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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects 2020: #4 (tied) Connor Mackey

Having just turned 24 in September, Connor Mackey is one of the oldest prospects on our list.

But he’s not in our top five by accident. Mackey signed in Calgary back in March after being courted by 28 of the NHL’s 31 teams as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State University, Mankato. The left-handed defenseman previously attended two NHL prospect development camps and emerged as a two-time Western Collegiate Hockey Association all-star.

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This past winter, TSN’s Frank Seravalli called Mackey a “prized catch” for Calgary and “the No. 1 NCAA free agent available.” The Flames brought him into the NHL’s return-to-play bubble in Edmonton despite him being ineligible to actually suit up, and he made a strong early impression on head coach Geoff Ward.

After our panel’s ballots resulted in an unlikely tie, Mackey slots in as our second player ranked fourth on our list.

How did we get here? 

Mackey is a late bloomer who didn’t really emerge as a star in the USHL until his age-20 season in 2016–17. Still, according to Seravalli, the Flames first made contact with Mackey as early as 2015, writing in March:

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Calgary has been tracking and kept in touch with Mackey since before his quiet 19-year-old season in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers. […] The Flames view Mackey as a defenceman with top-four potential who is already close to stepping into their lineup.

Mackey played just 29 of Green Bay’s 60 games that season, recording a goal and an assist. But he exploded offensively the following year, leading the Gamblers with 41 assists and 47 points while skating in every game as an alternate captain. He was named USHL Defenseman of the Year and to the league’s first all-star team. That July, he attended the Flames’ annual prospect development camp up at Winsport.

The Minnesota State Mavericks recruited Mackey to join their program starting in the 2017–18 season. He skated for the Mavericks in three seasons and earned accolades in each one, starting with a nod to the WCHA’s All-Rookie Team in 2018. That summer, Mackey attended the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect development camp, but he returned to school for the following two years and was named to the WCHA’s third all-star team in 2018–19 after recording seven goals and 25 points in 42 games. In 2019–20, Mackey helped the Mavericks claim a third consecutive regular-season title while carving himself a spot on the WCHA’s first all-star team. He logged huge minutes for the club in all situations, including on both special teams.

Finally, after a prolonged pursuit, the Flames finally snagged Mackey back in March. The team signed him to a one-year bonus-laden ELC with an AAV of $1.35 million beginning in the 2020–21 season, making Mackey a restricted free agent next summer.

Stats, numbers, and everything therein 

Mackey is a pretty big guy, and he’s still getting bigger. In their press release announcing the signing back in March, the Flames listed Mackey at 6’2.5″ and 205 pounds. In his three years of college, Mackey went from 183 pounds as a freshman to 191 as a sophomore, eventually reaching 200 as a junior.

Over his 118 games with the Mavericks, Mackey recorded 18 goals and 61 points. In 2019–20, he led the WCHA with a plus-19 rating while helping Minnesota State to a 31-5-2 finish, good for the top spot in a very good conference.

One of Mackey’s standout showings in his junior year came over the course of two days (Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2020) when the Mavericks played back-to-back games against the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. Mackey recorded five points (a goal and four assists) in these two games, coming up particularly clutch for the Mavericks in the second game. Trailing 2-0 entering the final minute of play, Mackey crucially kept a puck in the offensive zone and assisted on his team’s first goal with 56 seconds remaining. Then, he set up the game-tying goal… with under a second to go in regulation.

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(For some baffling reason, the first video doesn’t show the game-tying goal… but it also shows a better view of Mackey keeping the puck in. So watch both!).

Those in the know 

Here’s how Mavericks coach described Mackey’s temperament to Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson back in March:

…[The] thing that I really think is going to allow him to succeed is his mentality. What I mean by that is whether it goes well or it doesn’t, I don’t think that is going to change his demeanour or outlook on what he has to do every day. He is just going to go to work. If he succeeds early, great. But if there are some walls that are put up in front of him that he has to climb, I think he has a mentality that that’s what he has to do. I don’t think he has ever asked for anything to be guaranteed to him. He didn’t from Day 1 here. He has always been willing to go and do whatever work he needs to do.

On the horizon

It looked a bit more likely that Mackey would have a shot of cracking the Flames’ lineup before they signed Chris Tanev to a four-year contract in October. With Mark Giordano, Tanev, Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, and Juuso Valimaki all locked in through next season (at least), Mackey looks to be set to compete with Nikita Nesterov and Oliver Kylington for ice time this year. It looks like two of those three will make the team out of training camp; the grizzled vet Nesterov can play either side and looks to have an inside track to claim one of those spots.

With Kylington’s contract status still up in the air, it’s possible that Mackey could surpass him on the Flames’ depth chart in relatively short order. A lot hangs on whether Nesterov can be a positive-impact NHLer in his return to North America. If he can, it’s feasible that Kylington is sent elsewhere and the Flames install a veteran seventh defenseman to avoid having a prospect like Mackey sheltered in the press box for weeks on end. It would probably be interesting to see Mackey on a top pair in the American Hockey League, presumably with a partner like Alexander Yelesin.

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However, If Nesterov stumbles… well, it’s anybody’s game, and the Flames will probably keep both Mackey and Kylington on the NHL roster to promote healthy competition.

FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects 2020

The no-votes Missed the cut
#20: Tyler Parsons #19: Alexander Yelesin
#18: Ryan Francis #17: Martin Pospisil
#16: Luke Philp #15: Eetu Tuulola
#14: Johannes Kinnvall #13: Ilya Nikolayev
#12: Yan Kuznetsov #11: Adam Ruzicka
#10: Jeremie Poirier #9: Matthew Phillips
#8: Glenn Gawdin #7: Dmitry Zavgorodniy
#6: Emilio Pettersen #4 (tied): Dustin Wolf