Assigning performance grades to the Calgary Flames’ AHL forward prospects
Photo credit:Photo courtesy the Stockton Heat
By Mike Gould9 months ago
It’s been a banner year for the Calgary Flames organization.
The NHL club currently ranks second in the Western Conference with a gaudy 44–19–9 record through 72 games. @Johnny Gaudreau and @Matthew Tkachuk are having career years and the team looks destined to finish atop the Pacific Division.
The Flames’ lineup has proven to be extremely difficult to crack and — aside from @Sean Monahan — the team’s NHL personnel have largely remained healthy all season long. As such, the Flames’ top minor-league affiliate is chugging along at full operational capacity and currently possesses the highest points percentage in the entire American Hockey League.
The Stockton Heat have been nothing short of a juggernaut this season. Led by two of the AHL’s top wingers, an extremely deep group on defence, and arguably the best goaltending prospect in the world, the Heat have shot out to a 43–12–6 record through 61 games this season.
In his first season as Heat head coach, Mitch Love has guided the team to a .750 points percentage and likely a bye to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The top seven teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division will clinch playoff berths, with the top seed (virtually guaranteed to be the Heat) advancing directly to the division semi-finals.
Which Calgary Flames prospects on the Heat have played the largest roles in helping the team reach this level in the regular season? Which players still have more to prove in the playoffs? Here’s part one of our 2021–22 Stockton Heat report card, covering the team’s forward prospects; later this month, we’ll look at Stockton’s young defencemen and goaltenders.
Author’s note – These grades were formulated after consultation with FlamesNation contributor Paige Siewert throughout the season. Only players who have appeared in a minimum of 15 AHL games were rated; furthermore, only players age 26 and under who currently have NHL contracts were rated.
Part I: Forwards
Matthew Phillips: A+ — Phillips has consistently been the best skater on the best team in the AHL. He’s already taken 165 shots on goal in just 58 games this season, having previously taken 215 shots in 133 games over the first three full seasons of his career. He’s a feisty, up-tempo playmaking winger who asserts himself on the ice like few other 5’8″, 165-lb. players can. With 29 goals and 63 points in 2021–22, Phillips is the most productive U-25 player in the AHL and currently ranks fifth on the league’s goal-scoring leaderboard. The Calgary product just turned 24 last week and is overdue for an NHL opportunity. At this point, it’s starting to look like the Flames might not be the team to give it to him.
Adam Ruzicka: A+ — Ruzicka has been phenomenal for the Heat in his brief time with the team this season, racking up 11 goals and 20 points in just 16 games. As many fans in Calgary already know, he’s also proven himself capable of hanging with some of the Flames’ better players in NHL action. Ruzicka’s skating hasn’t hampered him at the top level as much as I feared while watching him in 2020–21 and he’s taken huge strides toward improving his consistency in all three zones this season. He’s not particularly physical, but he’s capable of creating space for himself and getting tons of pucks on net. Ruzicka should play in the NHL for a long time.
Jakob Pelletier: A+ — Pelletier is having one heck of a debut season with the Heat. The 2019 first-round pick has done it all for the team at both ends of the ice, playing in basically every situation and very nearly matching Phillips’ scoring rate. He only trails Buffalo Sabres prospect JJ Peterka in the AHL rookie scoring race and also sits second on the Heat with 57 points in 60 games. Like Phillips, Pelletier isn’t an imposing presence on the ice (5’10”, 180 lbs.) but makes up for it with his tenacity and willingness to cash in from the dirty areas of the ice. A strong showing in the Calder Cup playoffs could help Pelletier’s case to push for a roster spot in Calgary next season.
Luke Philp: A — With Ruzicka up in Calgary for the majority of the season to this point, the Heat needed somebody to emerge as their new top centre. @Glenn Gawdin (more on him later) has played between Phillips and Pelletier for much of the year but it’s been Philp who has assumed the mantle as Stockton’s most impactful pivot in 2021–22. The 26-year-old University of Alberta alumnus has been rock-solid defensively while ranking third on the Heat with 21 goals in 59 games. Philp has been a terrific finisher for his entire AHL career and could be a candidate to push for a bottom-six NHL role next season. He’s a pending Group 6 UFA who might leave Calgary in the summer to pursue a less crowded path to the bigs.
Connor Zary: B+ — After suffering an ankle injury during the pre-season, it took Zary a while to get back up to speed in the AHL. The 2020 first-round pick looked tremendous with the Heat to begin the shortened 2020–21 campaign but struggled to find that same success after having his 2021–22 season debut delayed by nearly a month. Zary scored just one point in his first seven games of the year and nine in his first 26; since then, he has 15 points in 23 contests. The 20-year-old forward spent much of the early part of this year adjusting to the centre position at the professional level (he played left wing with the Heat in 2020–21) and has steadily improved, most recently tallying seven goals in his last 11 games.
