My favorite series to run yearly on FlamesNation is the NHL Draft Scout Series, where I talk to scouts covering each of the major leagues feeding prospects into the NHL Draft and pick their brains on the best options that year, their favorite and least favorite players, and who they could see the Flames targeting from those leagues.
Most of the questions I pose, however, pertain to the more prominent prospects from those leagues – say, those ranked inside the top 100 – and our dear Calgary Flames have made most of those prospects, at least for now, moot. The Flames are slated to make only four picks in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and aren’t slated to pick until the 105th selection. Barring any trades, this would be the smallest draft class in Calgary Flames history.
Given these circumstances, the Flames will need to go sleeper hunting. After all, some of their best current players were found in the depths of the draft. Johnny Gaudreau, TJ Brodie, Micheal Ferland and Brett Kulak were all regulars last year, and were all chosen after 105th overall in their respective draft classes. Every year, teams nab legitimate prospects in the triple digits of the draft, because talent is often overlooked in favor of dumb intangibles like how hot a prospect’s girlfriend is (Moneyball reference alert).
While I jest, two of the Flames’ top forward prospects at the moment – Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Phillips – were both picked 166th overall in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and they both fell because their diminutive size overshadowed their elite skill. In fact, Mangiapane was picked as an overager.
So, on that note, I decided to combine the key elements of the NHL Draft Scout Series with the Flames’ need to identify sleepers in the 2018 Draft in order to not create a total development hole in their system. As you’d imagine, there are far more “top prospects” than “sleeper prospects”, so breaking the series down by league would be less than ideal. Instead, I’ve broken it down into two parts: North America and Europe, and spoke with multiple scouts pertaining to each region to get their favorite dark horse picks from the 2018 Draft.
Hopefully this will inject a little excitement into a draft that – at least prospect hype wise – is shaping up to be the most mild in franchise history. Today, Part 1 kicks off with the best sleepers our side of the pond, in North America.
With the absence of top picks in this draft, the Flames will rely on their scouting staff’s keen eye for mid-late round steals as they attempt to hit on picks deep into the core of the draft. To do so, they may not have to look far out their back door. Picking twice in the early 100s and again with a pair late, Western Canada may serve up some intriguing, “not so obvious” options when they take to the podium.
The options at 105 and 108:
Eric Florchuk – F – Saskatoon Blades: A lanky forward who started the year hot is a player the Saskatoon Blades have invested heavily in to lead their team for the next two seasons. Florchuk has an arsenal of offensive skills and although not flashy shift to shift or an absolute burner on his skates, he is quite competent with the puck on his stick or when he is vying for positioning. The red flags that dropped him were inconsistent performances and his compete level as he at times struggles away from the puck and sticking to an identity. The potential here is largely untapped and he provides good value at this point in the draft, especially if he can handle being a go-to guy.
Dawson Barteaux – D – Red Deer Rebels: Just up the highway in Red Deer, Barteaux played a lot of unsung minutes under the shadow of oft injured and fellow draft eligible Alexander Alexeyev. Although statistics don’t go much for show in his draft year, this kid has the upside to be a savvy two-way depth defender with significant development. There is a strong skating base and hockey IQ to fall back on with with Barteaux and his passing ability doesn’t limit him from escaping the forecheck or setting the platter in the offensive zone. He’s not a big player but his skating and steady hand allows him to play a defensive game that is calm and filled with comprehension. There’s going to be a day when he starts to push buttons on offence in the WHL and whatever team grabs him will be thrilled to see him thrive.
Egor Zamula – D – Calgary Hitmen: If wanting to go with a player that has a higher ceiling opposed to a higher floor, this Hitmen defender may be in the mix. A tooth pick Russian who landed on a rebuilding team at the deadline, Zamula thrived with some more minutes and started to show more signs of growth at both ends of the rink. Zamula is a smoother skater who is known to play a composed game with the puck on his stick. While not making a ton of errors, Zamula stuck out with his consistent play at both ends of the rink despite never being a huge offensive factor or stalwart defender. He has a lot of intangibles to his game already that should flourish if he works to become a more dynamic player. I think Zamula could not only be one of the better two-way defenders in the WHL in the coming years, but a truly underrated asset if teams are looking five-plus years out on his development.
Justin Almeida – F – Moose Jaw Warriors: Teams will have the benefit of hindsight on Almeida as he had a year after he was passed over to revamp his game and put up a monster season, his first full one as a Warrior. Although small, Almeida plays with a lot of heart and character, often killing penalties, playing tight defensively and working against physical opponents for space on the wall. Where his game really picked up, as indicated by a 100-point season, was his offense, as he found ways to create space, plays and used his leg up in mobility to fuel his confidence and effect the outcome of the game. Not to be indicating trajectory, but his game mirrored that of Brayden Point’s a lot and he figures to be more than the secondary pivot next season as the Warriors graduate a large group of veterans. Not only has Almeida made GM Alan Millar look smart, but a team that selects him will be getting a quality prospect.
Rounds 6 & 7
Angus Crookshank – F – Langley Rivermen: You might catch onto a theme here, but some of the best players who may be around at the Flames picks are small skill players with some serious upside. Langley Rivermen forward Crookshank fits the bill as a crafty playmaker who can lead an offense and chip in with two-way efforts. He doesn’t take a shift off and is a thorn in the side of opponents as he is always competing on every puck thanks to his speed and aggressive demeanour. The college route is perfect for this player as he can work to evolve into a more well-known household name. No reason to not swing for a higher ceiling instead of be complacent and go after a projectable farm hand at this point.
