Unless you’re picking in the top five in the NHL Entry Draft -- or better yet, in the top three, and are able to select a premium talent that may be able to step right into a NHL line-up, the American Hockey League is generally where you groom your players.
Considering the Flames have never drafted in the top five since relocating to Calgary in 1980 – the only NHL team with such a distinction, the AHL player development model most certainly applies to them. But, a sign that this model has been broken for quite some time is the reality that in the last five seasons, only four players have come up through the Flames AHL affiliate in Abbotsford into full-time roles with Calgary and half of them -- Paul Byron and Lance Bouma, were last season. The other two were TJ Brodie (2011-12) and Mikael Backlund (2010-11).
Now it’s true that over this period, the Flames are guilty of having been an older team with too many guaranteed one-way NHL contracts, which left little realistic opportunity for a young player to crack the roster. That said, if there had been quality prospects knocking down the door of the NHL, who had proven that they were too good for the AHL, the club surely would have found a way to fit them in.
Historical Context: AHL Graduation Rate
So, how many players typically move up from an organization’s AHL team to the NHL club each season? That will vary from team to team but for Calgary, if you go back to 1995-96 when the Flames AHL affiliate was based in Saint John, every season for eight consecutive years a minimum of two players graduated. I define graduation as going from having spent a full (or nearly a full) season in the AHL to playing a majority (if not all) of the next season with Calgary.
Fast forward to 2006-07 and once again, the next three seasons saw two players each year parlay AHL bus trips into NHL chartered flights the year after.
Listed at the bottom of this article as reference is the full list of every home-grown AHL graduate (who subsequently played for Calgary) going back to when the Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
Who Will Make the Jump in 2014-15?
With the Flames committed to rebuilding and giving youth the opportunity to prove themselves when they've demonstrated they're ready -- or so we’re led to believe, and with lots of quality prospects in the minors for the first time in quite a while, the question we annually ask ourselves has changed. No longer is it will any players move up to Calgary next season, but more so, how many?
Looking at this past year’s Abbotsford team, I would suggest there is a very good possibility that next season could be the first time in 18 years for this organization that more than two players will make the jump from the AHL to the NHL.
This season, Abbotsford posted its best record in its five seasons as Calgary’s affiliate. Encouraging was the fact that they did so with a relatively young team featuring plenty of Flames draft picks and rookies compared to past editions where journeymen like Krys Kolanos, Clay Wilson, Carsen Germyn and Cam Cunning were the team’s best players.
Going into the summer, based on the season just completed, here is how I’d handicap the competition to make the Calgary Flames for 2014-15. Included is their AHL totals from this year.
- LW Max Reinhart (66 gm, 21-42-63) – Enjoyed a phenomenal progression offensively compared to his rookie year in the AHL, tripling his goals and points and turning a minus-26 into a plus-6. The 22-year-old had three stints with Calgary in 2013-14. Next year, expect just one stint for the 6-foot-1 winger, but lasting the full season. (Read my in-depth feature on Reinhart’s emergence written prior to the AHL playoffs. It covers a range of topics and includes quotes from Max)
- C Markus Granlund (52 gm, 25-21-46) – A very talented kid with great vision, who can score a highlight reel goal but isn't afraid to go to the tough areas and get his nose dirty to score a goal either. He just had the most prolific goal-scoring year for a Flames 20-year-old in the minors since Theoren Fleury. Prior to coming to North America this past year, Granlund played two years in Finland’s SM-Liiga so despite just turning 21, he’s played against ‘men’ for three seasons. After a late February call-up, he scored two goals in seven games for the Flames before suffering an injury. He returned to action late in the year with the Heat and had a good playoffs. This guy looks ready.
- D Tyler Wotherspoon (48 gm, 1-8-9) – Looked just fine in 14 games with the Flames in March before undergoing shoulder surgery. More time in the AHL wouldn’t hurt his development but at the same time, he has shown he's a very capable player who as a next step might nicely benefit from being under the tutelage of Mark Giordano next year.
- LW Michael Ferland (25 gm, 6-12-18) – Listed at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he’s got the size that gets his resume near the top of the pile in a Brian Burke organization and he nearly made the Flames after a great training camp. He struggled offensively upon landing in the AHL with no points in his first 11 games but broke out of that funk with a bang going a scorching 6-12-18 in his next 14 games before his season came to a screeching halt in mid-December with a knee injury that required surgery and sidelined him the rest of the year. With a strong camp in September, the 22-year-old has an excellent chance to make the Flames.
