Let’s Talk: Flames’ Current and Past Prospect Centre Depth

Hop
on the time machine and let’s go back. Let’s go back, oh, say to the start of
when Flames fans really started to
become tired of the mediocrity. Where calls for a full-on rebuild were heard loud
and clear. How about 2010? A nice, solid 5 years ago.

We’re
going to take a brief look at the Flames’ prospect depth at the centre
position, which happened to be the most worrisome for everyone, including
management, when talks of a rebuild started to pop up. Now, it could be argued the
Flames have a log jam up the middle. How did it turn so damn quickly?

2010:
A TREE WITHOUT FRUIT

Remember
back in 2010, watching (or following) the Abbotsford Heat and seeing Greg Nemisz, Gaelan Patterson and John
Armstrong
as the only legitimate centre prospect depth on the farm? Nemisz
was going to be Calgary’s second line power forward of the future, Patterson
had a good shot at being a third- or fourth-line gritty, energy pivot? Or so we
thought, because we didn’t know any better. Like people who spend their entire
lives in the mountains – they don’t know what else is out there; they don’t
know anything outside of what they know.

Then
there was the fella named Mitch Wahl
who had talent for days. He was easily one of the most gifted playmakers in the
organization. Unfortunately, in just the 18th game of his first full
professional season, Aaron Volpatti of the Manitoba Moose demolished Wahl with
an elbow to the head that left him lying contorted and unconscious on the ice.
He was never the same and has since spent most of his career in the ECHL.

Previous
to that season, in what was ultimately Darryl Sutter’s final draft, likely
realizing the organizational hole up the middle, he had just selected centres Max Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice and Bill Arnold of the U.S. National U-18
Team. Reinhart was a solid pick in the third round and a stud on the Ice,
especially in their playoff runs alongside linemate Matt Fraser. Arnold was an
unknown, husky kid from Massachusetts who was a long ways away from being in the mix.

Mikael Backlund, in all his
glory, was a 100 watt light bulb in a package of 40 watts, and he had already
graduated to the NHL.

2011:
NEW BRICKS, NEW FOUNDATION

Darryl
was fired. His legacy came to an ugly end and he left the organization in an
uglier state. When Jay Feaster was hired, he immediately expressed the dire
need for more centre depth and started stocking the cupboards with brand new cups.
Right off the opening pitch, Feaster made a couple of significant moves that finally brought in young, exciting centres.
He picked up Roman Horak from the
Rangers who played 61 games for the Flames, providing solid minutes and giving
Flames fans some new blood to cheer for.

With
that Tim Erixon trade, Feaster also drafted Markus Granlund out of Finland, adding two young centres with one
swing. Twenty-four days later, Feaster dealt Robyn Regehr to Buffalo in a deal
that brought in Paul Byron, a young,
miniscule 60+ point AHLer.

Meanwhile
on the farm, Nemisz’s gloss became matte with the surprise of Horak’s seemingly
permanent spot in the Flames lineup. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t still a
prospect. “He could still be a defensively responsible two-way power
forward-type on the third line,” some said. Wahl was flipped to Hamilton
supposedly due to too many centres (Krys Kolanos, Ben Walter and Greg Nemisz
took up those spots). Newcomer Paul Byron split his time between the Flames and
Heat.

Alright,
now we’re getting somewhere. Not great, but looking better.

2012:
BABY STEPS

We
start off the year with the NHL lockout. That’s okay though, because the kids
get to practice together, play together, eat together and mash video game buttons
together. The lockout came at a perfect time for the Flames from a prospect
development standpoint.

Prior
to the draft the Flames won the so-called bidding sweepstakes and signed
26-year-old Roman Cervenka out of
the KHL. Feaster raved about getting a top-2, highly skilled centre. Turns out,
he wasn’t a centre after all. Oops.

The
summer started off as planned when Feaster Weisbrod drafted a tall,
lanky high school kid out of Stanstead College. A little off the board, but hey,
the Flames needed centre depth. That need wasn’t as immediately urgent anymore,
so Mark Jankowski could stay four
full seasons at Providence College. Finally some centre depth in a variety of
leagues. Also in the draft, the Flames plucked centre Matt Deblouw with their last pick and had a very nice rookie season
in college, but hasn’t done anything to warrant a contract since.

