pushing deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs multiple times in the past decade. The Flames simply have not done this or even shown signs of life beyond the regular season with any regularity.
The Prospect Camp roster is just the tip of the iceberg
The Flames announced their prospect camp roster this week, showcasing the 25 players who will be taking on the prospects of Edmonton and Vancouver in the Penticton Young Stars Classic this weekend. However, the Flames’ roster clearly showcased the lack of talent beyond their top prospects. Up front, the team has Coronato and Honzek, who will almost certainly be playing wing on either side of the top line, but at centre, the team will have either Kerins or Nikolayev on the top line. Both players spent most of last season in the ECHL, playing a combined 11 games in the AHL. Yikes not great.
Then the depth on the wings starts to drop off substantially. Ciona, Bell, Stromgren, Lipinski, and signed prospect Adam Klapka are long-shots to make the NHL, and likely top out as bottom-six players. Those are all the forward prospects who will be at camp this year, with the balance either in Eurasia (Ronni), or NCAA-bound (Suniev and Littler), or older (Pelletier and Zary). Take out the two former first round picks and the story does not look pretty.
On the blueline, the Flames have Poirier and Kuznetsov at camp and are joined by Etienne Morin. The first two have a shot at being NHLers, and Morin does as well if he can improve his two-way game. Then they have AHL Signee Jarrod Gourley, who is a depth signee, and then there are five very large invitees, all of whom are in the CHL this season. Missing from the list is Solovyov (older) and Boltmann (NCAA), but to have just five defencemen prospects in the organization is a problem. Not to add insult to injury, but the only right shot defenseman in the prospect pool is Jake Boltmann. Yikes!
Then in net, the team is bringing in two former NCAA netminders who have been signed to AHL deals and one invited prospect from the WHL. While the organization does have three goalies in Arseni Sergeev (NCAA), Yegorov (Russia), Chechelev (missing), and Wolf (probably in the NHL), to have not one goalie prospect that they can call to this tournament is a red flag.
Now this is just the beginning. At the end of the day, Penticton is just a prospect tournament with little value beyond bragging rights, but this is going to start to impact the Calgary Wranglers, who get the majority of their players from the Flames’ draft picks. The Wranglers are likely to lose many of their older prospects this coming season or next, with Pelletier, Wolf, Coronato, Poirier, and Zary almost certainly going to be NHLers sooner than later. There are also a handful of older players who are on show-me contracts this year, including Cole Schwindt, Emilio Pettersen, and others, but they likely top out as depth NHLers if everything breaks perfectly. Having already lost Matthew Phillips this summer on top of all of this, the Wranglers are already going to be a weaker team than last season. With a smaller pipeline of prospects coming in the next couple of years, it’s going to be a bit tougher for them to be exciting for fans in Calgary going forward. This is not good for a team in a market that already has an NHL team, WHL team, and more to carve out a niche.
What’s the good news
There are two bits of good news for Flames fans. First and foremost, the team’s top prospects look very good and are probably closer to NHL-ready than expected. Jakob Pelletier and Matt Coronato should be in the NHL this season, if not full-time then for a good chunk of the season. Wolf is certainly NHL-ready and should get a chance to show he deserves a role on the big club going forward. Zary and Poirier are both very close to NHL-ready and coule earn call-ups this season. Add in Adam Ruzicka and Walker Duehr, and there is some good young talent in the organization right now.
The second bit of good news is that the 2023 Draft looked like a good draft for the team. Aside from Honzek, Morin, Hurtig, and Suniev all look like they have a good amount of promise. This is a big step up from 2022, when they had just three picks, and 2021, which was a very poor year for picks. The team also has a pick in each of the first three rounds for each of the next three years, which should be helpful at re-stocking the prospect cupboards with high-end talent. The team does need to subsequently make good picks with those selections, but at least the potential is there to make good picks.
It’s going to be a bit of a rough road for the organization’s young stars for the next couple of years, but with Craig Conroy‘s push to include more younger players in the team, it’s clear that youth is going to be an organizational priority going forward. Hopefully, this is something that they continue to work on going forward.