Friday, June 12, 2015

Ten Flames Minor Leaguers, Who Could Graduate to the NHL in 2015-16

Nineteen years ago.

That's how long it's been since the Flames organization had three or more players graduate from the American Hockey League to the National Hockey League in the same season.

In 1996-97, it was a class of five as Cale Hulse, Dwayne Roloson, Joel Bouchard, Todd Hlushko and Todd Simpson arrived in Calgary after toiling in the AHL the previous season and tossed their mortarboards in the air.

To put the size of that graduating class in perspective, only five Flames prospects total have made the AHL-to-NHL jump over the past six seasons. But, it's a trend that is about to change.

Ten Possible Flames AHL Graduates
(Ranked from most likely to least likely)

1. G Joni Ortio

Karri Ramo is an unrestricted free agent and most likely finds a less-crowded goal crease elsewhere to go to. That leaves Joni Ortio and veteran Jonas Hiller, who has one year remaining on his two-year deal, as the Flames likely two goalies for next season. On a one-way deal for 2015-16 and waiver eligible, the only way Ortio does not make the jump to the NHL is if he plays dreadful in training camp and the Flames opt to put him on waivers and try to demote him. Yet it's not even as simple as that.

At the same time, an alternate goalie will need to step up and pass him and it's doubtful Jon Gillies can show enough in the short pre-season to supplant Ortio, who strung together those four straight road victories last January when Ramo was injured. More so, what his pre-season performance may dictate is whether Ortio enters the year as the 1b to Hiller or as the clearcut back-up to Hiller. Since the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, the Flames have really only drafted and developed three goaltenders – Curtis McElhinney, Trevor Kidd and Mike Vernon. They hope Ortio, now age 24, becomes the fourth.

2. LW Micheal Ferland

Micheal Ferland experienced his first taste of NHL action this season where he played 26 games, just enough to take away his rookie eligibility for next season. However, it was his nine playoff games, in which he matched the five points he had during the regular season, where his real impact was felt and by felt, I mean that literally by the Vancouver Canucks defencemen, who were left battered and bruised by Ferland's thundering bodychecks. In particular, Kevin Bieksa was the target of seemingly half of his hits.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the 23-year-old is now waiver eligible so should be a mainstay in the Flames line-up next season. Plus, he's got all the tools the Flames are looking for in a forward. He's got size, he's surly, he's got good hands, and coach Bob Hartley loves his hockey sense. If he makes any trips, it might be to the IR -- staying healthy will be key, but I cannot see him heading to Stockton.

3. C/RW Drew Shore

Like Ortio, Drew Shore is waiver eligible now and given how enthusiastic GM Brad Treliving was about Shore when he brought the 24-year-old to town from Florida last January, I fully expect him to make this roster next season and there is still a lot on paper to like about this kid -- good size at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, good versatility in that he can play centre or right wing, and he shoots right, which is rare and coveted by the Flames.

Joining a new organization halfway through a season is never easy so training camp is going to be a welcomed opportunity by Shore to start fresh and settle in with Calgary. While Shore only played 12 games with Adirondack last year, he has played 146 games in total in the AHL so while his case is a bit different -- he wasn't groomed by Calgary in the minors, the second round pick in 2009 is still a guy that looks ready to graduate to the NHL.

4. C Markus Granlund

In baseball terms, Markus Granlund is one of those 'AAAA' players right now, which is another way of saying he's stuck between levels. He has excelled in the minors having put up totals of 34-29-63 in 73 AHL games over the past two seasons. But he has not had nearly the same impact in the NHL. Like all Finns, he plays a good defensive game and in the offensize zone, he's never afraid to get his nose dirty and bowl his way to the top of the crease. However, listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he's undersized and that hurts him when he's battling against bigger and stronger players in the NHL. He has also struggled immensely at the face-off dot, where last year out of the 169 NHL centres that took a minimum of 200 face-offs, Granlund (36.8%) ranked second-last, ahead of only Kevin Hayes (36.3%) of the New York Rangers. If he can't improve at the dot, if the team wants to shift Bennett back to his natural position of centre and if Mikael Backlund signs a long-term deal, it may be time to try shifting Granlund to the wing.

While Granlund played against men for four seasons now -- two years in Finland's SM-Liiga before coming to North America two years ago, he's still just 22 and there could be a big upside with this player, who looks poised to spend his first full season in the NHL after accumulating 55 NHL games so far. Also worth mentioning, you sense his competitiveness when you talk to him and can tell he's driven to be a better player than his older brother Mikael, who is one year older and just now emerging as the player the Wild hoped he'd be when Minnesota drafted him 9th overall in 2010.

5. D Tyler Wotherspoon

Defencemen and goaltenders take longer to mature into NHL players. That's just the reality. So while based on his usage or more so, his lack of usage this past season -- despite his multiple call-ups, many were left wondering if Tyler Wotherspoon had fallen out of favour with the Flames, the team insists that's not the case. Calgary management, as well as the coaching staff, maintain that the club's 22-year-old and the team's top defence prospect is still very much on track.