On
free agency day, the Flames were relatively quiet, but did sign 23-year-old Ben Street who, he claimed, was stuck
behind Crosby, Malkin and Sutter in the Pittsburgh organization. In the end, he
turned out to be an awesome farm hand and not much else.

When
the season began, all eyes were on the Abbotsford Heat. Between Street, Horak,
Nemisz, Byron and rookie Reinhart, the Flames had some decent prospects in the
middle, which provided a tad bit of hope for the future. Brett Olson also played 70 games for the Heat and became a bit of a
sleeper centre prospect over his two seasons in the organization.

2013:
THE MONAHAN ERA

When
the calendar flipped to 2013, the first move to beef up the centre depth was to
acquire Corban Knight who refused to
sign with the Florida Panthers in exchange for a fourth-round pick. This was an
outstanding move when it was made because Knight was a highly touted prospect
due to his size, skill and two-way ability – a great addition to an already
growing prospect base. He went on to tally an impressive 44 points in his first
season.

The
Flames went into the draft with the sixth overall selection and there was
little doubt from fans or media pundits what position they should draft for –
it was unanimously a centre prospect they needed to help the rebuild along.
Fans flip-flopped between wanting Elias Lindholm or Sean Monahan. Ultimately, Jay Feaster and the scouting team finally
got their star first-line centre of the future.

A
new era began. With 96 points in his first two seasons, Monahan has established
himself as one of the league’s emerging young stars.

That
wasn’t the last of the good news. Back in Abbotsford, for the first time in the
Flames history of probably ever, five centre prospects rounded out the top five
in team scoring. Markus Granlund, in
his first season on North American soil, picked up 46 points in 52 games and
led his team in scoring in a short stint of playoff hockey. Max Reinhart also emerged as one of the
organization’s brightest, leading the Heat in scoring and splitting half his
time at centre and the half on the wing. Ben
Street
, Corban Knight, and Brett Olson rounded out the top five.

The
Flames were (FINALLY!) legitimately deep with centre prospects.

2014:
THE ONE-TWO PUNCH

December
of 2013 rolled around and BOOM, Brian Burke, head of hockey ops, fired Feaster.
Before the draft, Burke hired Arizona Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving. Then
he promoted Craig Conroy to assistant GM… and a guy named Brad Pascall to
assistant GM… and Michael Holditch as an assistant GM.

After
a season worthy of scraping off the inside of a kitchen sink drain pipe, the
Flames entered the 2014 draft with some nice high picks, including the fourth
overall pick (their highest pick ever). The Flames were guaranteed to select an
unbelievable prospect in this spot, all of which filled a need. One of Aaron
Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl or Sam
Bennett
was theirs. We all know who they picked.

The
Flames were set for the future. A one-two punch up the middle of Sean Monahan
and Sam Bennett is what fans have wanted since the ‘80s.

Back
in the American league, in a new town with new coaches and a new group of
prospects, the Adirondack Flames centre depth was shaky. Reinhart was snake bit
for two-thirds of the season and Knight played fairly average until he was
traded for Drew Shore (who was an
awesome addition to an already stacked centre talent pool).

Bill Arnold was perhaps the
biggest standout at centre. When he was healthy, he was dynamic, but a shoulder
injury took two months away from his season. Arnold put himself on the map as a
legitimate two-way centre in the NHL and became arguably the best faceoff man
in the organization.

OH
HOW FAR THEY’VE COME

What
an ugly, tumultuous, beautiful, infuriating, satisfying road fans have had to
endure when it comes to building the organization’s centre depth.

From
Michael Backlund, Greg Nemisz, and Gaelan Patterson to Sean Monahan, Sam
Bennett, Markus Granlund, Bill Arnold, Mark Jankowski, Drew Shore, and Max
Reinhart. It’s been an amazing turn around to witness first hand, but how did
we get here? The answer, as cliché and unsatisfying as it may be, is one step
at a time. At least once in each of the past five seasons listed above, management
made one big move to build for future centre depth.

