Five AHL Prospects Poised for Breakout Seasons

Last
year the Adirondack Flames’ season was nothing to write home about, but it did
reveal the sheer amount of depth the Calgary Flames organization truly has.

Adirondack’s
rookies made up
approximately
45% of the team’s goals
by the end of the season. Those are staggering
numbers and by no means a regular occurrence in the American league.

Among
those rookies are a handful of players who fans should start directing their attention,
because as soon as next season, these prospects could be looking at breakout
seasons.

#1:
KENNY AGOSTINO

What.
A. Season.

And
who expected it? Agostino is what we might consider a second or even third tier
prospect. He wasn’t up there with Gaudreau and Bennett, and he wasn’t up there
Poirier or Granlund. Now, I think we can start talking about him as one of the
organization’s most well-rounded prospects.

Agostino’s
run to the end the season was nothing short of remarkable. Something just clicked.

After
just 17 points in his first 44 games, he went on a ridiculous tear scoring 26
points in his last 23 games. This is around the same time he earned top line
minutes, ample power play time and even penalty killing time due to increased
trust in his defensive and offensive capabilities.

Beyond
that, Agostino possesses the type of play that will earn huge points in a Bob
Hartley system. He’s got a non-stop motor, he’s physical without crossing the
line and can play in a multitude of scenarios. He’s the AHL version of an NHL Josh
Jooris or Paul Byron… with more offense.

The
former Yale star’s growth as the season wore on showed a trend that instils
confidence in future growth, which is why Agostino is the most likely to break
out this season. If he continues what he did last year, he won’t just be a name
the hardcore fans know.

#2:
EMILE POIRIER

Like
any rookie, Poirier went through a number of dry spells throughout the season,
but also showed something that most rookies don’t – resilience. His ability to
work himself out of dry spells is
impressive on two fronts.

First,
he didn’t have help. He didn’t have veteran forwards to lean on to help rack up
secondary assists or gift wrap open net goals. He worked his own way out of the
dark mines of his rookie slumps. Secondly, he didn’t just end slumps, he ‘tombstoned’
them. He’d go through three, four, sometimes five game slumps, but when he left
those slumps, he’d go for four or five point stretches.

Inconsistency,
yes, but when April rolled around, Poirier was a poster boy for consistency in
Adirondack. That’s what you want to see from a prospect as he leaves his rookie
season (much like Agostino did). It remains to be seen if Poirier will work his
way onto the Flames this season (probably not), but if he continues to trend in
the right direction and develop consistent scoring, he’ll have a right wing
spot locked down as soon as the 2016-17 season.

#3:
BILL ARNOLD

Arnold
is only this far down the list because Agostino and Poirier were that good last
season. If he hadn’t sat out nearly two months due to a shoulder injury, we
might be talking about him as the team’s scoring leader. Heck, as it is he was
either the leading scorer or second leading scoring up until his injury.

That
scoring ability combined with his masterful defensive game is where Arnold
caught lightning in a bottle last year and is what will get him into the NHL at
some point.

There
are a number of reasons Arnold is on this list. First, as previously mentioned,
his skill and defensive game are a perfect combination for today’s NHL.
Secondly, physically he’s had the frame of an NHL third- or fourth-liner since
joining Boston College. Thirdly, there are more aspects of his game that will
get him into the NHL than not. He has few weak spots in his game. Perhaps the
only one (and his may even be a stretch) is that his speed is first step and
acceleration needs marginal improvement. Even then, it takes an electron microscope
to find an obvious flaw in his game. Did I mention he might be the organization’s
best faceoff man?

So
why isn’t he in the NHL then, Mike? On most other teams, he might have half a
season of NHL hockey under his belt by this point. Unfortunately, he’s stuck
behind Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund. So the way I see it, one
man is standing in his way to break onto the Flames: Matt Stajan. When and if
Matty Franchise is no longer in the fold, it’s Arnold’s spot for the taking.

#4:
RYAN CULKIN

What
a pleasantly surprising season for Culkin.

