NHL teams travelling to China for the preseason is a relatively new thing. The Flames (and Bruins) aren’t making the inaugural trip, though – the Canucks and Kings made their way overseas last September.
One player who didn’t go, however, was the Canucks’ Brock Boeser. He responded by scoring 55 points in 62 games as the Canucks’ leading scorer throughout the 2017-18 regular season and finishing second in Calder Trophy voting as one of the NHL’s top rookies. His story is well known; Brad Treliving referenced it as a point for Flames players who won’t be making the trip that they shouldn’t get discouraged about it.
Who, among the Flames players left behind, could make a similar impact after being left at home?
This isn’t to say that a Flames prospect is going to break out the way Boeser did – with Johnny Gaudreau around the team scoring title is probably locked up, and nobody knows how the Calder race will end up playing out this early – but more just an exercise in wondering which prospect, if any, will be able to force his way on the team (and, hopefully, play an impactful role at that).
It might be a tough task, as it looks like pretty much the Flames’ entire starting roster is making the trip – we see you, Rasmus Andersson – but the team should have enough flexibility in its roster that anyone playing at a high enough level could force somebody else out.
This time a year ago, Dube looked pretty close to being ready: quite a statement from a then-19-year-old who had played all of one professional game (a playoff outing for Stockton) and still had a year of junior eligibility left (which he crushed, with 84 points in 53 games, along with captaining Team Canada to a gold medal at the World Juniors).
He’s since added six more AHL games to his resume (and four assists in them at that), and this year will be the first professional one of his career – which, it should be kept in mind, is a major adjustment for just about anybody. There shouldn’t be any concern if he doesn’t make the big league right away, since based on everything we’ve seen to date, he’s looking pretty poised to end up on the Flames sooner rather than later, even if it ends up taking a year or so.
On the other hand, he looked really, really good at last year’s training camp. And this time around, at least for the first little while, he’ll be one of the Flames’ top players in Calgary. Being left at home and getting the chance to assert himself as a big fish in a little pond could be exactly the springboard he needs into his pro career.
Foo’s first professional season could serve as something of a cautionary tale of what to expect for Dube’s: an outstanding year in college, followed by some weeks of struggling to find his footing, ultimately resulting in an outstanding second half of the season, giving him an extremely respectable 39 points in 62 games as a rookie pro (and the two NHL goals at the end of the year certainly didn’t hurt, either).
The right side of the ice no longer looks as dire as it did when the Flames won the bidding war for Foo, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be improved upon – and the Flames certainly aren’t going to turn away a talented right-shot forward if he can perform above and beyond the options ahead of him.
Expectations should still be kept in check – even though he’s on the older end of things as someone already 24 years old, this will still be just his second professional season – but it’s also pretty easy to see Foo wearing a Flames jersey at some point during the year. Why not at the start?
Mangiapane might not have much left to prove at the AHL level. A prolific scorer in junior, he took those numbers and carried them over to the professional ranks, with 46 points in 39 games as a sophomore in the AHL. He led the Heat in scoring (even though he played 20-something fewer games than the other top guys), and was one of the organization’s first choices for a recall once injuries necessitated them.
He wasn’t quite on the scale of Garnet Hathaway or Mark Jankowski, who made their NHL recalls stick (and, in Jankowski’s case, forced someone else down), and his first 10 NHL games weren’t the most inspiring, particularly with no points for a player whose resume boasts he’s a scorer. On the other hand, the improvement from year one in the AHL to year two was undeniable, so who knows what year three has in store?
Mangiapane hasn’t played at a high level since March when shoulder surgery ended his season, but maybe getting the chance to tear it up as one of the Flames’ top dogs at home will help get him back into the game better than scarce minutes on a veteran-laden China group would.
With Andersson and Valimaki ahead of him, it’s easy to see Kylington as the forgotten man on defence. After all, he’s already spent three years playing for the Flames’ farm team, and what has that gotten him other than noticeable, marked improvement year after year?
As a 21-year-old, Kylington is already well acquainted with the North American professional game (and, for context, let’s remember Brett Kulak didn’t make the NHL full-time until he turned 23 – Kylington may not be Noah Hanifin with over 200 NHL games played at 21, but few are, and he’s still comparatively very young). There’s still tons of time to go for him, still with two years left on his entry-level deal, and maybe this is the year he puts it together.
Kylington has both talent and experience on his side. That could see him elevated to the NHL as early as this season.
Valimaki’s junior career is over, and rightfully so: he’s been over a point per game as a defenceman the past two seasons in the WHL, and that includes 17 points in 12 playoff games this past season for the Tri-City Americans. He’s a phenomenal talent – he was chosen 16th overall for a reason, even with the Flames already having an impressive stable of defensive prospects – and he seems destined for the big league sooner rather than later.
The Flames’ defence is in something of a state of flux. On paper, it looks solid; however, roles are being shuffled, guys are getting older, and there’s no telling what it might end up looking like at the end of the year. Plans don’t always come to fruition and Valimaki is as likely a candidate as any to force his way into a prominent position sooner rather than later.
That Valimaki isn’t going to China isn’t a knock on him: it’s giving him a chance to be a number one defenceman wearing a Flames jersey for a little while first. And considering his talent level as a soon-to-be-20-year-old already, it’s difficult to count him out.