Justin Kirkland: B+ — Kirkland is a really big guy (6’3″, 205 lbs.) who constantly makes his presence felt on the ice. He boasts an incredibly powerful shot and is regularly used on both special teams. Prior to this season, Kirkland had never really been able to use his cannon of a shot to find the back of the net consistently. That’s now changed: Kirkland has 20 goals in 59 games this season and ranks sixth in the entire AHL with 197 shots. The 25-year-old forward is one of the oldest prospects the Flames have and is a bit of a power-play merchant (his 12 primary points on the PP rank second on the Heat) but it’s not far-fetched to imagine Kirkland stepping in and becoming a solid fourth-line forward in the NHL.
Martin Pospisil: B — Pospisil will play NHL games someday. He’s a versatile, physical forward who can score and defend. Pospisil spent much of the 2020–21 season at centre before suffering a season-ending knee injury; this year, he’s played primarily on the wing. The 22-year-old forward still has yet to play a full season in the American Hockey League, having missed 21 games this year; in addition to his shortened 2020–21 campaign, Pospisil missed more than half of 2019–20 after being knocked out in a fight with the late Colby Cave. In 40 games with the Heat this year, Pospisil has seven goals and 21 points; expect him to take on a larger role next season and potentially steal a spot on the top line.
Glenn Gawdin: B — Unfortunately, it’s beginning to feel like Gawdin’s days in the Flames organization might be numbered. The 25-year-old centre is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and his AHL results seem to have stagnated despite significant playing time between Phillips and Pelletier. Gawdin ranks third on the Heat with 48 points in 58 games this season but only has 21 primary points at five-on-five, a figure that trails those of Phillips, Pelletier, and Philp by significant margins. With Philp on the ice at five-on-five, the Heat have outscored their opponents 48–24; with Gawdin on, the Heat have scored 48 goals while conceding 37. Gawdin doesn’t have one standout attribute like many of the players ahead of him on this list and looks like a strong candidate to follow in the footsteps of the Alan Quines and Tyler Graovacs of the world as a high-end AHL centre … but not much more.
Emilio Pettersen: C+ — Pettersen got off to a really slow start this season, scoring exactly one goal in his first 30 games, but has started to find his groove of late while playing on a line with Zary. Having just turned 22 earlier this month, Pettersen now has 11 goals and 23 points in 53 games (with seven of those goals coming in his last 16 contests). Pettersen is a speedy winger who could still have a bright future, although his prospects have dimmed a little since he scored 35 points in 36 games as a sophomore with the Denver Pioneers in 2019–20. There’s a chance the Manglerud, Norway product could get a chance to prove himself on Stockton’s top line next season if the Flames promote Pelletier to the NHL, but he’ll need to start scoring a lot more if he wants to stick around after his entry-level deal expires.
Eetu Tuulola: C+ — Tuulola is easy to root for. He plays an aggressive style on the ice that directly contrasts with his chipper personality off it. While, six years since the Flames drafted him in the sixth round, it’s hard to see Tuulola ever being much more than a middle-six AHL forward, he’s still a valuable player for the Heat to have around (14 goals, 24 points in 54 games) and there’s a small chance he could still take a step forward in a bigger role. Tuulola is a north-south player who uses his body effectively but doesn’t get a ton of shots on net. He’s not incapable of playing on a second or third line, either, although he’s primarily been used on Stockton’s bottom unit this season. Tuulola is set to become a restricted free agent this summer and it remains to be seen whether the Flames will tender him a qualifying offer to retain his services.
Walker Duehr: C- — Unfortunately, Duehr hasn’t had the most encouraging first professional season with the Heat. The 24-year-old winger has remained in Stockton’s bottom six all year long and has been the team’s least productive NHL-affiliated forward (aside from Dmitry Zavgorodniy, who spent much of the year in the KHL). With Duehr on the ice at five-on-five, the Heat have been outscored 27–23; with him on the bench in those same games, the Heat have outscored their opponents 108–69. Duehr doesn’t take a lot of shots and he’s not overly physical for a 6’2″ winger, although he has decent boots. While he played his first NHL game with the Flames earlier this season, Duehr has to be seventh or eighth on the pecking order by now. He’s not a bad player by any means — he still has 10 goals and 21 points in 52 games — but he simply doesn’t have a ton of runway left in front of him.
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