The
Montreal native went into the season with absolutely no expectations placed on
him from fans or management and he used that to his advantage. He earned a spot
in Adirondack right out of camp while his comparable, Brett Kulak, was sent to
the ECHL. As a fan, you’ve always had the sense that Culkin and Kulak, while
playing in different junior leagues, would eventually (and perhaps inevitably) go
head-to-head for organizational spots since they’re nearly identical
defensemen.

Now,
after a full season, it appears Culkin has taken an edge organizationally over
Kulak. It could also be argued that he’s only a step behind Tyler Wotherspoon for
an NHL spot.

Culkin’s
unfortunate (and gruesome) injury where he suffered sliced tendons in his wrist
ended his season short, but prior to that he was on pace for a 37 point season
as a rookie. His minutes were managed to approximately a third- or
second-pairing level, but within a month he was receiving a great deal of
praise from head coach Ryan Huska.

Huska
regularly commented on his abnormal maturity and steadiness that’s not typically
seen in a 20-year-old defender fresh out of the QMJHL. That trust earned him
more minutes and more responsibility as he embraced his increased roles.

With
John Ramage now out of the picture, don’t be surprised to see Culkin alongside
Wotherspoon to start the season in Stockton. Culkin already has his coach’s
trust – it’s simply a matter of picking up where he left off.

#5:
BRETT KULAK

Kulak’s
progression is about as textbook as you can get for a young defensive junior
star.

Coming
out of Vancouver, Kulak was the guy
on the Giants. When it came to the team’s offense, power play, and tempo, most
of it went through him. As you could imagine, when a player is relied upon
almost exclusively for such integral parts of the game there’s a tendency for
that player to be allowed to get away with certain things.

I’m
not saying Kulak developed bad habits, because he didn’t. I’m saying he had freedom
and a lot of lack on his leash in Vancouver. Former Abbotsford Heat head coach
Troy Ward commented on numerous occasions that Kulak would be a good player one
day if he can learn to reel in his self-confidence and selfishness just a tad.

It’s
that confidence and cockiness (in a good way) that Kulak brought down Highway 1
to Abbotsford. In 10 games to finish the 2013-14 season with the Heat, it was a
common occurrence to see his smooth skating on display, taking the puck out of
his zone by himself and attempting to lead the rush into the other end. This
time, however, he wasn’t playing against kids, so he often turned the puck over
or got caught too deep.

This
is completely normal for a player like Kulak.

More recently, however, Kulak’s taken that
slight selfishness down a notch and has become quite a TJ Brodie-lite. He’s
learned when and when not to do it all himself and has become steadier in his
own zone. That’s the type of progression you want to see and the type of
progression that could see Kulak have his best season yet as a staple on
Stockton’s blue line.

    • piscera.infada

      I actually quite like Agostino (and he certainly had a heck of a season). I knew of him before the Flames traded for him (Hanowski on the other hand…) and he looked good in the few games he’s played with the Flames. Great skater. Good compete. Smart. Heavy shot.

      • piscera.infada

        Amen to that. I’ve been a fan for awhile (those comments were usually met with trashes around these parts). It’s kind of unfortunate for him that he’ll be tied to Jarome for his career though.

    • piscera.infada

      Not this year – he is still at Providence.

      Probably not next year as he will likely need some seasoning in the AHL.

      The year after that, he might be in a position to be a third line centre, possibly a good one, in place of Backlund.

      Backlund or Bennett will be the 2nd line centre this year, probably the former, with Bennett stepping up to a solid 2nd line or possibly even first line in place of Monahan, if his game matures at the same time he does physically.

      If Jankowski pans out that way, it would make Backlund expendable in a few years while he is still on the right side of 30 and with a year left in his contract, which should mean a valuable asset back. If Jankowski doesn’t pan out, which is more likely than not even now, we still have Backlund, who would be the best third line centre in the league when he isn’t hurt.

      • OKG

        There’s nothing stopping Jankowski from being A 2nd line center.

        It’s just that Bennett and Monahan are limiting him from being THE 2nd line center.

        Bennett and Jankowski may very well share 2nd line center / LW duties on the same line, depending on matchups.

