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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Training Camp Update: One Week In, Breaking Down Who's in and Who's on the Bubble

Training camp 2016. (Photo by Rob McMorris)

The Flames made 11 cuts on Wednesday, which leaves the number of players in camp -- or at least listed on the training camp roster (looking at you, Johnny Gaudreau) -- at 49 with a breakdown of 27 forwards, 17 defencemen and 5 goaltenders.

Factoring in the guys coming back from injury like Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Daniel Pribyl and the before-mentioned absentee and the 40 or so skaters remaining is small enough to get the number of practice groups down to two now, after being three up until now.  They will practice at the Saddledome at 10:30 am and 12:00 pm today. One last session will be good for raspy coach Glen Gulutzan, whose voice started abandon him on Sunday and was almost gone by Monday night's opening game.

Of those remaining, that includes a bunch have no real shot at making the team. But with Stockton's training camp not starting until Monday, guys like Matt Frattin, Roman Dyukov, Austin Carroll, Hunter Smith and Ryan Lomberg will get the benefit of a few more organized ice times at the Saddledome.

Those demoted to the AHL already, a list that is nine players deep, those guys will head to California and get ready. Some will drive, some will fly, and there is ice time booked daily out there for them to informally get together as a small group and keep the legs moving before Ryan Huska and his coaching staff arrive and get things going next week.

Earlier in the week in this piece, I looked specifically at five training camp battles. For example, who will play right wing on the top line? Who will line up beside Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer? Who will play with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik?

Today, I take a step back and examine in general, how many roster spots are available and who is on the bubble, fighting for those spots.


Forward

Locked and Loaded (7)

Much like when you put together a puzzle at home, you start with the edge pieces that are easier and more certain and fill in the rest afterwards, we'll take the same approach here. Here are the pieces that not only do we know will be on the team but we also know with virtual certainty where they will slot.
  • LW Johnny Gaudreau
  • C Sean Monahan
  • C Sam Bennett
  • RW Troy Brouwer
  • C Mikael Backlund
  • LW/RW Michael Frolik
  • C Matt Stajan

Tentative Configuration

Gaudreau - Monahan - _______
_______ - Bennett - Brouwer
_______ - Backlund - Frolik
_______ - Stajan - _______


Noteworthy

Of course, one could put an asterisk on Gaudreau given he's unsigned and the possibility looms that he could still be in that situation when the season begins, but given this is more of a 'bigger picture' look, I'm going to pencil him in.

The Flames top nine consists of three pairings that at this point are expected to be a thing. Gaudreau-Monahan and Backlund-Frolik have a history of success together. Brouwer-Bennett is obviously new but Gulutzan is determined to try them together and the first test drive on Monday could not have gone much better.

With Stajan, he could see some time on the wing this year and will likely see time in the press box too, but more often than not, I would expect him to centre the fourth line.


Locked (3)

There are guys that I view as certainties to be on the roster on opening night, but I'm just not sure where they'll draw in in terms of first line, fourth line, or somewhere inbetween.
  • LW/RW Micheal Ferland
  • LW Lance Bouma
  • RW Alex Chiasson

Noteworthy

Ferland has been deployed on the right side frequently so I see him as the more logical guy to play his off-wing if necessary. Bouma is looking for a bounce-back season and while his success two seasons ago came alongside Backlund, the fourth line is just as likely of a landing spot.

As for Chiasson, I'm not sure yet what to expect although he's been an NHL regular the last few years so I'd expect him to be on the roster come October 12. I'm just not prepared to pencil him into the starting 12 just yet.


Bubble (11 for 4 spots)

There are guys more likely and less likely to make the team on this list and I've loosely listed them in order from most likely to least likely based on what I've seen/heard so far. Obviously, there could be a fifth spot available temporarily if No. 13 remains absent.

There are guys in camp still but not on this list. Morgan Klimchuk is one example. It's just not his time yet.
  • C/RW Freddie Hamilton - On a one-way, can play multiple positions/roles
  • LW Chris Higgins (PTO) - Could help PK but does he still have enough game at age 33.
  • LW Lauri Korpikoski (PTO) - See above, although the speedy Finn is three years younger.
  • RW Garnet Hathaway - Cheap AAV will helps his odds, brings energy, ideal 4th liner.
  • C/RW Linden Vey - Can score, play multiple positions, plenty of NHL experience
  • LW Brandon Bollig - Good in the room but does he do enough outside of it to stick.
  • LW Hunter Shinkaruk - Waiver exempt still, a bit more AHL seasoning might be best
  • LW Matthew Tkachuk - No need to rush him, but possible fill-in if Gaudreau sits.
  • RW Daniel Pribyl - Not skating yet, so likely starts in AHL to get game-ready
  • RW Emile Poirier - Coming off poor AHL season, but in third year as a pro
  • C Mark Jankowski - No need to rush him, continue his development path in the AHL

Noteworthy

While I have Higgins and Korpikoski both ranked fairly high, I don't necessarily see both getting a contract. It could be one or the other. They'll need to show they've still got some game but you sense Gulutzan would like to add a veteran to provide a bit more experience to a very youthful line-up.

Hamilton could be a valuable player to have on the roster given he can center or the wing and could also slot in in a variety of roles. He could play RW on the top line, or he could centre the fourth line.

