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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Is this the last hurrah for a pair of Flames prospects?

Tuesday saw the Calgary Flames assign goaltender Mason McDonald and forward Hunter Smith to Stockton of the American Hockey League as part of a sizeable first round of training camp cuts. Both Smith and McDonald are 2014 second round picks, with the former entering the final year of his entry level deal, and it’s not a stretch to think they could be nearing the end of the line in the organization.

So what does the future hold for this pair, knowing how things have progressed around them in recent years?

Looking back

Calgary owned a pair of picks entering the 2014 NHL Draft: their own 34th overall selection, and the 54th overall pick acquired from Colorado in a deal that sent Reto Berra the other way (yes, that deal somehow happened). Having already made Sam Bennett the fourth overall pick, the Flames would take McDonald as the draft’s first goaltender at 34 before adding Smith to the fold at 54.

At the time, the McDonald pick was slightly curious. Sure, he checked the “big and tall” box that teams tend to look for these days in goaltending prospects, but McDonald’s QMJHL numbers were rather pedestrian, if not mediocre, leading into his draft year. Numbers courtesy HockeyDB.

So, even with fairly underwhelming junior numbers at that point, Calgary scouts saw something in McDonald and used their second pick on him. For context, the Vancouver Canucks would make Boston College’s Thatcher Demko the second goaltender picked two picks later, even though he was ranked number one on most scouting lists.

Twenty picks after McDonald’s selection, the Flames would go even bigger when they selected Smith from the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. At 6’7 and 225 pounds, Smith looked like a nightclub bouncer when he towered over me on the draft floor in Philly and his junior numbers to that point were very intriguing. Clearly a later bloomer, Smith looked to be on a solid development curve, as he saw a huge offensive jump in his draft year. Numbers courtesy HockeyDB.

To go from two combined points in 45 games to 40 in 64 made outside observers curious about Smith’s potential. Still, there was a worry the Flames targeted Smith primarily for his size, a tactic that doesn’t frequently pay dividends.

Progression

After signing entry-level deals on the same day in July, McDonald and Smith had decent plus-one seasons in junior hockey. McDonald took on a number one workload for the first time and made 56 appearances for Charlottetown; he went 28-22-4 with a 0.906 save percentage. While not spectacular, his first full year in the Flames organization looked like a step forward.

The following year saw McDonald’s stock rise a little more while also putting him in the national spotlight. As a 19-year-old, McDonald posted a 0.902 save percentage in 39 games with the Islanders, but it was his work in another jersey that gained him more notoriety.

The 2015-16 season saw McDonald get the call for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Finland. Unfortunately, much like the team around him, McDonald struggled en route to a sixth place finish. McDonald appeared in two games, winning one and losing one, and finished with an 0.861 save percentage while being relegated to Mackenzie Blackwood’s backup.

From afar, it seems like McDonald has never been able to rebound from that tough WJC experience. The next year saw him struggle at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton and then make the professional turn. His first pro year, though, wasn’t one to write home about. McDonald spent virtually the entire year in the ECHL, putting up below average numbers: he went 13-9-3 with an 0.897 save percentage.

Things seemed promising for Smith right off the hop, too. In his 19-year-old season with Oshawa, Smith saw his points-per-game go from 0.63 to 0.86 as he finished with 23 goals and 49 points in 57 games. The Generals had a great 2015-16 season, too, finishing as the number one seed in the OHL’s Eastern Conference with 108 points. That allowed Smith to get a little more national exposure.

Smith was a key piece as Oshawa rolled through the playoffs, putting up 18 points in 21 games to finish fourth on the team in postseason scoring. By and large, Smith also looked just fine with the Generals in the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup. He scored once in four games as Oshawa went undefeated, triumphing 2-1 over Kelowna to win the championship in overtime.

Much like McDonald, though, Smith’s turn to pro hockey has been a struggle. In 88 games with AHL Stockton over two seasons, Smith has just five goals and 19 points and has largely featured in a depth role. While he hasn’t had a brush with the ECHL yet, Smith has struggled to find solid footing at the next level.

Going forward

McDonald’s future with Calgary might look a little less bleak had the team not taken big steps forward between the pipes in the years since he was drafted. While Jon Gillies was already in the fold when McDonald was drafted, the Flames have since added David Rittich and Tyler Parsons and both have slotted into higher spots on the depth chart.

The one saving grace for McDonald right now is his contract status. Because he was drafted entering his 18-year-old season, McDonald’s entry level deal doesn’t expire until the summer of 2019. As such, and because he’s unlikely to generate much trade interest, McDonald is likely looking at two more seasons in the organization.

Smith doesn’t have that same luxury, though. With just one year remaining on his first pro contract, I don’t think it would surprise anyone to see Smith and the team part ways at the end of this season. First off, Calgary’s depth at forward has improved dramatically over the last couple years. More importantly, though, if the team doesn’t see him projecting as an NHLer, is there much of a point in bringing him back?

I guess there’s no harm if either player were to stay with the Flames beyond their entry level contracts, but I’m not sure there’s a big benefit, either. That’s why this coming season likely qualifies as last chance saloon for both Smith and McDonald, so I’m curious to see if either player has anything up their sleeve to up their standing on the depth chart.

On the bright side, Calgary’s work in the second round seems to have taken a big step forward recently. 2014 was Brad Treliving’s first draft as general manager and he had only been on the job for about a month upon taking over from acting GM Brian Burke. His subsequent drafts have looked a little different.

2015, for instance, saw the Flames add both Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington in round two, while the aforementioned Parsons and Dillon Dube were both second round picks in 2016. The fates of McDonald and Smith aren’t written completely in stone yet, but it’s safe to say Calgary’s draft work since 2014 looks a little more promising.

