The Calgary Flames return to action this weekend with Penticton, B.C., the venue for the annual Young Stars tournament. It begins a stretch of 31 consecutive weekends in which the Flames play at least once, with just one exception -- the NHL All-Star weekend in late January.
The rookie tournament, which this year also includes the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets, has become a much-anticipated event for Calgary hockey fans and why not as it's a glimpse into the future. When the Flames finally get back to once again being a perennial playoff contender, it's quite likely that many of the players in action this weekend will be part of the core.
Unfortunately, injuries will sideline two of the club's top prospects. Defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon and right winger Emile Poirier are both recovering from shoulder surgeries. However, there is still plenty of other talent that will be taking to the ice at the beautiful South Okanagan Events Centre.
Note that I will be in Penticton all weekend, providing updates via Twitter and also posting game recaps and other features to the blog so be sure to follow along (@DarrenWHaynes on Twitter). The games will also be televised online on the Flames website with new radio play-by-play voice Derek Wills making his debut and Peter Loubardias providing the colour.
Here are 10 players not named Johnny Gaudreau, who I'll be keeping an extra close eye on in Penticton.
Note that I've purposely excluded Gaudreau from my list because with his sublime offensive abilities, you just automatically put him on every must-watch list. He's like the free square on a BINGO card. So, in addition to 'Johnny Hockey', here are 10 others I'm curious to see.
No. 50, D Patrick Sieloff
Patrick Sieloff is an exciting prospect and at age 20, his future is bright. But losing a full year of development at his age, as was the case last year, will take some time to overcome. As you'll recall, last year the rugged blue-liner was felled by a serious and very scary staph infection just two games into his AHL season. That would end up being it for the year. Pretty much an entire season lost.
In fact, as recently as this past July at Flames development camp, he was still limited, not allowed to play any scrimmages due to his light blue non-contact jersey, which to him must have felt like a straight jacket. To borrow a euphemism from Brian Burke, Sieloff is not a flag football kind of guy. He's rugged, he's tough, and if you cross the opposing blue-line with your head down and he'll remind young hockey fans of who their Dad is talking about when they mention the old days of Scott Stevens.
He's been a caged lion for so long now, it will be really interesting to see how it goes this weekend assuming he'll finally be given the green light to re-engage in physical play. It wasn't that long ago, he was tracking to be one of the Flames top defence prospects. He shone with the gold-medal winning U.S. World Junior team two years ago. Had he not got hurt last year, it's not out of the question that it might have been him and not Wotherspoon, who got the late season recall. How quickly can he re-establish himself is the lingering question and we'll start to get the answer this weekend.
No. 51, LW Kenny Agostino
Seems like longer but it was just 18 months ago that the Flames traded Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins, getting three pieces in return. One was a first round draft pick used to select Morgan Klimchuk. They also acquired college players Ben Hanowski and Kenny Agostino.
There's a lot to like about Agostino, who signed with Calgary in March and had one goal and one assist in eight games with the Flames -- this after finishing up his fourth and final season at Yale. He's got size at 6-foot-1, he skates well, and he has a great shot that he likes to use. He is also noticeably calm and poised with the puck. He may not 'wow' you in any one area but at development camp, he usually stood out. To earn a call-up from Adirondack this year given the high credentialed talent around him, the former fifth round pick will need to take his game to another level. I think it's within him and if it is, we should see signs of that in Penticton.
No. 60, C Markus Granlund
I had the opportunity to watch Markus Granlund play quite a bit last year with Abbotsford as well as with the Flames when he earned a call-up in late February and this guy looks ready to be an NHL player. The only thing not ready is the Flames roster, which is laden with veterans at the moment and doesn't really have a top nine opening if everyone is healthy.
Those circumstances could push the talented centre back to the AHL to at least start the year but I would be shocked if he's there for the full season. Markus is the younger brother of Wild forward Mikael Granlund, the ninth overall draft pick from 2010, who broke out last season and was one of the Wild's best players after the Olympics and into the playoffs. The two brothers train together in Finland in the off-season and how motivated must Markus be now to keep pace with his big brother's progression.
