The Calgary Flames are in the mix for a playoff spot, but by no means are they in a comfortable position. In contrast, the Stockton Heat, with a .648 points percentage, lead their division.
The Flames have a number of underperforming players on their roster; the Heat boast intriguing prospects, some of whom appear to be already knocking on the door to join the big league. It’s only natural to want to replace the under-performers with young blood. But even in a vacuum where such a thing would be possible, how much room really is there for them? How many prospects can a team with championship hopes fit in a regular lineup?
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Much as anybody may want some current mainstays holding an NHL roster spot to just go away, it’s not going to happen. Troy Brouwer and Matt Stajan will be sticking around; their contracts alone ensure that. As for any vitriol directed towards Curtis Lazar and Freddie Hamilton – even ignoring the external optics of giving up a second round pick, or the internal optics of brotherhood – someone has to be a healthy scratch, and it’s better them than anyone in Stockton. The same goes for Matt Bartkowski.
There is an option to get another forward in: demote Lazar or Hamilton, sit Stajan, play whoever gets called up (probably a centre, then). But that’s about it.
Then, there’s taking into account the rookies and sophomores who are already playing a regular shift.
It took Mark Jankowski and Brett Kulak longer than it should have to earn a regular spot in the lineup, but they did eventually get there. Garnet Hathaway is up by way of Kris Versteeg’s long-term injury, and if he keeps playing the way he has until Versteeg returns, then he won’t be the one going down to make room for him.
Throw in Matthew Tkachuk, who has made such an impact in the NHL already but is only in his second year, and that’s four relative newbie skaters out of a possibility of 18. Roughly a quarter of the Flames’ current lineup is occupied by guys who had a combined 23 NHL games two years ago.
David Rittich makes five as the backup goalie.
Andrew Mangiapane leads the Heat in scoring with 29 points in 27 games. Marek Hrivik is a bit older, but his 28 points in 25 games, combined with a bit of NHL experience, makes him all the more intriguing. Morgan Klimchuk has come on as of late, with 20 points in 27 games. Tyler Wotherspoon and Oliver Kylington are playing well, as is Rasmus Andersson, who already has an NHL game this season.
That’s six players who one could reasonably make a case for right now. Whittle it down a bit – Klimchuk and Kylington are more on the fringes of this group – and there are still four players one would have reason to believe could step in the NHL right now, and probably outplay a roster player or two.
The Flames could, say, reunite the Mangiapane – Jankowski – Hathaway line (and the way Sam Bennett has been playing as of late, maybe he could ignite a fire in some new linemates). Hrivik could, conceivably, replace Stajan. Wotherspoon isn’t getting any younger, but would probably be a better depth option than Bartkowski.
As for Andersson, well, the Flames both trading for Travis Hamonic and re-signing Michael Stone has left him stuck – and there really isn’t anything that can be done about that at the moment, excluding any present or future injuries (likely of a longer term nature, if Bartkowski’s appearance against Montreal is anything to go by).
With all NHLers healthy, there isn’t room for all four. Maybe two, and even then, those two aren’t guaranteed to get a regular shift, if they even dress to begin with. A healthy defence group is pretty cramped; adjusting the forward group leaves for five of a possible 18 skaters.
Expiring contracts next season include Mikael Backlund (should be re-signed), Stajan (probably not), Versteeg (probably not), Jaromir Jagr (probably not), and Bartkowski (probably not), plus restricted free agents Jankowski, Hathaway, Hamilton, Kulak, and Rittich, as well as a slew of current Stockton guys.
There are three forward avenues and one on defence with a clear path open for somebody to take. While they likely won’t all be open come next season’s training camp, it’s a fair bet at least one of them will. Remember, the Flames didn’t pull the trigger on Jagr until none of their prospects impressed them enough.
In the meantime: what would you do? Leave the roster as is? Open a spot for a prospect right now, by way of waivers or trade (remember, no refunds here – if it turns out the prospect to promote in question isn’t ready, well, too bad)? Or wait things out until the 2018-19 season?