FlamesNation AHL Mailbag: How long will the Wranglers franchise remain in Calgary?

Photo credit:Angela Burger/Calgary Wranglers
Mike Gould
1 year ago
It’s time for another edition of the FlamesNation Mailbag. This one is going to take on a bit of an unusual slant, in that absolutely everything in here pertains to the American Hockey League’s Calgary Wranglers.
While we’re on the subject, if you haven’t yet been to a Wranglers game at the Saddledome this season: go! It’s excellent hockey and the prices are great. Pro tip: Sunday games typically offer the best mix of crowd energy and cheap food.
I had the good fortune of attending the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic in Laval, QC this past weekend. It was a terrific event and I was able to pick up some little tidbits along the way to help me give proper answers to some of the questions below.
Let’s get started!
I think he’s really close. Zary has been asked to do a lot of different things with the Wranglers this season — play both centre and wing, improve in the faceoff dot, pull a lot of weight on special teams — and he’s done a bang-up job.
Considering we’ve seen him in the AHL for parts of three seasons, it’s sometimes easy to forget Zary is only 21. I think he projects as a middle-six center in the NHL. Don’t think of that as a bad thing, either. If you can get a potential No. 2 center out of a low first-rounder, you’re laughing.
I actually like Zary a little more as a prospect than Pelletier, although they’re pretty much neck-and-neck. I think Zary should have a really good opportunity to make the Flames out of camp next year.
Absolutely, and basically everyone I talked to over the weekend agreed. They have all the necessary ingredients to go very far: a top goaltender, a bunch of solid defencemen, and a laughably deep forward group.
If you ask me, I do think they could use another defender leading up to the trade deadline. Jeremie Poirier isn’t quite ready to be a top-pairing guy on a championship AHL club and they don’t really have the Andy Welinski-type workhorse the Stockton Heat leaned on so heavily last year.
But I could actually see the reinforcement they need coming in the form of Connor Mackey. If the Flames add a defenceman to their NHL roster, they might have to waive Mackey to make room. And I think he’d clear.
Yeah, Schwindt has spent most of the season on the right side. He’s really cooled off of late, too, and I’ve been left wanting a little more from him pretty consistently this season.
Schwindt has a big body and an even bigger shot but he has a lot of work to do to become more than a middle-six winger in the AHL, let alone a Backlund replacement. Those are huge shoes to fill.
It shouldn’t be long. The Wranglers were noticeably absent on the mascot front during AHL All-Star weekend. It was a shame, too — so many other teams sent their own performers to Laval, and they caused all kinds of wacky and wonderful mayhem.
I would expect this problem to be rectified by the start of next season, although it won’t be Scorch.
We received a lot of questions about whether the Wranglers will be able to hack it in Calgary for the foreseeable future — for good reason, given how many times the franchise has moved over the years. Since winning the Calder Cup as the Saint John Flames in 2001, the Flames’ AHL franchise has relocated six times. Six!
I have my own opinions on the health of the Wranglers. They’re in solid shape right now but I’m a little concerned about what will happen when Pelletier, Zary, Phillips, and Wolf are no longer around. I’m not sure how well the Wranglers will be able to draw fans to the Saddledome without homegrown players of that calibre on the team, particularly given the picks the Flames have made of late. Even now, they rank fifth-last in the AHL with an average of 3,551 fans per game. It might take a long playoff run this spring to build a more robust fanbase — I’m not sure. On the other side of the coin, they’re drawing double the fans they were in Stockton and it’s much more convenient to have the AHL base of operations so close to home.
To properly answer the question, I figured I’d get a more educated take on the subject. Here’s what AHL president Scott Howson told me on Monday:
“Well, I think we’re still early in the process but the feedback I’m getting from, whether it’s the hockey people or the business people, they’re very, very happy. I know they’re very happy to have the team in Calgary, I know it’s really chaotic in their building with three teams, at times, trying to play out of there. And that means six teams coming in and out of there, maybe, in a week, with the visiting teams, too. But I think that it’s really stable. And there’s always pluses and minuses. Maybe there’s a minus in terms of some travel for the team, they used to be in Stockton so they maybe bussed more. But now there’s a plus because when they call a player up, it’s seamless. We all know you can save some money on the cap if you manage the cap properly with recalls. So, I think it’s really early in the process but the feedback I’m getting is all positive.”
Howson repeated the point about stability multiple times in his media availability, saying he didn’t want to usher in another era of endless franchise relocations and affiliate changes that have dogged the league in the past. When I asked him a follow-up question about the Bakersfield Condors, the only U.S.-based AHL team affiliated with a Canadian NHL club, he was very quick to quash the idea that they might move closer to Edmonton. Of course, playing up the strength and health of the league is part of his job, but I came away with the sense that Howson really wants to prioritize franchise stability during his tenure as president (he only just took office in 2020).
