That’s TJ Brodie when he was drafted by the Flames. He represents the last drafted-and-developed Flames blueliner. Prior to him you have Tim Erixon and Dion Phaneuf, neither really counts because Erixon never played for the Flames per se and Phaneuf, by dint of the lost lockout season and his own talent level, arrived more or less plug-and-play at the NHL level.
Looking back at the Young Stars tournament I felt there was
a noticeable gap between the quality of forward prospects that the Flames have
acquired versus the defense. This spurred me to take a closer look at the
Flames’ defensive prospects and try to determine the overall strength of this
area of organizational prospect depth.
Here are some of the rookie defensemen who made their way to
the NHL last season and the number of AHL games they logged to get there:
Martin Marincin (100), David Savard (176), Dalton Prout (117), Kevan Miller
(154), Tyson Barrie (93), Jarred Tinordi (144), Nathan Beaulieu (124), Jon
Merrill (27 – 82 in the NCAA), Dylan Olsen (156), Ryan Murphy (22), Brian
Lashoff (162), Kevin Connauton (216). This translates to roughly two seasons on
average for a young defensive prospect to mature and figure out how to play the
game against men.
Players coming out of NCAA often have less of an audition on
the farm team, somewhere usually in the 25 to 75 game range while those coming
from overseas fall anywhere in the late NCAA range to early AHL marker, or
approximately 50 to 100 games, if they play there at all.
The key here is playing against professional men in a
professional league, where players are smarter, faster, and the play is usually
more structured than junior. The differences in size are less pronounced and
the talent ceiling levels off a bit.
If we take these as benchmarks for a young defender to
advance from the prospect to the NHL, where does that leave the Flames
defensive prospect group?
Shutdown defender, very little offense but still managing an even +/- implies
shutdown. 20 yrs old. 2012 2nd round pick has moved from USDL to OHL to AHL in
three years. That rapid transition may prove problematic for his development.
Noted for his open-ice hitting in junior. I’m not especially enamoured of that
skill as it can open up the player to defensive miscues, but he has miles to go
to prove himself. 2 AHL games to date. His scouting report emphasizes his mobility and physicality on the ice, a trait that I believe was advertised along the lines of Matt Dumba when the Flames selected him, and mentions his competitive nature.
well on a loaded Winterhawks team managing 166 PIMs in 239 games while
maintaining a +97. Offense has always been shy, but has also managed to keep
more or less even +/-. 21 yrs old. 2011 2nd round pick. 48 AHL games to date.
He doesn’t seem to be spectacular at any one thing, but does a number of things
reasonably well enough so far. The Flames bringing in Brookbank and Potter to
camp was a good move. Wotherspoon needs at least another season in the AHL to
continue to develop. Scouting report concurs that he does many things reasonably well but no one thing exceptionally. Sometimes this works for a player provided their general level is high enough, but I am not convinced that it is. He could have a long pro career, but may remain an AHL/NHL tweener.
3. Brett Kulak
of an offensive defender, scored reasonably well in the WHL and added 107 PIMs
in 216 games. junior +/- was sunk by an early -34 as a rookie, but has improved
since then. 20 yrs old, 2012 4th round pick. 10 AHL games to date. Decent size
at 6’1 and 185lbs, progressed nicely year-over-year including the 12-13 season
where the Giants collapsed. Wore the “A” for the Giants last year. Described as a smooth skater with good mobility and puck-moving skills, Kulak is a good as a draft selection. His skills are duplicated in some of the other prospects we’ll see, but loading up on reasonably-sized puck-moving defensemen is never a bad strategy. His ceiling may be somewhere in the range of a puck-moving 2nd pairing defender, but he has miles to go before we can zero in any further.
4. Ryan Culkin
Another defender with offensive junior pedigree. Had a terrific draft +1 year
and his +/- has been buyoed by an early peak. Defensive game appears to have
improved in the Q the last few years as PIMs have dropped while points have
continued. Evening out of the +/- and being named first Assistant and then
Captain of Remparts indicates he had been called upon more and more before
being traded to the Voltigeurs at the end of last season. 2012 5th round pick.
20 yrs old. Entering first pro season. Stands 6’1” and 174lbs. Scouting report is not unlike Kulak in that he is a puck-moving D with good skating and mobility. These two had very similar junior career numbers, the one exception being that Kulak spent a season on an imploding Giants team that caused his +/- to crater.
5. Mark Cundari
Undrafted junior free agent signed by the Blues and was part of the return on
the Bouwmeester trade. Small offensive defender who has scored 0.42 ppg in 231
AHL games and added 334 penalty minutes with an AHL career +/- of 11. Implies
poor defensive game which could be related to his size. Penalty minutes are
part of his game as evidenced by 553 over 248 OHL games where he likely
produced enough offense to overshadow other liabilities. 24 yrs old and 231 AHL
games to date. Book is largely closed on Cundari as I think we know who and
what he is as a player.
