90Jakob Pelletier
Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today Sports

The Flames should be a younger group next season

While we wait to see if Calgary makes significant changes to their roster, it appears a slight philosophy shift is already underway. It’s my belief the Flames are targeting a younger group for next season, with a couple depth doors opening up this month. If this is how the summer continues to play out, training camp should offer plenty of opportunity for some of Calgary’s inexperienced, but promising, young prospects.

Pending unrestricted free agents Joakim Nordstrom and Nikita Nesterov have already joined CSKA Moscow in the KHL, instantly vacating regular roster spots from last season. By taking a quick look at the rest of the team’s pending UFAs, it’s hard to see the Flames bringing more than one or two back. As such, training camp projects to have more organizational position battles than we’ve seen in a long time.

Forward

As of this publish date, Calgary has seven regular forwards under contract for next season. You can add restricted free agent Dillon Dube to that mix, as he’ll sign at some point this summer. Additionally, the Flames have to sign one forward from last season to meet expansion requirements. Knowing how he was used under new head coach Darryl Sutter, let’s assume that’ll be Brett Ritchie.

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That leaves nine forwards Calgary can pencil onto the depth chart prior to July’s Expansion Draft and any potential trades involving members of “the core”.

LW C RW
Johnny Gaudreau Elias Lindholm Matthew Tkachuk
Andrew Mangiapane Sean Monahan Dillon Dube (RFA)
Milan Lucic Mikael Backlund Brett Ritchie (UFA)

Internal options: Dominik Simon (RFA), Glenn Gawdin (RFA), Byron Froese, Adam Ruzicka, Matthew Phillips (RFA), Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary

Absent from that depth chart is UFA centre Derek Ryan, who has been nothing but effective and professional in his three years with the Flames. I’ll take a confident guess and omit him from these projections, though. There would be zero harm in bringing Ryan back on a reasonable deal, but there’s probably a bigger opportunity for him elsewhere.

If Ryan isn’t back, that puts multiple regular forward spots in the mix at camp. After making their NHL debuts this past season, Gawdin and Ruzicka could be an interesting battle to watch for Calgary’s fourth centre spot. Similarly, Matthew Phillips didn’t look out of place in his NHL debut in May, despite the game being meaningless for both teams. All three players have been prospects for a while and should enter camp with their best chance to crack an NHL roster.

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Then there’s the team’s last two first round picks: Jakob Pelletier (2019) and Connor Zary (2020). As 2001 birth years, both players are eligible for the American League next season, which means we likely won’t see them return to their CHL clubs. Zary and Pelletier were both well over point-per-game players with Kamloops and Val-d’Or, respectively, in 2021. With both players turning pro next season, they should be given every opportunity to crack the Flames opening night roster.

Of course this is all written based on the current roster, which could undergo a few big changes. If Monahan gets traded, maybe a Ryan return is more in the cards. Phillips has been thrown around as a potential selection target for Seattle in expansion. And I’m sure Calgary will look to add at least one other veteran, even if it’s just to fill a 14th forward/AHL hybrid role.

Defence

Juuso Valimaki

Assuming captain Mark Giordano is not selected by the Kraken, the Flames’ top four seems set. In saying that, Calgary only has four regular defencemen from last season under contract. Like Dube above, we’ll add RFA Juuso Valimaki to our depth chart, as we can be fairly certain he’ll be under contract come camp. That leaves five d-men penciled in for next season.

LD RD
Mark Giordano Chris Tanev
Noah Hanifin Rasmus Andersson
Juuso Valimaki (RFA)

Internal options: Connor Mackey (RFA), Oliver Kylington (RFA)

I don’t think anyone would be surprised if the Flames brought back UFA Michael Stone on another one-year deal, especially knowing how Sutter used him down the stretch. There’s not really a ton of downside if so, as Stone is comfortable filling a number six/seven role at this point of his career. With Nesterov’s departure, we’re still talking about at least one playing spot up for grabs.

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I know Valimaki saw some time as a healthy scratch down the stretch, but he factors significantly into the plans for next season. It’s clear Sutter has challenged the 2017 first round pick and there’s a solid chance we see a big step forward from Valimaki.

Valimaki and Mackey are left shots but are both comfortable playing the right side, which presents an intriguing option as a starting third pair. I’d like to see them sink or swim with those two as regular pairing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we see some sort of rotation with Stone. Regardless, plenty of opportunity looks to exist for Mackey and Valimaki.

It would be slightly more surprising to see Kylington with the Flames come training camp, however. It’s believed trade requests have been made in the past and Kylington admitted to our Sportsnet 960 post-game show late in the season he wasn’t happy with his usage. Add that onto expansion consideration and it’s not hard to see a world where Kylington is elsewhere by September.

Looking ahead

Last season, with cap space at a premium, the Flames attempted to back-fill their depth chart with veterans on inexpensive, one-year deals. Nordstrom, Nesterov, Josh Leivo, and Dominik Simon were all signed with that in mind. The desired results weren’t achieved, however, which has Calgary going back to the drawing board in a similar situation.

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The Flames still don’t have a lot of cap space to work with as they try to fill out their roster. Instead of going the free agent route, though, it feels like now is a good time to give younger, less proven options an opportunity. The organization clearly needs to pivot and this would be a good way to go in a slightly different direction.

Even if/when Calgary makes more significant changes to their roster, the opportunity is there to be a younger group, which only helps in the bigger picture. The door is wide open for this to happen and it seems like the Flames are willing to walk through.