In
2010, it was drafting Reinhart and Arnold. In 2011, it was the Tim Erixon trade
that brought in Horak and Granlund. In 2012, it was drafting Jankowski. In
2013, it was drafting Monahan. In 2014, it was drafting Bennett. At least one move,
directed toward the future, once per year has changed the Calgary Flames for
the better.

Development, patience and luck are what have
given the Flames one of the best centre prospect pools in the NHL. Now, it’s
time for the Flames to exercise that formula on defense.

  • beloch

    The Flames have so many centres they had a playoff line composed of nothing but centres: Bennett, Backlund, and Colborne. What’s next? Centres playing defense?

    It’s great to have such depth up the middle, but it has reached the point where some very good centres (e.g. Bill Arnold) are on the outside looking in. It’s time to make some trades and shore up areas where the Flames have real needs.

    Matt Stajan was good this season but he played a much smaller role than he’s capable of. It doesn’t make sense to keep him around if he’s going to be centring the fourth line. If he were traded one of the Farm centres could fill in for him and, possibly, be an upgrade in a season or two. Rookies need NHL minutes to become veterans, after all.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Not sure I agree Bill Arnold is on the “outside looking in”? Flames were destroyed off the face-off circle during the season and predominately during the playoffs. Arnold’s skill set and strengths are his speed, work ethic and face-off skill…and he is developing nicely in the AHL….one of the organizations strengths!

  • beloch

    Nice again Mike!

    You have mentioned Bill Arnold as real prospect on many occasions. At this point Stajan seems to be in the way but I certainly agree with Burnward that at least for next season, Stajan has to be part of the mix. Just loved that winner goal against the Canucks!

    Mike could you contemplate on paper how Arnold shoehorns his way onto the squad? It looks real tough at this point.

    Cheers!

    • ChinookArchYYC

      We already are getting there!

      Obviously there’s Brodie who’s still got a decade+ left in him, but there’s also (keep in mind to add “poor man’s” to the descriptions):

      Kenney Morrison (Brent Seabrook type)

      Rushan Rafikov (Skating’s not there just yet, but he could be the next Giordano himself)

      Brandon Hickey (physical and mobile puck-mover, reminds me of Drew Doughty, but still needs to work on his D-zone coverage to get near that level)

      Brett Kulak (very mobile puck-mover, reminds me of Jake Muzzin)

      Tyler Wotherspoon (Hjalmarsson type)

      Ryan Culkin (power play wizard with very good instincts in his own zone too, think Alec Martinez)

      Adam Ollas Mattson (who looks like Robyn Regehr 2.0)

      Kanzig (He could be a 6’7 version of Robyn Regehr if he continues working on his skating)

      And a few others who are longer shots but have the tools (Sieloff, I’m looking at you, but also John Gilmour)

      Obviously at least half of these will get “Nemisz/Wahl’d out of the farm team but the ones who survive could really be something special. We only need a few of them to make the team in the next handful of years, as Russell is still in his prime, Brodie is Brodie, and Mark Giordano is a Greek God.

  • beloch

    I heard McDavid won the top player in the OHL award and Draisaitl absolutely made the WHL look like a joke and won the WHL top player award. Can anyone confirm?

  • Franko J

    I liked Arnold since they drafted him in the fourth round (another late round pick). At one time the Flames centre depth was abysmal. Without strong centre talent and depth it is very difficult to win in the NHL. If the team can continue to become better in the face-off circle and drive the play good things are on their way for the Flames. In the next few years especially in the Pacific Division there are going to be great battles between the Flames, Oilers and Canucks because of their talent at centre.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The current Flames roster has 8 regular skaters centres listed: Monahan, Stajan, Backlund, Bouma, Byron, Colburne, Jooris, and Hudler. Add Bennett and Grandlund to the mix of skaters the got some importnant minutes and the list is now 10 deep. Then add guys knocking at the door: Reinhardt, Arnold and Drew Shore where now at 13 forwards in the organization that are listed as centre men. To call Calgary’s centre depth an imbarrassment of riches is an understatement. It’s a position of strength that you’d have to think the Flames Braintrust is looking to exploit.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Hudler, Colburne, Jooris, Byron and Bouma, and Bennett are all likely candidates to b e placed on a wing this year. (Yes, even Bennett will likely be eased into a top 6 LW role before being awarded a centermen role, at least for part of the year). Now that 3 cemented Centermen: Backlund, Monahan, and Stajan leaving the #4 Center role open for the taking. Question is who?