6. John Ramage
Rob Ramage. NCAA defender who provided middling offense (0.34 ppg) but managed
237 PIMs over 157 games and maintained a +/- 28. Short AHL career thus far of
50 games, 1 point, 46 PIMs and +2 indicates a shutdown defender with anemic
offense. Not a particularly large body, but probably projects as a shutdown 3rd
pairing defender in the NHL, top-four shutdown physical presence in the AHL.
2010 4th round pick by the Flames, 23 yrs old. 50 AHL games to date. Often the
college players progress through the AHL more quickly if they have the
puck-moving skill. Ramage doesn’t appear to have much offense in his game, and
shutdown defenders for a bottom-pairing are pretty easy to find in the
NHL. Ramage’s scouting report notes his shutdown nature and the physicality he brings to the job. Neither of these are traits I tend to value highly because they are generally reactive rather than proactive and this skill-set can only take a player so far. My guess is his best NHL chances are to become a player in the range of Ladislav Smid.
Physically imposing defender out of the WHL, over 196 games has 324 PIMs and 17
pts. Offense is not a factor, but his -9 indicates that he is used as a
physical presence that does not necessarily translate as a defensive shutdown
player. 2013 3rd round pick of the Flames, 19 yrs old provides some time for
improvement but early showings are not encouraging as a potential NHL player.
Returning to junior for 2014-2015 season. Here’s Kyle Woodlief’s take on Kanzig in his draft year <i><blockquote>At 6-5, 240, keeping opponents away from his net and off the puck by
using size and strength is his game. Both his skating and shot could be
timed with a sun dial, but he’s always on the ice against the
opposition’s top line and on the penalty kill in a shutdown role.</blockquote></i> I’m not overly optimistic of Kanzig’s chances. Perhaps he can develop a better defensive game and become a player in the range of Andy Sutton, but his skating has to improve significantly and his decision making needs to at least get to AHL-level before he has a chance. His junior career has been dominated by his size advantage, those players often struggle to learn the game when that advantage is taken away or diminished.
8. John Gilmour
Oft-forgotten college defender, has played 77 NCAA games registering 0.4 ppg
and 57 PIMs with a +3. Indicates a defenseman whose offense dovetails with
defensive assignments. Longshot pick by the Flames, drafted 2013 7th round,
already 21 yrs old. Playing with Providence this next year will be significant
in his development. Returning to NCAA for 2014-2015 season. Gilmour is described as having strong skating and puck skills yet is limited by his size. In the NCAA that is less of a factor than the CHL. Reading his scouting reports reminded me of Taylor Chorney, an undersized Oilers blueline prospect from a lifetime ago. Both went the college route for a time and excelled in reading the play offensively and getting in on the rush. I think Gilmour may become a better all-around defensemen than Chorney, but that has as much to do with being a part of a healthy development system as anything else. Gilmour is a draft-and-follow as the Flames took him in the 7th round in 2012 and he has two more years of eligibility in the NCAA to continue developing. He’s a longshot, but if he makes it it’ll probably be as a 3rd pairing powerplay specialist.
9. Chad Billins
agent signing by the Flames in 2013. Depth player, career AHLer. Scores well in
that league with a .55 ppg pace over 141 games, 80 PIMs and +10 indicate a
smart, offensively gifted blueliner. Signed with CKSA Moskova this past spring.
25 yrs old and small. 141 AHL games to date, will play in KHL for the 2014-2015
season. Like Cundari, Billins is a known quantity now and his window to make the NHL has pretty much closed.
10. Brandon Hickey
relation to Thomas Hickey. AJHL defender who in 106 games managed 0.27 ppg with
42 PIMs and an even +/-, although I have to admit that last stat could be the
result of limited information. Slightly larger than some previous prospects at
6’1″ and has room to fill out at 176 lbs. Will play with Boston College
this year. 2014 3rd round pick by the Flames. Playing in the NCAA for the
2014-2015 season. Hickey is a ways away, but has promise. He is a strong defensive player who shows some offensive potential and has the ability to earn points by getting the puck to teammates in good positions to score. He is mobile and plays a responsible game in his own end – pretty typical of many NCAA defensemen and a reason why I like this type of player. Too soon to say what his potential will be, but he is due to play for Boston College this year and the Flames have lots of time to let him develop. If you want a possible outcome for him, I’d offer Dillon Simpson, a friend of Hickey’s who advised him on taking the college route, and Jordan Oesterle as two NCAA examples with which I’m familiar.
11. Eric Roy
defender at 6’3″ and 194 lbs. Plays for the Wheat Kings in the WHL, had a
miserable draft year managing 37 pts in 72 games but being sunk by a -32.