          • piscera.infada

            Without a doubt. I kind of meant “the dream as it pertains to Jankowski”. I’m not sure I follow your Poirier comment though. Do you think he’s a poor option?

          • OKG

            Only next to Eichel/Stone/Forsberg 🙂

            I do think Poirier will be a 22+ goal, 25+ assist top 6 two-way forward. But those three are obviously guys with way more upside, with Forsberg having 40+ goal potential IMO, Stone having Selke+30 goal potential (really he’s today’s Marian Hossa), and Eichel being a future multiple Hart winner barring injury.

      • BigMcD

        I look at Draisaitl last year and Edmonton did not have a legit number 2 center and Draisaitl was cast into that role. I liken that to Calgary and the situation with Bennett. I think putting Bennett into that role of 2nd line centre would be a mistake. Those are pretty heavy minutes for a guy like Bennett or Draisaitl to shoulder in their second year after being drafted.
        Although these two are different players, they should both be projected to be number 2 centers, but not yet.

        • OKG

          “Gifting” the 2C role to a newly drafted 18 year old by McT will likely go down as his biggest mistake of his GM tenure, although there were many to choose from.

          Draisaitl was clearly not ready, they burnt a year of his contract, he had little/no shelter, the coach (notwithstanding he was a pompous idiot) was put in a bind, the team culture of entitlement was cemented in, and the wheels quickly fell off the bus thereafter.

          Bennett is a year older, has been practicing and working out with the team for a year, got some good playoff experience in, knows he has to earn any position, and Hartley (given what he has done with 4-6 rookies the last 2 years) will shelter and bring Bennett along at a slower pace rather than thrown in the middle of a tire fire like Draisaitl.

          I expect Bennett to start mostly as 3LW and slowly get some 3C time in. I would anticipate playing mostly with vets in all cases for the first 2 months of the season.

        • mk

          Bennett future may be 1st or 2nd line center. That does not mean he gets thrown into the fire right away. Monahan’s first season was what you would typically expect; protected minutes, cushy zone starts, have someoe else (stajan/Backlund) take the harder minutes.

          Janko should probably be compared to Nuge in his developing years; undersized, lanky… Janko spent his first three years developing the defensive side of the game, so he can project to fill out that role or transition to be an offensive threat. Had he been playing in junior, his numbers would look a lot different than they did in NCAA. Not Johnny Hockey numbers, but more likely over 1.0 p/gp.

          The good thing is that we don’t have to force anyone yet into a center role that can’t handle it skating or toughness or skill-wise. We have Backlund and Stajan to shoulder the load until the others are ready. By last count, we have the following guys that true centers:
          Monahan, Backlund, Bennett, Stajan, Jooris, Shore, Arnold.

        • everton fc

          You are forgetting one thing:

          Bennett > Draisiatl

          This upcoming season, Bennett will play LW, Centre only if there is an injury there.

          Draisaitl will start in the AHL and will be called up in case of injury.

    • piscera.infada

      He may at some point down the line, although I see him as more of a potential third-line Backlund replacement. It won’t be this season as he’s going back to college. The argument is moot though, as I’m sure that’s Bennett’s spot in time. For now Backlund takes that spot with Frolik likely riding shot-gun–which isn’t horrible in any way. In the long-term though, the Flames have about 4 centres who all project to be excellent bottom-six options (with potential second-line upside): Arnold, Shore, Granlund, Jankowski. That also leaves out Jooris (who was fairly good at centre last year). You also still have Stajan, if you need to give those guys more time in the minors.

      Also, in the long-term, the top-six centre options are not really a concern with Monahan proving at 21 years-old he belongs there, and Bennett probably getting there in a year or two. If Bennett can’t cut it as a centre (which I very highly doubt), there is depth there to make something work (as listed above).

      So, in short, to the heart of your original question: yes, the Flames still have exceptional centre depth, but no Jankowski won’t be a second-line centre next year because a) he isn’t available (or ready yet), and b) he isn’t needed to be.

  • mk

    I can see Jankowski at the very least a better version of Joe Colborne, and I’m ok with that. After seeing him last year at Providence I don’t see this as a wasted first round pick.