      Layer in more complexity when you consider Poirier, Arnold, Shore, Grandlund, and Ferland are looking to land a job in the forward ranks. Trades are a coming!

      • ChinookArchYYC

        Guys that absolutely need NHL minutes made available are Shore & Arnold next year. If Reinhart is retained by the Flames he will become a career AHL’er. Agostino seems to be forgotten & I think we can afford to see what happens with him for 1 more year in the AHL before either moving him or risk him being another career AHL’er casualty.

        Bennett started getting some Centre ice time later in that Anaheim series. Don’t underestimate that kid getting lots of Centre time on the 3rd line next year. Money & Backs will probably shoulder the top two line duty.

        So where does that leave the likes of Granlund, Colbourne & Jooris? You can only move so many of them to the wings when you have kids like Ferland & Porrier cracking ice time in their natural positions & Klimchuk soon after that.

        This draft we have the 15th overall which I really think will be a true bluechip defender & then we have the 45th, 52nd & 53rd picks. At the draft when some coveted players drop to this 2nd round range, would a package of Granlund & one of Agostino or Reinhart & one of these 2’nds get us an NHL ready 22 or 23 year old defender? Would we jeopardize our centre depth by moving one or two of these guys? Personally I would love to see the Flames make NHL minute room for Arnold next fall. My expectations for this team is higher for next year than it was going into last year. With increased expectations comes a touch of impatience & I do expect BT to put his stamp on this team that has transition to being a playoff team etched on it. We won’t be Cup contenders but a contender to make the playoffs is not an unrealistic expectation going into next year.

        • RickT

          I think having Bennett as 3C would be awesome.

          With Monahan with our 1C, we have a legit top line if they play like they did last year.

          Backs as 2C, with the play like he has been, could be a potentially good scoring line. (So long as we are done with the T6LB experiment (top-six-Lance-Bouma).

          Bennett as 3C, with Ferland on the wing, has really great potential, too.

          4C with Arnold or Stajan, Bouma, etc. would be a great shutdown line.

          So, could roll three really good lines, and have a capable shut down line… When does next season start?

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I look at what you have to say and think are we as biased as the Oiler fans who think they will be a dynasty? Hudler may be listed as a center but he has not played much of that since his arrival here. As far as the other guys Monahan is a high end center already and may reach the elite ceiling. Backlund is an solid 3rd centerman and Stajan is solid 4th center. The rest are really unproven or have been moved to the wing. Bennett has the potential to be high end and maybe even elite. I still hold out hope for Granlund as a depth offensive center but there is still a lot of work to be done there. Arnold will be Stajan’s replacement in 2 seasons. Until one or more of these guys become an excellent face off man I would hold off on calling this an embarrassment of riches. It’s a good start.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        I think you’re reading too much into my comments. I’m simply stating that the Flames have 13 capable centremen in the organization. This from the same team that put Curtis Glencross in as a pivot when no other options were available. It’s depth by quantity at least.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    It’s not unheard of for career wingers to be shifted from Center. Lance Bouma was a center coming into the league, but he’s terrible at the position, as is Colborne. Jooris is better on the wing too IMO.

    We need to look at our forwards as just forwards be they RW, LW, or C and see where they fit in, even if they’re listed at C technically. Here’s how I see it:

    LW:
    Gaudreau
    Hudler (wrong side of 30)
    Bouma
    Byron
    Ferland
    Granlund
    Colborne
    Klimchuk
    Wolf
    Agostino
    Elson
    Bollig

    C:
    Monahan
    Bennett
    Backlund
    Jankowski
    Arnold
    Stajan (wrong side of 30)
    Reinhart

    RW
    Jones (wrong side of 30)
    Jooris
    Shore
    Poirier
    Smith
    Caroll

    TradePlz:
    Raymond (wrong side of 30)

    Way I see it, LW is still the true log jam and RW is still thin. Sure, putting Hudler, Byron and Colborne on RW is a decent band-aid solution, but that’s all it is.