July 12 2009 12:00AM
Things are shaping up to be interesting at both the major and minor league levels for the Flames organization heading into the new season. The majority of the off-season will be spent analyzing the former so let's take a brief look at latter.
Abbotsford will be the third iteration of the Calgary owned/operated AHL team since Sutter took over the team. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Kinghts lasted a couple of seasons before moving to Quad Cities this past year. Each version of the Flames farm team has been mediocre or worse for various reasons, primary amongst which was a dearth of high quality prospects in the system. The rare impact youngster that has appeared on the org's radar has spent little or no time are the minor level (Boyd, Phaneuf) while other high draft picks have fizzled (Chucko).
There has been a concerted effort by Sutter to shore up farm's ranks early this summer, indicating an impetus to make the Abbotsford move a successful one. Less than a month into free agency, Darryl has already signed minor league veterans Jamie Lundmark, Kyle Greentree, Riley Armstrong, Jason Jaffray, Staffan Kronwall and Garth Murray. These are the actions of a GM weary of his minor team missing the play-offs I think. Seeing as the farm is going to be a bit more of a focus this year, let's take a stroll through Abbotsford's most pressing issues heading into October.
1.) How will the rookies do?
The Flames have some higher profile kids taking the next step this year. Primary amongst which is Mikael Backlund, the former first round center who is roundly considered to be the best forward prospect in the Flames system. Backlund's first year as a professional in North America will be highly instructive as to the kind of player he'll eventually become in the big leagues.
The best prospects tend to spend little to no time in the minors - and when they do, they dominate. Backlund had an down-and-up season between SWE-2 and the WHL leagues last year, making it difficult to project his performance going forward. There are some who think he may be able to crack the big team out of training camp owing to his draft pedigree. Given Calgary's already packed roster (especially down the center) and precarious cap situation, there's little chance of that happening however - particuarly in light of the way he struggled in his prior pre-season.
On the farm, however, Backlund should have little competition for a top line scoring role. If he's truly a future impact player, a point-per-game pace or better is probably the appropriate expectation.
Other players making their debut include defenders John Negrin and Keith Aulie. Both had career seasons in the WHL last season and are well regarded by the organization. Unlike Backlund, however, their development curve will likely be a little more drawn out given their position and where they were chosen in the draft. Still, worth keeping an eye on.
2.) The Heir to the Crease
20 Year old Leland Irving usurped the starters role half way through the season last year and put up a respectable if unspectacular SV% (0.912) for an average-ish club. Another year as the undispited #1 in Abbotsford and an improvement across all categories will go a long way to proving whether he truly will be the next Calgary Flame starter once Kipper finally steps down (or is deposed).
3.) Who will be the 7th defenseman?
Assuming none of the Flames current NHL blueliners are moved, the top 6 positions are basically locked up (Bouwmeester, Regehr, Phaneuf, Sarich, Giordano, Pardy), meaning there may be one position open for a training camp stand-out. The nominees for the role include Brett Palin, Matt Pelech and Staffan Kronwall.
Palin is an undrafted free agent signing who has slowly and surely worked his way up the Flames minor league ranks. Last year, he was the club's lone AHL all-star, despite not boasting much offense and little PP time. Like Adam Pardy, Palin has become a dark horse in the organization thanks to his persistent and gradual development. At 25 years old he doesn't have a high ceiling, but may be ahead of some of the younger players.
Pelech was a former first rounder by the club, one who turned into a long-term project partially due to an injury plagued Junior career. A big, mean defender in the Robyn Regehr mold, Pelech was neck-and-neck with Pardy to make the big team out of camp last season before eventually losing out to the older, more established guy. Unfortunately, Pelech went back to the farm and struggled for the first half of the season; his plus/minus rating was well in the red and he spent a lot of time in the penalty box. Pelech improved in the second half, however, and was rewarded with a 5 game cup of coffee with the parent team where he looked relatively comfortable.
Kronwall is the oldest and most NHL experienced of the 3. He also has the most offensive upside having scored 10 goals and 35 points between the Toronto Marlies and Hershey Bears last season. Depending on organizational goals, Staffan may be the first or last call-up for the Flames - first, if the goal is to have the best/most NHL ready guy in the role. Last if the team would rather use the position to develop a kid who is in the orgs long-term plans (like Pelech). Ultimately, it may just come down to who performs the best though.
4.) Who is Kris Chucko?
After years of sub-par numbers and apparently stagnant development, Kris Chucko seemed to turn the corner in QC last year by putting up a career best 28 and 51 points as a 22 year old. Part of that was undoubtedly maturation, but the other part was an increase in role and improvement in linemates. Chucko was thrust into a scoring role with QC owing to the org's dearth of offensive options on the wings, so he spent a lot of time with good linemates (Lundmark, Greentree, Van Der Gulik) and on the PP. That said, Chucko has 3 pro seasons under his belt and has yet to crack the PPG pace or lead the team in scoring. There's little chance of him ever turning into a top 6 option in the NHL at this point, so the question becomes whether he is in fact a NHL player at all. He was one of several farm players recalled for a twirl with the parent team last year and, although his ice time was tightly restricted and controlled, he visibly struggled and was probably the least impressive of the hopefuls.
Several obstacles stand in Chucko's way this coming year. Not only is the bottom of the big club's roster packed to the gills (Nystrom, Prust, Primeau, Sjostrom and now McGrattan) but there will be a lot of competition for top 6 ice in Abbotsford due to all the new additions and returning incumbents (Armstrong, Jaffaray, Lundmark, Greentree, Van Der Gulik, Backlund, Germyn). As such, his performance in 09/10 will reveal whether his apparent step forward was real or mostly an artifact of circumstance. If he can't solidfy himself as a legitimate top line option in the AHL, he's a good bet to fall into the "bust" category ever after (if he isn't there already).