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3 Calgary Flames forward prospects entering make-or-break years

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gould
1 month ago
The Calgary Flames will need all the help they can get up front as they get set for what should be another lean year in their retooling process.
In the 2023-24 season, the Flames were invigorated by the emergence of Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil as newcomers in their NHL lineup. The two youngsters provided offence, energy, and raw skill for a team that had lacked in all three areas the previous year. The end result was a far more watchable Flames team.
The 2024-25 iteration of the Flames will likely be even younger. With the departures of five notable veteran players over the last calendar year, with perhaps more heading out in the coming weeks, this team will need to find replacements somewhere. That might mean the Flames sign an extra free agent or two, but it could also spell more opportunities for members of the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers.
Here are three forward prospects in the Flames’ system who are entering make-or-break years in their respective careers.

Cole Schwindt

Although he was one of the Wranglers’ top performers during their brief foray into the 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs, Schwindt didn’t take the major step forward during the regular season some might’ve hoped to see from him in his second year in the Flames organization. The 6’2″ forward only just turned 23 in April but is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he topped out as a secondary offensive option on Calgary’s farm club. Schwindt has mustered up 28 goals and 68 points in 136 games over the last two seasons with the Wranglers, which, despite being solid middle-six AHL production, hasn’t been enough to differentiate himself from the pack. That said, Schwindt shoots right, has experience playing centre, and has strong hand-eye coordination that he puts to good use while screening opposing goaltenders. All those traits could help him make the transition into an NHL role, even if he might not have the raw skillset or skating to play above the fourth line. Either way, it’ll have to happen soon for it to happen at all.

Adam Klapka

Klapka is also 23, although he’ll turn 24 midway through training camp in September. He’s certainly a unique player, always bounding about with the happy-go-lucky energy of a Golden Retriever despite looming extremely large at 6’8″ and 235 pounds. Klapka used his imposing size to find more consistent on-ice success during his sophomore AHL season, embracing his role as the Wranglers’ go-to net-front option in offensive situations and ultimately leading the team with 21 goals and 46 points in 65 games. There are valid concerns about his skating, coordination, and tenacity, but there’s also a fair amount going for Klapka, who skated in his first six NHL games in 2023-24 and picked up his first goal. Much like Schwindt, Klapka appears to be nearing the tail end of his developmental runway, but there could be room for either of them to crack the Flames’ roster out of camp this year. There aren’t many players like Klapka in the NHL today, but that just makes him all the more intriguing.

Ilya Nikolaev

It’s starting to look like it just might not happen for Nikolaev, who the Flames drafted in the third round all the way back in 2019. The stocky Russian centre has appeared in just 35 AHL games (including playoffs) over the last three seasons, posting three goals and six points. Nikolaev will turn 23 later this month and is entering the final year of his entry-level contract. If he can’t establish himself as a full-timer in the AHL this season, he might not be long for North America. The 2023-24 season marked Nikolaev’s longest run with the Wranglers, and he started hot, picking up his first four AHL points in his first four games of the year back in November. After that, Nikolaev was held off the scoresheet (while playing limited minutes) in 23 of 25 games to close out his season. As we saw with Dmitry Zavgorodniy a couple of years ago, it isn’t at all uncommon for players to agree to have their contracts terminated and return overseas if they aren’t developing in the AHL as they might’ve hoped, and that could be an option for Nikolaev if he isn’t able to lock down a spot with the Wranglers. After all, the organization needs to make room for the likes of Sam Honzek, Parker Bell, Sam Morton, and others to enter their AHL lineup in 2024-25.

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