Since Brad Treliving became general manager of the Calgary Flames in April 2014, the hockey club has graduated several young players into the National Hockey League level. Some of the young graduates were slam dunks: Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk jumped into the NHL their first seasons after being drafted, and Johnny Gaudreau went straight onto the Flames roster the October after originally signing.
But plenty of teams are able to put freshly minted top prospects into the NHL with regularity. The thing that’s become a focus under Treliving – and as seen through internal investments in things like skating coaches, conditioning coaches at the NHL and AHL levels, and multiple development coaches – is the development of players with longer runways into useful depth pieces.
Rather than pushing these types of players immediately into the NHL – as was frequently done under the Feaster regime, probably best typified by Roman Horak – Treliving’s hockey operations group has seemingly embraced what’s become known as the “Detroit model.” Instead of a quick deep-fry and a shove into the big leagues, the Flames have embraced the “slow-cooker.”
Development at a glance
If you take a look at the current Flames roster, it’s an interesting mix:
- 10 players drafted and developed by the organization (Brodie, Backlund, Gaudreau, Tkachuk, Monahan, Kulak, Jankowski, Ferland, Mangiapane and Bennett)
- 3 players signed as undrafted free agents and developed by the organization (Giordano, Hathaway and Rittich)
- 6 players acquired via trade (Stajan, Lazar, Hamonic, Stone, Hamilton and Smith)
- 6 players acquired via free agency (Brouwer, Bartkowski, Jagr, Versteeg, Hrivik and Frolik)
From an asset management perspective, it’s definitely preferable to develop your own depth players than to acquire them from outside. If you’re relying on free agency for depth, you’re likely going to have to overpay for useful depth players and hurt your team’s salary cap situation. If you’re relying on trades to back-fill the roster, you’re likely again to overpay. All due respect to the Michael Stones, Curtis Lazars and Troy Brouwers of the world, but having a bevy of internal options would have been cheaper (acquisition-wise) than those gentlemen.
That said, if the prior organizational motto was “always earned, never given,” the current motto seems to be “we’re not going to give it to you, you’re going to have to take it.” This winter may be the best example of a handful of young players grabbing the reins of an opportunity when another player faltered.
Four graduates from different paths
It’s definitely too early to say whether Andrew Mangiapane or Marek Hrivik are full-time NHLers. But four useful depth pieces have been graduated from the farm system and taken roles that would otherwise have been filled by players with a higher acquisition cost.
- Third line center Mark Jankowski: drafted on June 22, 2012, signed on March 30, 2016.
- Third pairing defenseman Brett Kulak: drafted on June 23, 2012, signed on March 18, 2014.
- Third line winger Garnet Hathaway: signed to an AHL deal on March 14, 2014 and to an NHL deal on April 13, 2015.
- Backup goaltender David Rittich: signed on June 10, 2016.
Jankowski was a, uh, “controversial” first round selection who spent four years in college gradually improving before turning pro and establishing himself in his first AHL campaign as perhaps the organization’s best pro prospect. He dipped his toe into the NHL pool with a one-week recall last November, then effectively booted the door in this fall with a superb training camp and an excellent start to his second pro season in the AHL.
A lot of people forget that Kulak was actually behind Ryan Culkin on the depth chart, to the point where Kulak had to go to the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles to get ice time. Since that rather inauspicious start, Kulak has pushed all the way through the AHL ranks and up into the NHL level. He has gotten every type of NHL recall: the “Game 82, gotta keep the veterans healthy” recall in 2014-15, the “T.J. Brodie is injured so let’s try you out for two weeks” recall to begin 2015-16, and the “we’re carrying eight defensemen because Nick Grossmann is here for cap reasons” recall to begin 2016-17. Finally this season his waiver exemption expired and, after seeing his progression over three pro seasons in the NHL and AHL, the Flames felt confident giving him a full-time try.
Never drafted by an NHL team, Hathaway was signed as an AHL depth option following his senior season with Brown University. He’s been in the pro system long enough that he played for the Abbotsford Heat when he joined the organization. He established himself as a half-a-point-per-game AHLer and the Flames rewarded him with an entry-level contract. He continued his AHL scoring pace and got a cup of coffee in the NHL, establishing himself as a tweener with a physical edge over a couple seasons of call-ups. This season he cleared waivers and was sent to the farm, only to discover a scoring touch that he didn’t even really have in college.
Rittich was signed as a European free agent after several seasons playing in Czech pro hockey. Initially brought in to be a veteran tandem partner for Jon Gillies in Stockton, he ended up posting better numbers than his teammate in each of his two seasons in the AHL.
Youngsters building confidence (and taking jobs)
The encouraging thing about the four players who graduated this year is that they effectively forced their ways onto the NHL roster. Jankowski performed well enough that the club waived Tanner Glass to make room for him. Kulak supplanted Matt Bartkowski as the sixth defenseman. Hathaway’s scoring touch got him the recall over players like Hunter Shinkaruk, Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier when Versteeg was injured. Rittich’s strong play in Stockton earned him Eddie Lack’s job, and his performance in Calgary likely contributed to the team’s decision to trade Lack to New Jersey.
The slow burn development process seems to have engendered confidence in the players as they get exposed to the NHL level and have the opportunity to absorb experience and adjust their games to the next level. Last month, Kulak shared a few of his thoughts on his road to the NHL.
“Just the more games you play here the more experience you get,” said Kulak. “The more you learn from being around the guys on this team and playing against the guys on the other team. So I think that’s helped me a lot along the way here, now to finally be getting my feet under me a little bit, it’s good to have a foundation here now and now I can just continue to keep building on little things to improve me as a player and I think for me it’s just the maturity in my game that’s come a lot. It’s kind of the less is more type thing in this league for me right now.”
The thing that’s consistently mentioned by the Flames coaching staff about the young recalls: they’re playing the game the right way – hard on pucks and playing a smart two-way style – and they’re building confidence. More importantly, they’re providing an upgrade over the players they’re replacing and they’re just beginning to contribute to the team’s success.