Addendum: Shortly after this mailbag was published, I had a good chat with an AHL source who jogged my memory about one more point I wanted to make in this section. Much has been made about the Flames needing a new facility, but — as Howson briefly touched upon — the Saddledome presents some issues with crowding and overcapacity for the Wranglers. Having been to both Place Bell and the Stockton Arena, it really would be ideal if someone in Calgary were to someday build a mid-sized facility (somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 seats) for the Wranglers, Hitmen, and Roughnecks. Given how difficult it’s been to build a new NHL-sized arena in these parts, this is likely just a pipe dream. And nobody can dispute the convenience and business efficiency of the Flames and Wranglers operating under the same roof, particularly given how important it is to limit excessive costs in the AHL world.
I wish I could tell you. As you may know, the AHL has its own limitations when it comes to keeping stats. The league doesn’t currently track time on ice, a reality Howson lamented during his availability on Monday. And, for now, there are no figures publicly available on faceoffs.
Anecdotally, I think Ben Jones is pretty good in the dot but I don’t know for sure. The next time I see Mitch Love, I’ll make a point of getting his thoughts on the subject — the Wranglers might have their own data.
I just mentioned him. Ben Jones is having a pretty darn good season and I probably haven’t written about him as much as I should’ve. He’s a 23-year-old centre with 36 points in 43 games. Not bad! I think he might be a little closer to a Glenn Gawdin than a Derek Ryan, but he’s worth keeping tabs on.
I’m also beginning to really like Ilya Solovyov, who has been playing big minutes of late while up on a pairing with Nick DeSimone. Solovyov isn’t flashy but he’s very steady and might be on the cusp of passing Yan Kuznetsov on my own prospect ranking hierarchy. I mentioned Solovyov to Mitch Love over the weekend and he said he’s been very impressed with his play over the past few weeks.
Before this season, I would have said no. Now, I’m honestly not sure. I hold Emilio in pretty high regard — he’s very talented and is among the Wranglers’ scoring leaders. But more recently, he’s been playing down in the lineup and has sometimes been a healthy scratch.
With Pelletier now back in the NHL, I think we’ll see Emilio move up to the top six again before too long. Every time Mitch and the coaching staff has given Emilio a poke this year, he’s taken it like a shot in the arm. I think he still has a lot of work to do to distance himself from the pack down there. That said, I do think he’ll be re-signed, an outcome I might not have foreseen a few months ago.
The Wranglers’ power play is very good. At 23.6 percent, it ranks fourth in the entire American Hockey League and comfortably atop the Pacific Division.
Here are the units the Wranglers used during their two-game set against Bakersfield last week:
With Zohorna and Jones taking the draws and acting as screens, Phillips/Zary and McLain/Schwindt operating on the flanks, Pelletier and Duehr in the bumper spots, and Poirier and DeSimone on the line.
I think Mitch is going to be in high demand before too long, if he isn’t already. He’s done an outstanding job with the Wranglers.
I could certainly see Mitch moving up to the NHL bench at some point to replace Kirk Muller as the forwards coach. But if the Wranglers go on another long playoff run this spring, I honestly wonder if we start hearing about Mitch as a potential candidate for a head coaching gig somewhere else. I can’t fathom Darryl’s job coming up anytime soon but there will be vacancies this summer.
I kind of already touched upon the first two topics earlier in this mailbag but I’ll answer all three questions to wrap things up.
1. In a perfect world, 2024–25. I think the Wranglers will test-drive Poirier as a full-fledged top-pairing guy next season. Beyond that, it all depends on what the Flames’ NHL lineup looks like. After next season, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, Noah Hanifin, and Oliver Kylington will all need new contracts; Poirier will be 22. There’ll be some roster turnover for sure. Poirier will have to earn his keep but I think he’ll be given a decent amount of rope in the NHL.
2. Just OK. Schwindt is still pretty young but he hasn’t taken the step forward this year many people hoped he would. This is a player who shot 17.9 percent last year. He started hot this season but is now down at 11.4 percent. I think he’ll have another hot stretch before the season is through but I’m not convinced there’s an NHL player there.
3. It depends on how it looks! As you suggest, the Wranglers will indeed debut a black alternate jersey next season featuring a recoloured version of the side-profile ‘Blasty’ logo adorning the shoulders of their home and away sweaters. I’m very curious and excited to see it.
Thanks for all your questions. Let’s do this again sometime.

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