With his new two-year, one-way deal in his back pocket, Hamilton has looked good in his two games with a couple of goals. He could be a useful guy to have around, who could play centre if Backlund isn't ready, or in place of Stajan when he gets a night off. As a right-shot, he could slot in anywhere on the wing. He's an economically priced ($612,000) utility forward that would be a useful guy ala Paul Byron to have on the roster.

Working for Hathaway is his cheap NHL salary of $690,000. Working against him is he is waiver-exempt still so the high energy, high character banger-and-crasher can be shipped down without fear of losing him.


For young Tkachuk, he'll probably be back in junior for another season. Although if Gaudreau isn't around opening night and even if he is, he could get a few NHL games to start the season. But before he plays in that 10th game, I'd expect him to be back in London.

The other guy that is intriguing is Pribyl. There is a lot of mystery with this player, who was second in the Czech league in scoring a year ago. Due to his knee surgery that he is returning from and with a two-way contract and being waivers-exempt, the easy play is to start him off in Stockton. However, he could be up in Calgary sooner than later.

For your background, the waiver-eligibles on this list that would need to be exposed to the other 29 NHL teams to be assigned to the AHL are Hamilton, Higgins, Korpikoski, Vey and Bollig.

It should also be noted that there's no guarantee they go with 14 forwards. They could go with 13 to save some cap space but the schedule is pretty busy early, having some options is usually preferred.


Defence

Locked and Loaded (4)

Again, these are the guys that will be on the team opening night -- barring a trade or injury, of course -- and we also know where they'll slot in.
  • LD Mark Giordano
  • RD TJ Brodie
  • RD Dougie Hamilton
  • RD Deryk Engelland

Tentative Configuration

Giordano - Brodie
_______ - Hamilton
_______ - Engelland


Noteworthy

I see no reason to expect Giordano and Brodie to be split up. They're the teams's top two defenceman, they work well together, until I see signs indicating otherwise, I expect same old, same old.

That leaves Hamilton to slot into the second pairing and Engelland would be part of the 5-6-7 mix that round out the blueline.


Locked (2)
  • RD Dennis Wideman
  • LD Jyrki Jokipakka

Noteworthy

Both of these guys will be on the roster, barring a trade of Wideman. The latter seems highly unlikely at this point. A deal could still happen at some point in the year as he's a pending UFA but around the trade deadline is more realistic. Acquiring a big salary like Wideman ($5.25 million) is more feasible for cap-crunched teams later on when there's less money remaining and some cap space has been built up.

Just back from the World Cup where he represented Finland, Jokipakka as a left-shot is probably the leading candidate to play on that second pairing with Hamilton but we'll have to see how it plays out. Those auditioning for the seventh spot like Tyler Wotherspoon could surprise and jump into that spot. While it would make for two right-shooters, Wideman is a candidate also.


Bubble (5 for 1 spot)

Based on what I've seen and with a dose of age and experience factored in, there are five legitimate candidates with a shot at that No. 7 job. Again, some guys are more likely than others and I've handicapped them in an approximate order as I see them today.

Absent from the list are the two highly-touted Swedes Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington that both remain in camp. Let's be honest, there is zero need to rush Kylington into the NHL at just age 19. Defence is a position where ideally 2-3 seasons in the minors at minimum is best for development. Andersson is a first-year pro and Stockton will be his home this year for sure.
  • LD Tyler Wotherspoon - Waiver eligible now, three years of pro complete, it's his time.
  • LD Brett Kulak - Big night offensively Monday, made opening night roster a year ago
  • LD Ryan Culkin - Healthy, his game is looking sharp and he's back in the next-up mix.
  • LD Nicklas Grossmann (PTO) - Brings lots of experience but foot speed an issue.
  • RD Kenney Morrison - Having a far more impactful camp after a poor first pro season

Noteworthy

Given the Flames are expected to be pushing up against the upper limit of the salary cap, Morrison's AAV ($925,000) is considerably higher than the other three under contract so that will work against him. It's for this reason that settling for a salary ($625,000) well below his qualifying offer will actually help Wotherspoon make the team. Kulak ($656,000) and Culkin ($656,000) have that same advantage.

Fair or not fair, an additional consideration might who is waiver-exempt and from that perspective, Kulak, Culkin and Morrison are all guys that can be shuttled up and down as the Flames need them this season, without having to clear waivers.

If he'd agree to it, a two-way deal for Grossmann would be best. They could put him in Stockton like Corey Potter a few years ago as an experienced depth option should injuries mount, but meanwhile, the team can roll with their youth and see how they perform.

Of course, the elephant in the room when you talk about defence is a possible Kris Russell return but we'll cross that bridge should that actually happen. Same thing for fan favourite Jakub Nakladal. For now though, Flames brass have to be impressed with that they've seen both this week and in Penticton from their youth in camp. These existing solutions are also far cheaper solutions to what a Russell would cost and these days, every dollar matters.


Goaltender

Locked and Loaded (2)

Put to rest the saga from a year ago that accompanied the three goalies the Flames had in camp on one-way contracts.


This year, the only competition will be the division of playing time.
  • G Brian Elliott
  • G Chad Johnson

Noteworthy

Elliott will be the starter, for sure, but Johnson will be a very capable back-up and is definitely someone capable of stringing some starts together if Elliott hits a rough patch. Hard to imagine that this year's duo come in at less than half the price of what was spent on goaltending in 2015-16.



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