- LW Sven Baertschi (41 gm, 13-16-29) – He reportedly made improvements in his overall game this year and has said himself he’s progressed. After his December demotion, his offence went dry for a while but did return in the second half of the year although went quiet again in the playoffs. Presence of a new Flames GM gives Baertschi a second chance to make a first impression. He has the potential to make the opening night NHL roster but will need to earn it. His broken rib at the World Championships was a tough blow as that would have been a nice seven or eight-game opportunity to to showcase himself for Brad Treliving, who is in Belarus as well as the assistant GM for Canada.
- G Joni Ortio (37 gm, 27-8-0, 2.33 GAA, .926 SV%) – He played well in nine games with the Flames but having just turned 23, he’s too young to be a NHL back-up. With Karri Ramo having earned a shot to open next year as the No. 1 starter in Calgary, expect a veteran to come in to compete with and/or back-up Ramo, and for Ortio to spend next season as the de facto starter in Glens Falls. Since moving to Calgary in 1980, the Flames have really only drafted and developed three goaltenders – Curtis McElhinney, Trevor Kidd and Mike Vernon. Ortio might very well be the fourth but more AHL seasoning won't harm his development. Ramo’s contract expires after next season so it's 2015-16, or perhaps even late this upcoming season when things in the crease will get interesting.
- RW Ben Hanowski (55 gm, 13-18-31) – He worked hard to improve his skating last summer. Given he was up for 11 NHL games, I suspect Flames will re-sign the pending RFA for another season and give him one more look. He's shown he's a solid third or fourth-line player in the AHL but does he have enough tools or is he truculent enough to secure a long-term role on an NHL roster? I’m not so sure, yet.
- C Corban Knight (70 gm, 18-26-44) – There are a lot of things to like about his game – has a good skill set offensively, is dependable defensively, is leadership material off the ice. For now, he needs to continue to develop his on-ice game before he’s ready to be a full-time NHLer. Also, as a centre, I slot him behind Granlund on the depth chart in terms of the next-in-line at that position behind Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Matt Stajan.
- D Patrick Sieloff (2 gm, 0-0-0) – Missed pretty much the entire 2013-14 season due to a serious staph infection. He should be back in good health for camp this fall and while the injury shouldn’t have any lasting impact on the hard-nosed, heavy-hitting NHL-calibre defenceman many expect him to become, it will most certainly impact his time line on when he gets there. I would expect him to spend most of next season at minimum in the AHL. Missing a full season at age 19 is a tough one developmentally and it will take him a while to recover.
Grad List: Flames Players That Have Made the Jump
Here is the full list of Calgary Flames AHL grads going back to 1989 when the Flames won the Stanley Cup. The year listed is that player’s first full season with Calgary. They will have spent all or most of the previous season in the AHL (and possibly more).
2013-14 (2) – Lance Bouma, Paul Byron
2011-12 (1) – TJ Brodie
2010-11 (1) – Mikael Backlund
2008-09 (2) – Brandon Prust, Curtis McElhinney
2007-08 (2) – Dustin Boyd, Eric Nystrom
2006-07 (2) – David Moss, Mark Giordano
2005-06 (1) – Chuck Kobasew
2003-04 (1) – Matthew Lombardi
2002-03 (2) – Blair Betts, Steve Montador
2001-02 (2) – Chris Clark, Steve Begin
2000-01 (2) – Jeff Cowan, Ron Petrovicky
1999-00 (2) – Hnat Domenichelli, Martin St. Louis
1998-99 (2) – Clarke Wilm, Denis Gauthier
1997-98 (2) – Chris Dingman, Jamie Allison
1996-97 (5) – Cale Hulse, Dwayne Roloson, Joel Bouchard, Todd Hlushko, Todd Simpson
1995-96 (2) – Cory Stillman, Ed Ward
1993-94 (3) – Paul Kruse, Sandy McCarthy, Trevor Kidd
1990-91 (2) – Stephane Matteau, Tim Sweeney
1989-90 (2) – Paul Ranheim, Theoren Fleury
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- The Big-Time Emergence of Max Reinhart - He reflects on his breakout season, where he got better, what he's still working on... and if brother Sam will fall to the Flames in the 2014 NHL draft.
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