  • That's My Point

    Yes, I think the Mike Smith experiment is over; 35 years old and not going to improve next year or any time soon. Flames defence giving up 15 goals in 3 pre-season games? Worst D in the league by far.

      • Trevy

        Don’t think it was about money, more like what they would have to give I return. Funny how people think a guy like Treliving didn’t do his due diligence when looking for a goalie. Salary is one aspect, but what you have to give up is another. He clearly stated that they looked at every available goalie on the market and based on our prospects progressing and the cost of these goalies, Smith was the best overall solution. The man played one game and some fans are jumping ship. These fans, like you, are also the ones that would of complained about how much he gave up to get a guy like Fleury!

      • HOCKEY83

        No doubt. 3 preseason games played by mostly prospects. The entire team hasn’t played a game together yet. At least wait until we ice the team that we are mostly going with. Right now it’s just to see who’s worth keeping up and who isn’t. As far as I’m concerned in the 3 preseason games not one of the prospects have hustled enough to warrant a spot on the team. In last nights game they played for 20 minutes and then left Gillies out to dry. It’s like they just thought they were going to hammer them after the first and stopped trying. Especially in the second period…19 shots. The best line last night was Dube’s line and it shouldn’t have been. The players losing these games will not be on the roster come the start of the season. I’m guessing Jankowski and Kulak will be part of the team but these kids haven’t made it a tough decision as to who to keep up at all.

  • The GREAT WW

    NO mention in this article that WW told you these were terrible picks at the time, even though everyone back then said: “I’ll trust our hockey executives judgement over WW…”

    WW

        • Danomitee

          When I look at coaches like GG or Cameron, they just don’t command respect. Coaches like Quennville, Babcock, even someone like Bouchard in Ottawa have that look of intensity that makes you nervous. Our coaches may be “good” systematically or whatever but they look and act soft.

          • Skylardog

            Yes – you nailed it. He is on paper one of the best 30 coaches in the world, and should be, but he continues to make mistakes on and off the ice. His player usage, demeanor, challenge decisions…. All very questionable. And he is a nervous wreak out there. He does not have the personality needed to make it happen.

        • Oilerchild77

          GG is only a slightly better version of Dallas Eakins. GG only looks better because he’s coaching a better team than that sad bunch Eakins had to deal with.

    • supra steve

      And, no mention in YOUR post that you actually disliked Backlund back then. Pretty easy to appear to be a hockey savant when you only remember (and spout off about) the times in the past when your opinion turned out to be correct, with no mention of the times when you were just so totally wrong.

      So, to sum up, 2 prospects you knew very little about, you disliked. Michael Backlund who you saw play every game, you disliked.

    • HOCKEY83

      Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Not every player or every pick makes the big club we have some that will and some that won’t just like every other team in the NHL.

  • supra steve

    “For context, the Vancouver Canucks would make Boston College’s Thatcher Demko the second goaltender picked two picks later, even though he was ranked number one on most scouting lists.”

    Granted, that is 100% correct.

    I’m just not sure why it is always brought up. In 1990 the Flames selected the top rated goaltender, turns out they would have been far better off selecting the #2 rated guy. So, it appears the consensus can be wrong. When dealing with 18 year old kids, especially tenders, mistakes are made more often than not. So why do we torture ourselves with “For context, the Vancouver Canucks would make Boston College’s Thatcher Demko the second goaltender picked two picks later, even though he was ranked number one on most scouting lists.”?

    Add to that the fact that Demko has not actually done anything yet at the NHL level either.

  • redwhiteblack

    McDonald and Smith are just two of the huge amount of picks that never have an impact at the NHL level. Only a few lottery tickets pan out. I wish them well when they leave the organization.

    • McRib

      The 2004 NHL Draft is widely regarded as the best (single year) draft in history, but still 55.5% of players taken in that draft never even played a game in the NHL. If you eliminate players who played less than an average NHL career (which is 150 GP), 74.6% of those in that Draft didn’t have impactful replacement level careers.

  • JumpJet

    Looking back on the second round in 2014, there are really only 2 players of note to have emerged to far (Brandon Montour and Christian Dvorak). A little silver lining is that the Sabres had 3 second round picks that year and not one has played an NHL game yet.

    • McRib

      Christian Dvorak was also considered a reach at the time as he missed most of the year with injury and Brandon Montour was a third time re-entry having been passed over the two previous Drafts.

  • Fan the Flames

    I can’t believe some of the comments . Mike Smith let in a couple if soft goals in the first preseason game well that doesn’t end the season . Some guy saying worst defence in the league after a preseason loss with the top 4 dman out of the lineup . What you all need to remember is the Flames once lost ten in a row and went the the Stanley cup final that year . There is a reason they don’t hand out the hardware in preseason so spare the negativity.

    • Raffydog

      I think the worries concerning Smith stems from the fact we’ve seen this all before since Kipper retired. You can’t have a goalie who is good for one or two bad goals against a game. Nothing deflates a team as much as that. You outplay the opposistion only to find yourself losing the game, because of bad goals. There were better options available before the expansion draft, yet somehow we ended up with the 2 weakest goalies of the bunch. Not sure how anyone expected much more from these two clowns we have in net. I called it when they were first signed, but what do I know.

  • Just.Visiting

    As Kenny Rogers once said, “You need to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away…” I think that each of them should be looking at the upcoming season as an audition for 31 other teams.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    “McDonald’s future with Calgary might look a little less bleak had the team not taken big steps forward between the pipes in the years since he was drafted.”

    Have we been watching the same team?

  • Franko J

    Both players have been surpassed by better talent in the organization. Actually they really have no place in either the AHL or ECHL and better off finding a fresh start with another organization.