Selected in the second round of 2011, Markus is coming off a fantastic year in which those in Abbotsford will tell you he was arguably the team's best player scoring 25 goals in 52 games. Granlund had two goals and an assist with the Flames before injuring his shoulder in the first shift of his seventh game. Whenever that first long-term injury to a forward hits in Calgary this season, Granlund could very well be the first guy that gets called up.
No. 63, C Sam Bennett
Of all the players in Penticton this weekend, Sam Bennett, who turned 18 in June, will be the second-youngest on the ice. The only player younger is OHL defenceman Carl Neill, who is on Calgary's roster on a tryout. Canucks first rounder Jake Virtanen is the other player that is younger but he is injured and will not get in any games.
Considering some of the players he'll line up against this weekend -- on the Oilers and Canucks in particular, could end up being Pacific Division adversaries for the next decade, I'd look for Bennett to make an impact in Penticton by doing what he does and stirring things up a little bit.
Bennett will also be one of the highest draft picks in action. Only Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, selected one spot higher last June, has higher credentials on paper. Bennett is in all likelihood a year away at minimum from turning pro. But don't expect him to tell you that. Bennett says he's heading to Flames camp intending to make the team and with his blend of skill and tenacity, he is at least going to make an impact trying. He has the reputation to be a real pest on the ice and while that attribute was not all that evident (and not unexpectedly) at Flames development camp, expect that to change this weekend as he finally goes up against players not wearing a Flames logo.
No. 71, RW Hunter Smith
To be honest, I don't ever recall seeing a more fascinating trajectory in one's first few seasons of hockey at any level. Hunter Smith broke into the OHL with Windsor in 2012-13, playing 15 games late in the year. He compiled one goal and no assists. He was then acquired by Oshawa where in 30 games the next season, it wasn't much different -- no goals and one assist. We're pretty much talking zero offence. None, zip, zilch, nada. A measly two points over 45 games over two years.
So, what the heck happened last season? To say Smith 'broke out' offensively would be an understatement as he racked up 16 goals and 24 assists in 64 regular season games, then added 11 more points (3 goals, 8 assists) in 12 playoff contests. Add in his 6-foot-7, 220 pound frame and you can understand why he didn't last beyond the second round in the 2014 draft with a salivating Flames GM Brad Treliving grabbing him with the 54th pick -- which was Calgary's second pick of the second round and the one they got (or arguably stole) from the Avalanche in that unexpected Reto Berra trade.
Now what? Will Smith repeat last year, or is their still further upside that will see him hit 25+ goals and 60+ points? It is going to be fascinating to follow Smith's progress this season and learn which of his first couple very disparate seasons was the anomaly. What we do know is he has big -- no pun intended -- potential and as a coveted right-hand shooting right winger, he could be a real impact player down the road for Calgary. Personally, having not seen him play much at all so far, it's time to see him up close and see how well the big guy moves.
Mason McDonald was a contentious pick around town when the Flames took him 34th overall at the 2014 NHL Draft. He was the first goaltender selected. While selecting a goalie early in the draft is generally frowned upon, the premise that you can just wait and draft a great goalie in the later rounds is always very much a myth as I explain in this piece from earlier in the summer.
Whether he's 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-6, small quibble, the bottom line is hulking 245-pound defenceman Keegan Kanzig, he of the remarkably low body fat index (lowest among the rookies last year), is huge and he's menacing if not downright scary once you put him in a pair of skates. He's physical, swatting around opposing forwards with the same ease that we would knock around a pesky mosquito. We also know he's a player that the club is really high on as witnessed last year when Calgary kept the 2013 third round pick late into its main training camp to give him as long of an opportunity to soak up NHL experience and practice time as possible.
He'll be back in Victoria for a fourth season this year, once again playing for former Flame Dave Lowry. He's still a season away from being old enough to take his appetite to the AHL. What to look for this weekend is how does his skating match-up. His foot speed will be the constant knock on him and this tournament with so many young, speedy, talented forwards coming in on him, will be a great checkpoint on where he's at.
