A lot of ink, digital and otherwise, has been used to describe the changing fortunes of the Calgary Flames at the NHL Entry Draft. For various reasons, the 2008 Draft has been pointed to as the year of the most obvious turn-around. The draft produced several decent prospects who have been able to tip their toes into the NHL pond and not look horrible – notably T.J. Brodie, Greg Nemisz and Lance Bouma.
However, arguably the most interesting forward prospect the Flames chose in the 2008 Draft has become one of their most frustrating: Mitch Wahl.
A native of Seal Beach, California, a coastal community in Orange County better known for surfing than for hockey, Wahl grew up as the Los Angeles Kings became a playoff team and soon moved his way up to the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs. He developed into a point-per-game offensive threat in the WHL, won a Memorial Cup and got drafted in the second round by the Flames. Not to be out-done, he even upped his offensive game in his two junior years after being drafted, scoring 30 goals each season and playing for United States at the World Juniors.
If Wahl could be able to bring his skating and dangling ability to the professional ranks, he would be a very useful player for any club. Unfortunately, that’s where his bad luck began.
After a decent training camp, Wahl joined the Abbotsford Heat. He played decently in his first seven weeks with the Heat, adjusting to the speed of the league. Then, he ran into a massive road block in the shape and form of Manitoba Moose forward Aaron Volpatti.
Wahl suffered broken bones in his face and a concussion. He was sidelined until early January, when he briefly returned for a pair of games before being shut down for the year when his symptoms returned.
Prior to this season, Wahl discussed his season with Abbotsford Times reporter Cam Tucker:
"It’s quite the experience," said Wahl of being out of the lineup for 63 games last season, mostly due to the concussion. "It was an eye-opener for me. It was hard for me to recover and I just couldn’t get to the point I wanted to get to in order to start playing again.”
Flash-forward to this past season, Wahl never really seemed to get his timing and confidence back. He was underwhelming and tentative in training camp, being sent back to the American League during the first round of cuts. He was a frequent scratch in Abbotsford, then was sent down to the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies. He impressed there, but disappointed in another AHL stint and was soon loaned to the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s farm team. The once-impressive offensive player scored a dismal 2 goals and 5 points in 22 games with the Bulldogs.
On the Flames website this week, general manager Jay Feaster delved into Wahl’s season.
Window is Closing
Mitch Wahl’s professional career is at a cross-roads this off-season. Along with Brodie, Bouma, Nemisz, Gaelan Patterson, Carter Bancks and Chris Breen, Wahl is heading into the final year of his entry-level deal. Generally, it takes three seasons for a player to completely settle out and make it clear what they are capable of doing at the professional level, although some obviously take longer. The first three prospects have tasted the NHL and have managed to make adjustments to their games, to the point where Brodie and Bouma could be considered full-time members of the Calgary Flames. The others, not so much.
The biggest frustration in terms of Mitch Wahl is that nobody seems to have any idea how good he can be due to his concussion and the subsequent drop in his level of play. He showed poise and, at times, brilliance, at the WHL level and before the Volpatti hit, there were brief flashes of those qualities. But for this entire season, that Mitch Wahl was completely AWOL.
If Mitch Wahl has designs on being an impact player at any level of hockey, he’s going to have to make adjustments. At this juncture, he’s a very good ECHL player and a marginal AHL body, at a time when the Flames have suddenly run across players like Sven Baertschi, Max Reinhart and Michael Ferland who are eager to take AHL (and NHL) time away from pro incumbents.
Whether Wahl’s body will allow him to make those necessary adjustments to compete in the Flames organization is the big question, and one that will likely hang over him until hockey starts up again.