Connor Dewar – F – Everett Silvertips: With the lack of depth being an issue for the Western leagues in 2018, going the route of redemption projects further long in development may be the smartest approach for some teams. Dewar had a heck of a draft +1 season with Everett and was one of the heart and soul core pieces that transitioned their strong regular season to a berth in the WHL final. Often referred to as a pit bull on the ice, Dewar commits 110% effort on every play and can mow down the opposition with his speed, skill and physical style. Although not big he holds his own and calculates play quickly and proactively, making his presence known with and without the puck. Definitely one of the more underrated re-entry players to watch out for.
Matthew Thiessen – G – Steinbach Pistons: As a league, the MJHL is generally inferior year over year when stacked up against other junior A leagues in regards to its ability to churn out NHLA quality prospects. That was not the case this year with the young Altona native who backstopped his Steinbach Pistons to a league championship and berth in the RBC Cup. Thiessen is a classic butterfly goalie who is a by the book technician that has perfected his form at a young age. Although he doesn’t deviate from this style much, his athletic ability is a definite asset as his motor functions and foot speed allow him to be more than just a typical angle savvy blocking type goaltender. The biggest issue I saw here was spatial awareness with the puck outside of his crease, something that can definitely be improved with time. He’s off to attend the University of Maine on a scholarship and is one of the more intriguing mysteries in the goaltending category this season.
Tristen Nielsen – F – Calgary Hitmen: Capping the sleepers of the draft, Calgary can very well dip into their backyard once again if need be. Nielsen is another small skill guy who came on strong in the second half with increased productivity and earned a late draft ranking from our Western team. Nielsen doesn’t have all the nuances of his game filled out and has issues with weakness but his spike from a flatlined player to a second half surge makes me feel as though he is worth a pick this year so a team can say “I told you so” next year. He’s part of a large group of 2018 eligibles on his club team and with a group growing together he could very well become the catalyst and offensive star of that team as they regain respectability. He’s got the tools and motor to make it happen.
Next, I went to the other side of Canada and solicited the same request from Dylan Galloway, Head Scout for Eastern Canada for FutureConsiderations. He, too, had a couple diamonds in the rough that the Flames could scoop up with one of their later picks to mention.
Riley Damiani (Kitchener Rangers) is a stretch at this point as we at Future Considerations have him ranked 75th overall, BUT smaller players are still somehow undervalued and at 5’10 I could see Damiani slipping to the 105 slot for the Flames to scoop up. He’s speedy, with an explosive step, making him a solid PK player, but he’s also versatile playing in all situations for the Rangers this season. He’s a pedal-to-the-metal kinda player who isn’t afraid to get to pucks first in the corners but will need to add some meat to his bones to play this way at the next level.
The next two are a bit more projects than Damiani.
Merrick Rippon (Ottawa 67s) is a defensive prospect who plays a sound game in his own zone but needs to work on his forward skating and being consistent in his play. There’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde with Rippon where he can in the same play make an excellent decision, collect the puck and give it right back. Rippon does show some signs of offensive ability with the puck and can be effective keeping the puck in but needs to grow some confidence in these abilities to act on them more often, which could come with an improvement on his skating.
Mitchell Hoelscher (Ottawa 67s) is another player who is a bit of a project but shows flashes of excellent puck control in the offensive zone, decent transition speed with the puck, showing some good breakout carries. His speed is also useful on the backcheck and he won’t cheat you for effort in either end of the rink. Inconsistency and overhandling the puck are two of his main issues, along with not having the greatest finishing ability.
Due to circumstances out of my control, I was unable to get a quote from a US-based scout this year. However, I can offer you my two top targets from the United States, should the Flames decide to go down that route with one of their four picks.
Brandon Biro has been passed over twice now, and will be entering his Junior season at Penn State University. His numbers have consistently improved from year to year, finishing with 31 points in 37 games as a 19-year-old, good for second on the team. Instead of tripping over 20 other teams to sign him when he becomes a free agent in two years’ time, the Flames could be wise to buy early and secure his rights now, before he tops a point per game next year and smatters himself on everyone’s radar.
Tyler Weiss was featured on The Athletic a few weeks ago, and his story is truly an inspirational one. Coming from a family with limited means, his brother gave up hockey so that Tyler could keep playing, since the family couldn’t afford to support them both. Weiss is also built like a matchstick at 5’11, 159 pounds, but his talent is undeniable. He managed 31 points in 58 games with the USNDP program this year and is slated to go to the University of Nebraska-Omaha next year. The NCAA program is known for being especially effective in body development for young athletes, and Weiss could add some size and strength to his natural skill and turn himself into a player. He seems like a great story, and feels like one who could take the Mark Jankowski road to the NHL if someone takes a real shot at him.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look across the pond, at possible value picks from Europe. Seems a lot of the best steals late in drafts come from Europe, as some zones can still fall victim to under-scouting, and the likelihood of missing quality viewings on a prospect due to accessibility still happens from time to time.
If Part 1 has shown us anything, just because the Flames have four picks all after 100 doesn’t mean there won’t be talent to take with those picks.
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