Training camp is pretty much upon us, and soon, we’ll be watching Flames regulars – both new and old – get back up to speed in preparation for what should be a big season.
Something else to watch for, though – something far more interesting before the games that count actually start – will be the battles to make the team. Players ranging from Roman Horak to Josh Jooris to Brett Kulak to Matthew Tkachuk have all fought to be a part of the opening roster, and now, another crop is set to start making their case.
A big question, though, is just how many prospects will be able to make it? And how many should?
The available spots
Let’s assume the Flames go with a final roster consisting of 14 forwards, seven defencemen, and two goalies. A number of established players are pretty much guaranteed to be a part of it, barring any surprises (i.e. trades, injuries, ownership agreeing to park a significant chunk of change in the AHL):
- Forwards (11): Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Troy Brouwer, Michael Frolik, Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan, Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg, Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar, Matthew Tkachuk
- Defencemen (5): Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone
- Goalies (2): Mike Smith, Eddie Lack
That leaves three spots open for any forwards, and two spots open for any defencemen.
Now, when we go back to the original question – how many prospects should make the Flames – it’s important to define what a prospect is. For example, Freddie Hamilton is 25 years old and has played 59 NHL games. He’s not a prospect. Matt Bartkowski, 29, has played 235 NHL games; he’s definitely not a prospect. I’m not even certain if Garnet Hathaway, 25 and with 40 NHL games played, should be called a prospect anymore – he probably doesn’t have anything new to show us.
And yet, any of those three – perhaps all of them – could be in contention for those five available spots. If they get them, then that leaves room for just two actual prospects on the team, whether they have a regular spot in the lineup or sit in the press box – or both.
The almost sure bets
So let’s look at the prospects who seem most likely to pick up a spot on the Flames’ opening day roster. There are only two here I’d consider particularly strong candidates: Mark Jankowski and Brett Kulak.
If any prospects make the Flames it’s probably them. Jankowski, who turns 23 today, has played a full four seasons in the NCAA and had a great first professional year with 56 points in 64 games; also, he looked ready to go at the Penticton tournament (not that actually means much; that’s what real preseason games are for).
Kulak, 23, already has 30 NHL games to his name and perhaps could have played more than he did this past season. He’s probably the most NHL-ready defensive prospect the Flames have.
The next in lines
Those are two prospects – but what if there’s room for more? In that case, we’d probably be looking at Spencer Foo to beat out another forward, and Tyler Wotherspoon to claim Bartkowski’s spot.
Foo, 23, left the NCAA a season early to pursue an NHL contract, and it’s no secret the Flames are weak on the right side – which just so happens to be the position that he plays. Foo exploded for 62 points in 38 games as a junior at Union College, and though he’s brand new to the professional game, he could be in line to earn an NHL spot this early.
Wotherspoon, meanwhile, is just a step behind Kulak. The 24-year-old has also played 30 NHL games, but his trajectory has been more up-and-down compared to Kulak’s straight upwards: he went from playing 14 NHL games in his first professional season, to one in his second, to 11 in his third, to four in his fourth. Still, after Kulak, he’s probably more NHL-ready than the higher ceiling defensive prospects the Flames can offer up.
The dark horses
Say the Flames fill up on prospects, or something goes horribly wrong while simultaneously going incredibly right for a dark horse – then some other prospects might be able to find their way onto the opening day roster. Names here include Morgan Klimchuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Emile Poirier*, Hunter Shinkaruk*, Rasmus Andersson, and Oliver Kylington: all players who probably need some more time in the minors, but hey, you never know.
*Players not waiver exempt.
Up above, we looked at some other players who may be able to fill the five available slots despite not being prospects. They include Luke Gazdic, Hamilton, Hathaway, Marek Hrivik, and Bartkowski, all to varying degrees.
Gazdic seems the least likely, as the Flames appear to have moved away from the role of a designated fighter in the NHL. Hamilton is probably a bit more likely, as he already filled the role the previous season; Hathaway was a lower key, probably worse version of him. Hrivik, meanwhile, posted a 5v5 CF of 55.74% in 2016-17 (+6.56 relative, via Natural Stat Trick) – albeit in just 159:07 played – but when we’re talking depth roles, that’s could be pretty promising.
Bartkowski, meanwhile, may have an inside track as the only other defenceman the Flames have at present time who counts as an experienced veteran.
Questions to consider
It’s great to say the Flames should just load up with prospects and players with a hope for a brighter future sooner, but it’s probably not realistic.
How much are you expecting the prospects to play? Do you want them to have a regular shift in this lineup, like Tkachuk earned this past season, or do you want them in and out and eventually up and down, like Kulak was?
Is it better for a prospect on the cusp of making the NHL, but maybe not quite there yet, to barely play, but regularly take part in NHL-level practices? Or is it better for him to play big minutes in the AHL, possibly in a leadership capacity?
If the Flames are to be contenders this season, how many prospects does it make sense to have in the lineup?
How many would you ideally like to see make the team, and how many should be beaten out by lower ceiling depth players – or even, perhaps, a late free agent signing? What would you do?