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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Ruzicka took a massive step with the Calgary Flames in 2021-22

During the National Hockey League’s salary cap era, each team’s success is dependent not only on their star players being star players, but also on their ability to get contributions from young players during their entry-level years (or just coming out of them).

For the Calgary Flames, Adam Ruzicka may be the young player best positioned to be a contributor in 2023-23 after taking a massive step in his development during the 2021-22 season.

The past

A product of Bratislava, Slovakia, Ruzicka made a name for himself in his early teens playing in the domestic junior leagues in Czechia and Slovakia. After a point-per-game 16-year-old season in the Czechia under-20 league, he was selected by the Sarnia Sting in the CHL’s import draft and opted to head over to North America to seek a challenge.

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In his first season in the Ontario Hockey League, Ruzicka showed flashes of brilliance with 46 points in 61 games, good for fourth among all OHL rookies and fifth among scorers on the Sting. He was selected in the fourth round, 109th overall, by the Flames in the 2017 NHL Draft.

In the next two seasons in the OHL, Ruzicka showed some good and bad traits. When he was engaged and dialed into the games, he was superb, and at times he looked like somebody who should’ve been drafted well ahead of 109th overall. But because of his talent level, one criticism levied towards him was his lack of consistent engagement – he was so damn good skill-wise, likely dating back to his early teens, that he often didn’t need to out-work the opposition. Improving his habits would be the key to unlocking his potential.

Ruzicka went pro in 2019, joining the Stockton Heat. He had bursts of strong play, but his 27 points in 54 games was 10th among the team’s regular forwards and really indicated that he had some learning to do in order to be an effective pro. The following season, 2020-21, he was second among the team’s regular forwards with 21 points in 28 games. He made his NHL debut late in the season, generating one assist in three games for a Flames team that was outside of the playoff picture

The present

Ruzicka got off to a really good start to the 2021-22 season, with 20 points in 16 games. His play earned him a few call-ups during the season, including a lengthy stretch where he was on the NHL roster more or less continually from late November through to early March.

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When Ruzicka was in the NHL, he played on the fourth line usually with veterans Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis. He had 10 points in 28 NHL games while adjusting to his new role, which would be good enough for 29 points over a full season.

The challenge for Ruzicka in the NHL was consistency. But let’s give the kid credit: he showed a great ability to learn, adapt, and adjust his level of play during his first few seasons in the AHL. He evolved from a tentative rookie to one of the AHL’s better players. He was pretty solid in his NHL outings, rarely looking out of place but occasionally looking a bit tentative.

The future

Ruzicka is a slated to become a restricted free agent on July 13. He’s likely not in line for a massive raise, and he seems like a player who will get a two-way deal that will give him a raise at the AHL level over his prior $70,000 entry-level compensation. His cap hit will probably stay close to the $801,666 from this past season.

But more importantly, Ruzicka has a half-season of NHL experience under his belt on a good hockey team, and feedback from the Flames coaching staff regarding what he needs to adjust in his game to stick around at the NHL level. With the Flames likely in a bit of a cap crunch, Ruzicka’s extremely well-positioned to push for full-time NHL employment.

As Darryl Sutter so succinctly put it: Ruzicka has all the tools. He’s got size, skill, smarts, and success at the AHL level. He just needs to put it all together. If he can take a step over the summer, he might have played his final game at the AHL level.

2021-22 Flames player evaluations

Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm

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