Two years ago, Michael Ferland's pro career got off to an inauspicious start. He opened the season with Abbotsford in the AHL but after failing to pick up a point in seven games, he was dispatched to the ECHL. He wasn't there long before he was on the move again, this time headed back to the WHL. In speaking with the Abbotsford News last year, Heat coach Troy Ward summed up Ferland's situation at the time, like this:
"He was basically a 20-year-old that was living like a 17-year-old. When you try to do that in this room and this environment, it becomes very difficult. That's not a knock against Michael – that's just where he was in his development process."But last year was different. A really nice training camp put the 6-foot-2, 215 pound left-winger back on the Flames radar and he nearly made the big club to start the season. Upon getting sent down, Ferland's offence disappeared as he failed to pick up a point in his first 11 games. But in mid-November, he broke out of that slump big time and he was on a scoring tear of 6-12-18 in 14 games when he suffered a knee injury that would require season-ending surgery. He's got the combination of size and skill that the Flames covet. A good rookie tournament would be a nice way to re-establish himself and get him right back in the same conversation about making the Flames that started up last September.
No. 85, D Jason Fram
Jason Fram is that quiet kid, who shows up at school halfway through the year. Nobody knows who he is but he's really nice and before you know it, he's hanging out with all the cool kids and is at all the get-togethers. Passed over in the NHL draft the past two years, the 6-foot-0, 195 pound, right-hand shooting defenceman has played the past three seasons with Spokane. Two years ago he starred in the classroom as the Chiefs scholastic player of the year. Last year he starred on defence with a breakout 6-51-57 season, which was 10th best among WHL defencemen -- just behind Flames prospect Brett Kulak (14-46-60) and just ahead of Julius Honka (16-40-56), 14th overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Fram attended Flames development camp in July and opened some eyes. He was one of the lone invitees singled out by GM Brad Treliving immediately after camp ended as someone they really liked and a guy they would be bringing to rookie camp. Can he build off that first impression and maybe earn himself a contract? With a good rookie camp and then main camp, it's certainly a possibility.
No. 86, RW Josh Jooris
With one year to go to get his degree, Josh Jooris was lured away from school last summer by the Flames, who convinced him to leave the top-flight hockey program at Union college and turn pro. Bouncing around the line-up last year with Abbotsford, Jooris ended up with 11-16-27 in 73 games. It wasn't a bad pro debut and you get the sense there's still more there. Now he's already 24 years old so he doesn't have the same upside as the much ballyhooed younger prospects but could he become a serviceable NHL option should injuries strike and the Flames not want to promote or rush their younger players? Maybe.
Corban Knight and Ben Hanowski are two notable former NCAA players in the organization that are not at this year's rookie camp, yet are still rookies by the NHL's definition. I'm told the reason for this, in addition to managing overall numbers, is the Flames feel they know what they have in these two guys. From that, what I'm hearing is the Calgary aren't quite sure yet what they have in Jooris so playing in his second rookie tournament, we're about to find out.
Honourable Mention - G Joni Ortio, C Bill Arnold, LW Morgan Klimchuk, RW Pavlo Padakin, RW Austin Carroll
Recent Related Flames Reading
- 2014-15 Calgary Flames Roster: Greater Opportunity Than Meets the Eye - With the signing most recently of Devin Setoguchi and Corey Potter, the training camp invites of Raphael Diaz and Sheldon Brookbank, is there a 'genuine opportunity' for a prospect to make the Flames roster? Contrary to what many think, I say there absolutely is and I explain why.
- Meet New Flames Radio Voice Derek Wills - Derek's long journey to the NHL has been anything but easy. He's been rejected, left on the curb by Claude Julien, and in the early days -- with his Dad and Grandma paying his costs, he resorted to buying his own air time and creating his own play-by-play job. Meet Peter Maher's successor and appreciate his 20-year journey to the NHL..
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