The Flames don’t have a ton of impressive blueline prospects behind Connor Mackey
Photo credit:Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike1 year ago
As we approach the 2022 NHL Draft, we’re reviewing the Calgary Flames prospect depth at each area of their organization. Up next: the blueline!
Beyond Connor Mackey, who seems primed to push for full-time NHL employment in 2022-23, it gets thin pretty quickly.
The Flames have a handful of offensive blueliners at different levels of development. Juuso Valimaki has played enough games in the NHL that he’s no longer eligible for the Calder Trophy – so he’s not really a prospect – but he’s slid back into the AHL, so we’re counting him as a prospect again. Valimaki is a smart, savvy left shot defender who was a really strong skater and offensive contributor in the Western League, but he’s lost a bit of his swagger since a pair of injuries – a high ankle sprain followed by a significant knee ligament tear – cost him a year and a half of development. There’s definitely talent in Valimaki, but there may be valid questions right now about him being able to tap into it effectively.
Beyond Valimaki, Jeremie Poirier is probably the next-best offensive defender. Currently awaiting the Memorial Cup with his Saint John Sea Dogs, Poirier has been one of the more consistent producers in the QMJHL from the blueline over the past few seasons. He’s going pro next season and will need to try to transition into a very different style of play.
Moose Jaw’s Cole Jordan was drafted in 2021, but he was stymied a bit in 2021-22 by injuries, inconsistency, and his team’s depth on the blueline. By the last six weeks of the season he seemed to have regained the health and confidence that he lacked earlier in the season, and it’ll be interesting to see how a good, full summer of training and development can set him up for his 19-year-old season.
Stockton’s Johannes Kinnvall is a wildcard. He came over to North America for the first time this season, suffered an injury in prospect camp, and didn’t get cleared for action until January. He played just 19 regular season games (and none in the playoffs) and was essentially a spare part for much of Stockton’s stretch drive. Kinnvall’s a heck of a power play point man, but he struggled at times at even strength at the AHL level. Swedish outlet Expressen linked him to a potential return to Sweden back in March, so we’ll see if that materializes. (If tendered a qualifying offer by the Flames, he’d become a restricted free agent on July 13.)
Connor Mackey is arguably the most NHL-ready blueliner in the Flames’ system. Does he have sky-high offensive ceiling? Probably not, no. Is he a great shutdown blueliner? He’s fine. In fact, the strength of Mackey is that he has few, if any, holes in his game and he works his butt off. He plays with pace, he’s smart and aware, and he seems like a player who can slot in on the third pairing and play that kind of hockey for awhile.
Belarusian import Ilya Solovyov is basically a poor man’s Mackey, in that he’s not quite as good at everything as Mackey is, but he, too, doesn’t really have many holes. Solovyov was able to play regular minutes in the KHL as a 20-year-old, and he played 51 regular season games and half of the playoffs for the Heat as a 21-year-old. It’s not clear what Solovyov’s ceiling is, but at the very least he’s rock-solid organizational depth at the AHL level.
A 2021 pick, Halifax Mooseheads blueliner Cameron Whynot is another balanced defender. He’s hard to get much of a handle on because of how uneven his season was; he spent much of the season sick and/or injured, and so it was hard to get a clear handle on his progression because of how frequently he was in and out of the lineup. He’ll need an injury/illness-free season in 2022-23 to get back on track.
Stockton’s Colton Poolman played in 62 of the Heat’s 68 games this past season (and every playoff game). He played a bunch with Valimaki this season, serving as the defensive conscience of the pair so Valimaki could take some chances. The results were a bit mixed, as Poolman is unfortunately no Chris Tanev. (To be fair, few are.) Poolman is a pending RFA and could be retained if the team wants some continuity on the back end.
Yan Kuznetsov started this season with Stockton as a 19-year-old, then was sent to the QMJHL where he joined Poirier with Saint John. Kuznetsov was drafted out of the NCAA in 2020 because of his defensive prowess – he’s smart and very stifling at his best – but the hope is he can develop the offensive side of his game and round himself out. He’ll transition full-time to the AHL next season.
Jake Boltmann has a season and a half of college hockey under his belt. He’s not a huge scorer – he has scored a single goal in two seasons since being drafted – but he was a reliable blueliner on a good college team at Notre Dame, and he’s still filling out physically. He seems unlikely to suddenly become Paul Coffey, but his size and defensive smarts may give him a shot at being a good pro.
Mackey’s a good hand and seems primed for NHL duty, although he might not progress beyond being a good third pairing defender. Beyond that, the Flames have some players with potential – Poirier and Kuznetsov – and a bunch of defenders who are likely longer term projects. Valimaki is the big question mark here: if he can figure things out during the off-season, the defensive depth looks a whole lot better than it does right now. It seems probable that the Flames will try to address their blueline depth challenges at the upcoming draft.
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