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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Super Sneak Preview: Best Guess (For Now) at 2014-15 Adirondack Line-up

The team has a name -- officially minted the Adirondack Flames on Friday, so that's a good start.

Calgary's new American Hockey League affiliate also has a logo and a pretty sharp-looking one at that, modeled off the Flaming 'A' famously worn by the Atlanta Flames for eight seasons in the 70s before relocating to Calgary in 1980.

What isn't known is the coach, or the roster although the speculation on the latter can begin already and that's exactly what I've chosen to do today.

Last week, I identified nine players that played in Abbotsford last season and I broke down the odds of each of them graduating to the NHL and wearing a Flaming 'C' for the 2014-15 season. You can read that piece here, which also contains the year-by-year list of Flames AHL grads going back to 1989. It's quite interesting.

This time, I'm going to reverse engineer that story and look at things from the opposite viewpoint. Today I ask who are the best bets to be wearing that glorious red Adirondack Flames jersey next October when the AHL season gets underway.

Obviously, much can happen this summer as new Flames GM Brad Treliving settles into his new role, new team and assesses the state of the organization and what his priorities are. But for now, based on players under contract right now, and who I think the club will re-sign, here is my guess at what the make-up of the Adirondack roster will be for 2014-15.

Back For More

The NHL is filled with many great players, who needed multiple years of seasoning in the AHL to adjust to the pro game and establish themselves. Examples are Patrick Sharp (163 AHL games), Jason Spezza (123), Gustav Nyquist (122), Nazem Kadri (119), Ondrej Palat (117), Brad Marchand (113), David Krejci (94) and Kyle Turris (86).

Here is a list of players that turned pro recently by signing with the Flames, who spent all or most of last season in Abbotsford, are either under contract for 2014-15 or are pending RFAs expected to be resigned, and who I think are not quite ready yet and will be back making those minor league bus trips once again next year:

  • F Ben Hanowski*
  • F Corban Knight
  • F Josh Jooris
  • F Michael Ferland
  • F Sven Baertschi
  • F Turner Elson
  • D John Ramage
  • D Patrick Sieloff
  • G Joni Ortio*

* Pending RFA


Regulars from last year's Abbotsford team, who are noticeably absent, are centre Markus Granlund, left-winger Max Reinhart and defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon. As I explained in my AHL graduation piece, I feel these three are your best bets for moving up to the Calgary Flames next season. Ferland and Baertschi are two others that have decent shots at sticking with the Flames but more likely will be possibilities for mid-season call-ups if they earn it.

The College Crowd

As if they had won a NCAA shopping spree, the Flames inked four players out of U.S. college in the span of 26 days last spring. Given the rigors of the professional game schedule-wise compared to the relatively light 40-48 game college schedule, and given where these players skill sets are at right now, I see three of the four signings as virtual locks to be in Adirondack next year.

The wildcard is the uber-talented but diminutive-sized Johnny Gaudreau. I love watching the kid play. He's the most compelling player to watch that this franchise has had since Theoren Fleury. But after his NHL debut, I had the audacity to suggest there are plenty of reasons why the AHL may be the smart place for the 5-foot-8, 159 pound Hobey Baker winner to begin what I believe will be a long and successful NHL career. That said, he sure continues to show that he may be NHL-ready right now with the IIHF World Championships his latest proving ground.

Nonetheless, for the purpose of this exercise, pencil in all four to at least start the year in the Eastern time zone although Glens Falls residents, don't delay in seeing Gaudreau if you are lucky enough to get the chance as he may not be around for long.
  • F Bill Arnold
  • F Bryce Van Brabant
  • F Johnny Gaudreau
  • F Kenny Agostino

On a side note, Glens Falls, New York, is driving distance from the hometowns of Arnold (Needham, MA), Gaudreau (Carneys Point, NJ) and Agostino (Flanders, NJ) so that's a nice fringe benefit for those guys.

The Junior Kids

To be eligible to play in the AHL in 2014-15 per a standing agreement that's in place between the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL, players must born in 1994 or earlier. So, that immediately eliminates Adirondack as being a possible destination for 2013 draft picks Morgan Klimchuk and Keegan Kanzig. Their options next season are the same as what they were last year for Sean Monahan, which was return to junior or stay in the NHL. Safe to say they'll be back in the WHL for one more year.

The situation with defenceman Eric Roy is less clear. He is not under contract yet but if he is signed, he would be eligible to play in Adirondack. He's already played four full seasons in the WHL but he could return as an over-ager for one more. As a 2013 draft pick, the Flames have until June 1, 2015 to sign him.

On the other hand, left-winger Coda Gordon, drafted in 2012, is a player that either needs to be signed in the next two weeks or will go back into the draft (signing deadline is June 1). He inked an AHL contract with the Heat at the end of this past WHL season but he never did suit up for a game. With the plethora of college forwards that have joined the organization, it's quite possible that Gordon's days as a Flames prospect may be counting down.

My guess is Roy returns to Brandon for another year and the Flames will delay deciding whether to sign the 5th round pick until next spring. However, three guys that have probably played their last junior hockey game and will be in the Adirondack line-up next season are:
  • D Brett Kulak
  • D Ryan Culkin
  • F Emile Poirier

Kulak is a guy you can expect to start hearing more chatter about. As he had done the season prior, he joined Abbotsford after the Vancouver Giants season ended this year and he looked very good in the games I watched. Calm and cool on the ice, he is solidly built and moves the puck well. He is also coming off a break-out season offensively (14-46-60 in 69 gm) so keep an eye on him.