Rebounded last year with 44 pts in 66 games and 51 PIMs with a -9. WHL career
numbers are reasonable, 256 games, 0.61 ppg, 158 PIMs and -31, which is largely
the result of one very bad year. Provides more offense than one might assume at
first glance, and his career +/- coupled with his lower PIMs and assistant
captaincy indicate a player who is relied upon and delivers. 2013 5th round
pick by the Flames, 19 yrs old. Likely to return to WHL this season for
his overage year with the Wheat Kings. Roy is somewhat unusual among the Flames’ defensive prospects in that he is a larger body who appears to be able to also play defense, as opposed to those above who seem to be one or the other. He provides some offense, and has good mobility and agility for a large frame, but faces challenges in becoming a more consistent player – something all junior players struggle to learn. The Flames have had prospects like this before in Keith Aulie so it is too early to expect much from the young man, but is in his final year of junior and will need to bring a more steady effort on a nightly basis if he is to progress.
12. Rushan Rafikov
of the Flames’ few Russian drafted players. Has spent majority of development
in the MHL, the KHL’s farm league. 126 games has a 0.29 ppg average, although
he doubled his points from 10 to 20 last year in fewer games, managing more
penalty minutes, 38 to 46, and vastly improving his +/- from 11 to 30. 2013 7th
round pick by the Flames, 19 yrs old, falls into the draft and follow category,
would be beneficial if the Flames could convince him to come over to the AHL to
have more input on his development. Playing in the MHL this season, 128 games in that league to date. European picks are a mix of value and risk. They often play outside of any sphere of influence for the NHL team and therefore their ice time is at the whim of another coach and GM. Teams can watch prospects wither away as they sit on the bench because the coach has his guys he likes and there’s not much you can do about it. Rafikov has tournament pedigree, and in Russia that counts for something. Rafikov is big and moves well, his passing is solid and he plays a strong defensive game. The offense is apparently lacking, but he is generally trusted in his own end. Teams like these kinds of players and because of his playing background the Flames may not have to worry too much about him not getting any playing time. His ceiling could be anywhere in the Alexei Emelin/Mark Methot range.
defensive defenseman from Sweden. Played the majority of his time in the
SuperElit league playing for Djurgarden’s under20 team. Will likely return this
season. Small sample sizes, but over 33 SuperElit games he managed 0.27 ppg, 42
PIMs and is +2. Has nice size at 6’4″ and 216 lbs already, plays a smart
game but apparently needs to improve skating ability. 2014 6th round pick by
the Flames, turned 18 in July and has miles and miles to go. Promising prospect
as a shutdown defender. Falls into the draft and follow category. 33 games in the SuperElit junior league, may split time this
season between SuperElit and Djurgarden of the SHL. He relies on his size and reach to shut down forwards, has little offensive ability to show but has also had limited opportunities thus far. His mobility isn’t always the best, but his reach allows him to get away with it. I don’t think we can say he’ll become the next Niklas Hjalmarsson, but maybe he could develop into the Daniel Tjarnqvist player range or higher depending on his progress the next two years.
Where Does This Leave Us?
While the Flames have some interesting prospects in their system, it isn’t any more or less than most NHL teams. The whole isn’t as inspiring a collection of talent as the forward group, and what redundancy there is isn’t at a level that suggests that a top-four blueliner is bound to emerge from the collection.
Defensemen take time to develop, lots of time, and they get injured and lose their way as time goes on. The surefire bet gets a concussion or fails to take the step from junior to pro, the big-bodied stud from the CHL finds out that there are bigger bodies in the AHL and they don’t give a rat’s behind that you hold the record on your bantam team in Skunk’s Misery, ON. You have to draft well and often, and then let them gradually mature away from the prying lights and eviscerating rushes of the highlight talents in the NHL.
This coming season will need to see steady progression from
Ramage and Wotherspoon for them to continue developing as NHL prospects, while Kulak, Culkin and Sieloff will be cutting their teeth in the AHL. The rest will be expected to take on a greater role with their respective junior teams in their veteran years or find their feet as they enter the NCAA system.
The blueline remains the weak point of the Flames
development model, with no strong blue-chip prospects looking like they will
emerge and the typically long development curve for young blueliners. There is
a glut of junior-range players graduating this season and next to the pro
ranks. However, it is likely to take a season and a half or two for most of
those prospects to show whether they are prepared for the NHL. Once they arrive
they will most likely need a veteran presence with whom to play in order to
ease their acclimation to the big leagues.
The Flames will likely graduate some of their 2013 forwards
to the NHL before any of the defensemen taken a year earlier are ready for the
show. In the meantime, Brodie will be ready to be a 1st pairing
defender when they arrive and Giordano, if he is still with the team, will
probably be sliding down to a good 2nd pairing defender, barring
injury or rapid decline. Wideman and Smid should either be gone or nearly there
and Russell will probably have departed. This leaves two, maybe three roster
spots. The Flames will need to graduate defenders slowly, one at a time, which
means they’ll need to find one or two NHL-ready bodies in the next year or two
to fill some of these spots. Drafting Noah Hanifin this June would change
their prospect landscape significantly.
More than any other area of the franchise, defense is going
to require some work in both the short and long-term. This is going to become a problem if the Flames rely on Brodie and an aging Giordano for the next three years without anyone else coming up behind them to help shoulder the load.