The Calgary Flames have three things: holes in the lineup, cap space, and prospects. They could use either cap space or prospects to fill said holes – but you have to think it’s in the team’s best interests, particularly for the long term, to use the latter.
Prospects cost less. Prospects may be just as good. And either way, you’re never going to find out if they never play in the big league.
So, who should we be watching out for to fill those spots?
Forward is the spot with the most holes, so forward is the spot that gets the most focus. Depending on how some players slot, there may be spots available at all three forward positions. Will Curtis Lazar play right wing or centre? Can Kris Versteeg or Micheal Ferland take either wing? The left wing looks to be the deepest spot, so it may be harder for lefty prospects to make it in compared to righties or centres, but if they earn it…
That said, there are three guys to watch: Mark Jankowski, Spencer Foo, and Hunter Shinkaruk.
Jankowski is now five years removed from his draft year. That’s not a problem; he played four seasons in college and was always going to be a long-term project. But he had a great first professional season by all accounts, the only real knock on him being that he’s a little old for a rookie pro – which, again, isn’t his fault. If Jankowski could be an offensive and defensive leader in Stockton, though, then it might just be his time to show off at the highest level. Not in a position of prominence, mind – the Flames are rather deep at centre already – but making the NHL is a very real possibility for him in a couple of months.
Foo was a highly sought after NCAA free agent. They don’t always make the jump immediately to the NHL, but Foo is a right-shooting right winger, and one of the reasons he chose the Flames was because there’s a spot open for him right now. It’s not as though it would come out of left field for him to make the jump: his college linemate, Mike Vecchione, is on a one-way deal with the Flyers and already has a couple of NHL games to his name, and there’s pretty good reason to believe Foo can at the very least match him in on-ice performance.
That said, it won’t be the end of the world to have him start in Stockton – jumping from the NCAA to professional hockey is an adjustment no matter what – but he knows what’s potentially available for him and if his breakout junior year is any indication, he could very well be in line to take a spot.
Shinkaruk, meanwhile, has put together solid offensive seasons throughout his professional years, and showed some potential at the NHL level after the Flames acquired him in 2015. If he can stay healthy and elevate his game just enough, he could be a winger to watch – especially as he’ll be susceptible to waivers starting in 2017-18.
There’s also a darkhorse pick here: Emile Poirier. This is in part because he plays the right side, and in part because, by all accounts from the Flames’ front office, he has done a complete 180 since working to overcome his personal issues. (Like Shinkaruk, he is also susceptible to waivers in order to be sent down.) That said, that’s a lot to rebound from all at once, but there’s certainly a great deal of justified hope surrounding him.
As for defence, the Flames have left one spot open (or two if Matt Bartkowski, expansion fodder, ends up in the AHL). Considering Glen Gulutzan’s affinity for handedness, these spots are probably only available to left-handed defencemen, so Rasmus Andersson may have to wait until there’s an injury in order to get serious consideration.
That leaves two players open: Brett Kulak, and Tyler Wotherspoon. Both have played 30 NHL games to date.
Kulak is probably the guy to beat. He’s a year younger than Wotherspoon and looks like he’s done a better job of easing into big league play, particularly as he’s played in the NHL more recently. He dressed for 21 games for the Flames in 2016-17; Wotherspoon’s career high was 14 games in 2013-14 before his season was prematurely ended due to injury. Wotherspoon seems to be more of an afterthought as of late thanks to Kulak’s rise.
Although perhaps both Kulak and Wotherspoon do make it and rotate in the sixth and seventh defender spots, keeping the competition alive while both are now eligible for waivers.