Poirier, along with Gaudreau, is one of the Flames elite prospects at this juncture and although he had a nice NHL camp last year, and showed well in spurts in the AHL, getting in five games after his phenomenal 50-goal season with Gatineau had ended, the reality is he was a healthy scratch for the Heat's final game. The jump from the QMJHL to AHL is massive and I would suggest Poirier is destined to start next year in Adirondack where he'll quickly become a fan favourite with his combination of grit, speed, and offensive creativity.

The German Import

Just inked to a two-way contract last week, David Wolf will be 25 years old by the time next season begins. With a reputation of being a tough, ornery competitor, the 6-foot-2, 215 pounder is expected to challenge for a bottom six role for the Flames in training camp. 

However, the reality is he's coming from the German league and I would be surprised if he cracks the big club immediately. Instead, expect him to bring a thick dose of truculence to the Adirondack line-up.
  • F David Wolf

The Obligatory Veteran Presence

In the AHL, player development is a priority. To that point, there is even a rule in place -- agreed to between the AHL and the Professional Hockey Players Association, that teams must adhere to. It reads:

Of the 18 skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least 13 must be qualified as "development players." Of those 13, 12 must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season. 

For the Flames, however, meeting this minimum is not a concern in the slightest and that's a good thing. More so, what Calgary needs to guard against is having too many young players. The transition from junior or college hockey to the AHL is a more difficult jump than most people think. Young men suddenly find themselves playing against bigger, stronger, and more mature men in their mid-to-late-20s and early 30s and it's a whole new level. Troy Ward, head coach the past three years at Abbotsford, frequently talked about the maturing that guys must do when they arrive in the AHL and that it can take longer for some than others.

It's why the ingredients of a successful minor league team includes a core of veterans to be leaders on the team, who can lead by example, take players under their wings, and be the voice in the dressing room. On last year's team, these were older players like 33-year-old Dean Arsene, 34-year-old Trevor Gillies and 29-year-old Corey Locke. You could include longtime Abbotsford forward Carter Bancks in that group as well. There was also 30-year-old Shane O'Brien after he was demoted by Calgary, and journeyman centre Ben Street.

O'Brien is under contract for another season so could be back for another year in the AHL as I doubt he'll play another game for the Flames. However, there's no doubt Treliving will investigate options to move on from O'Brien. Street is a pending UFA and likely signs with a new organization although his experience could fill that veteran role that the club will inevitably fill with someone.

Chad Billins is an RFA and that one could go either way. He's a tremendous player at the AHL level -- smart, skilled, but lacks an NHL frame at 5-foot-10. The AHL may be his ceiling. But at age 25, he would be a solid veteran presence on what otherwise is shaping up to be a youthful blue-line with the likely departures of UFAs Chris Breen and Derek Smith and RFA Mark Cundari.

For now, my guess is O'Brien remains for another year and Billins is re-signed.
  • D Shane O'Brien
  • D Chad Billins

Conclusion

Through the summer, there will be free agents signed by the Flames that will end up in Adirondack. You can count on it. These will be players that other organizations are moving on from that the Flames may still see some possibility with, or are the aforementioned leadership material the organization is seeking to surround it's top prospects with to help guide them.

I would expect to also see a trade or two that may bring prospects in or ship them out or a little of both. But for now, the above list gives you a roster of 12 forwards, 6 defencemen and 1 goalie and you can bet they will make up the bulk of the roster of the inaugural edition of the Adirondack Heat.

Lastly, don't forget about about the Flames ECHL affiliate in Alaska, the secondary or 'AA' development team affiliated with the Flames. Ramage, for example, was re-assigned there in mid-March due to the excess number of defencemen in Abbotsford. Also there is Elson. Alaska is still alive in the ECHL playoffs, currently playing Bakersfield in the best-of-seven Western Conference final. So, that's always another option that may become the home for a couple of the organization's lesser prospects mentioned above.

We'll have to wait and see in September if exciting top prospects Gaudreau and Poirier can make the jump to the NHL but if the club decides to exercise patience with both of them, it's sure stacking up to be a pretty darn exciting team that the folks in Glen Falls and the Adirondack region are going to enjoy watching next season and for many years to come.

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Related Reading:

  • AHL Graduation Day: In the past five seasons, just four Flames players have graduated from the AHL to the NHL. Next season alone, there could be four. I take a closer look.
  • Emile Poirier's Bright Future - His favourite player growing up was Alexei Kovalev and they actually have a lot in common. Flames can only hope Poirier's NHL career will be similar also.
  • The Big-Time Emergence of Max Reinhart - He tripled his goal total, tripled his point total and turned a frightening minus-26 into a trustworthy plus-6. Reinhart broaches a variety of topic as he talks about his breakout second season in Abbotsford.
  • Johnny Gaudreau: A Limited Engagement - Excitement, hype and optimism aside, here's why starting 'Johnny Hockey' in the AHL next season is probably the wise thing to do.

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