Brzustewicz, Miromanov, Grushnikov help make Calgary’s strong defensive pipeline more diverse

Photo credit:Terence Leung/Calgary Wranglers
Mike Gould
1 month ago
It wasn’t long ago that the Calgary Flames had very few defensive prospects worth mentioning.
Before selecting Étienne Morin and Axel Hurtig in the 2023 NHL Draft, the Flames had picked a total of six defenders in the previous five draft years. Half of them had been relegated to non-prospect status — either officially or unofficially — by the time the Flames stepped up to the podium in Nashville for the first time.
The Flames appear to have struck gold with Jérémie Poirier in the third round in 2020. They did well getting Yan Kuznetsov and Ilya Solovyov that year, too. But … for a while, those three were pretty much it.
Jake Boltmann, who the Flames picked just eight spots after Poirier in 2020, is unlikely to be signed once he’s done at Notre Dame. We already know the fates of Cameron Whynot and Cole Jordan, whose exclusive draft signing rights with the Flames expired last summer.
The Flames last went all-in on defenders at the 2015 NHL Draft, selecting Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington with their first two picks. That worked out in a big way. The following year, they nabbed Adam Fox in the third round. They eventually used him as a trade chip to land Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin, who gave this club six years of service.
But after picking Juuso Välimäki with their first-round pick in 2017, the Flames used their next 13 picks on forwards. Dustin Wolf finally broke that streak at the very end of the 2019 NHL Draft. As a result, the Flames’ defensive pipeline became far less robust.
For a while, that didn’t matter. With Hanifin, Andersson, and Kylington all playing big minutes in the NHL, the Flames didn’t need to rely upon youngsters to plug holes in their lineup. Their farm team could make do with UFA signings like Connor Mackey, Nick DeSimone, Alexander Yelesin, and Johannes Kinnvall (remember them?).
Well, times have changed. The Flames are no longer at the point where they’re ready to contend; right now, they can hardly compete. Hanifin, Lindholm, and Chris Tanev are all gone, traded for futures in service of a rebuild — er, retool — plan that promises short-term pain with an eye on longer-term success.
Even before trading all those pending unrestricted free agents, the Flames’ defensive prospect pool included the aforementioned Poirier, Solovyov, Kuznetsov, Morin, and Hurtig, with Brayden Pachal joining them less than a week after the Lindholm deal.
As it stood, that wasn’t a bad group, even if it lacked a true blue-chip guy (and Pachal is a bit old to be considered a “prospect”). But it sure looks a lot better now, particularly given that the Flames added at least one untested defenceman in each of their last three major moves ahead of the deadline.
In trading Lindholm to the Vancouver Canucks, they picked up unsigned prospects Hunter Brzustewicz and Joni Jurmo; as part of the Tanev deal with the Dallas Stars, they acquired rookie AHL defender Artem Grushnikov; and, the day before the deadline, they sent Hanifin to the Vegas Golden Knights for a package that included late-blooming journeyman Daniil Miromanov. Finally, on deadline day itself, the Flames traded a fifth-round pick to the Sharks for former Timo Meier trade piece Nikita Okhotiuk.
No two players are the same, and that’s definitely the case for the defenders the Flames picked up over the days and weeks leading up to March 8. But each of them adds something different to an organization with plenty of development opportunities available for its young players.
Brzustewicz is the strongest prospect of that group and arguably the most skilled young defender in the Flames’ system. He’s also their only right-handed defence prospect of note. It tracks, then, that Flames GM Craig Conroy made signing Brzustewicz to an entry-level contract his top post-trade deadline priority. The two sides officially agreed to terms on a lucrative entry-level pact on Thursday.
Eligible to join the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers for good as soon as his Kitchener Rangers are done for the season, Brzustewicz is a top-tier offensive defender in the OHL who currently leads that entire league with 73 assists in 62 games. He should provide a major jolt to a depleted Wranglers team and could become a high-end point-producer in the NHL down the line.
On the other hand, Grushnikov has generated almost no offence throughout his progression from the CSKA Moscow youth system into the OHL and now in the AHL. He’s a sure-footed lefty who makes his living disrupting rushes and killing plays, but he’s also sneaky good at getting pucks through traffic from the point. It’s easy to see a little bit of Tanev in Grushnikov’s steady, low-maintenance approach to the game.
Let’s head toward another extreme. Brzustewicz is 19; Grushnikov turns 21 next week. Conversely, Miromanov is already 26, but he’s as much of an unknown quantity as anyone. The free-wheeling ex-forward is a late bloomer who has acquitted himself extremely well (and taken a ton of shots) through his first four games as a Flame.
Miromanov might not be a prospect, but he is a project, and for a retooling team, those words might as well have the same definition.
In the past, the Flames have gone all-in on very similar types of players. During that stretch from 2017 to 2019 in which they almost exclusively drafted forwards, they brought guys like Jakob Pelletier, Emilio Pettersen, and Dmitry Zavgorodniy into a system that already featured the likes of Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, Matthew Phillips, and so on. As a consequence, they left other areas of their prospect pool a little underserved.
These days, the Flames boast a relatively robust system — especially given their relative lack of recent draft picks — but they also have different types of prospects at each position. Brzusetwicz is dissimilar to Grushnikov, who is nothing like Poirier, who shares only surface-level similarities with Morin, who is the polar opposite of Kuznetsov. Even at the NHL level, both Miromanov and Okhotiuk have a lot to prove but their strengths and weaknesses aren’t quite aligned.
That kind of diversity — variance in skill sets — is exactly what the Flames need going forward. It’s also something they could improve upon at other positions in the upcoming draft. A big power forward like Cayden Lindstrom would probably look great next to a speedy sniper in Matt Coronato; conversely, someone like Berkly Catton, who makes up for his lesser stature with incredible production, could be the perfect complement to giant winger Sam Honzek.
In the end, the Flames always need to prioritize finding the best players they can, regardless of what individual attributes they possess. But they players they do have in their system right now, especially on defence, all bring something a bit different to the table. It gives them a ton of flexibility moving forward to either double down on a particular player archetype or continue putting their eggs into a variety of different baskets. They’re in a nice spot.
Now, they key is to make as many picks as possible in the next few drafts. The Flames haven’t picked eight players in the first four rounds of a single draft year since 1997. They’re on track to replicate that feat in June.
Wouldn’t it be something if they did it again in 2025 and 2026?
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