(For more on Wotherspoon and some insightful quotes from Treliving and Hartley, see point No. 19 in my 20 Takes on 20 Topics wrap-up piece from 'Garbage Bag Day'.)

The one point that was made clear though is Wotherspoon won't be given a job to lose in training camp, he'll have to come into camp and beat out someone to take a job. If he doesn't, he could very easily find himself back in Stockton for more AHL seasoning next season and that's all in keeping in the spirit of the team's motto of 'Always earned, never given'.

6. RW Emile Poirier

There's a lot of excitement around what 2013 first round pick Emile Poirier may turn into. Last year was his first professional season and he had a good year in the AHL going 19-23-42 in 55 games. That came after a terrific final year of major junior when he put up 50 goals in the QMJHL in 72 regular season and playoff games. The 20-year-old is getting closer to earning a job in the NHL and he did appear in six games for Calgary last year but more time in the AHL is probably what lies ahead for the Montreal native, who is an agitator as well and that's an attribute the Flames are thirsty for.

Two reasons Poirier is likely to start the year in Stockton is one, he didn't even get in a full year last year due to off-season surgery that sidelined him to start the season and forced him to miss all of training camp. Secondly, there's the reality of how many jobs will actually be available with Shore, Ferland and Granlund all on the depth chart ahead of him -- at least for now -- based on pro experience, waiver eligibility, etc. A bit more seasoning in the AHL certainly would not hurt Poirier and should it play out that way, look for him to have a huge impact in the minors and put together the type of season that forces Calgary to find him a roster spot sooner than later.

7. LW David Wolf

In his first year in North America, David Wolf opened some eyes with his alluring blend of offensive potential and pugnacity. In the AHL, Wolf led the baby Flames in goals (20) and also in penalty minutes (168). Wolf got into a handful of games with Calgary and impressed Hartley. He's got great energy and while he's not the swiftest of skaters, he arrives where he's going with a wallop. If he can continue to improve his foot speed, the native of Duesseldorf, Germany, has the potential to surprise in September and maybe even land a job on the Flames fourth line, depending on what the depth chart looks like at that time.

Mind you, this is all contingent on Wolf re-signing with Calgary. The 25-year-old is a RFA but he certainly did enough to warrant a longer look if he's game for staying in North America.

8. LW Garnet Hathaway

A relative unknown a year ago, Garnet Hathaway was signed by Adirondack to an AHL deal after finishing up his fourth year at Brown University. The Flames apparently really liked what they saw from the 6-foot-2, 210 pounder, who put up 19 goals and 36 points in his first year in the AHL, as they signed up to a two-year, two-way NHL contract in April.

As the AHL season went on last year, you continued to hear more and more about Hathaway, who really made a positive impression on the baby Flames coaching staff with his all-around game. In fact, I've heard some predict that the 23-year-old is a darkhorse candidate to crack Calgary's roster next season. He's got big size and really took some positive strides last year after playing well and first getting some attention in the rookie tournament in Penticton. While a different player, you can't help but wonder if Hathaway follows a similar path to Josh Jooris, who was also undrafted, signed out of college and then came out of nowhere last year to make the NHL in his second pro season.

9. D Ryan Culkin

On the Flames thin blueline depth chart the past couple seasons, the next-in-line debate after Wotherspoon has been an interesting and ever-changing one. Typically, that next tier has featured some combination of Patrick Sieloff, Brett Kulak and Ryan Culkin in some order. Then, Sieloff suffered that major staph infection, which cost him the entire 2013-14 season. As Sieloff slowly worked his way back last year, it was Culkin, who emerged as the next-in-line. With Sieloff taking turns as a healthy scratch last year and with Kulak eventually getting shipped to Colorado in the ECHL, Culkin was the guy moving the opposite direction, often spending time on the top pairing in Adirondack and logging a ton of minutes before a serious season-ending injury in early February when he suffered cut tendons in his wrist after being cut by a skate, resulting in emergency surgery.

It was just the first pro season for the QMJHL grad and more time in the AHL is expected. But word from the coaching staff in Adirondack is the 21-year-old is one defenceman in the Flames system that people aren't talking enough about. As a fifth round pick, he's not someone that has ever been touted as highly as Wotherspoon -- a second round pick, but one must always remember that not that long ago, TJ Brodie was a fourth round pick that in a just a few years has gone from healthy scratch to one of the rising stars of the NHL.

10. C Bill Arnold

There's plenty to like about Bill Arnold's game and he was having an effective first pro season for Adirondack when he suffered a shoulder injury in early January that cost him two months. He finished his first pro season with 15-23-38 in 61 games, which is not bad numbers for a guy used in a a bunch of different roles.

Already 23 years old after putting in his full four years at Boston College, Arnold strikes me as a guy that could one day inherit Matt Stajan's role on the Flames and be that defensively-sound bottom-six centre, who also plays a big role on the PK. He plays the game with pace too and is pesky on the forecheck, which is how Calgary likes to play. Another full season in the AHL is likely for Arnold but he's someone not to forget about. He doesn't have nearly the same offensive cachet as his old BC buddy and linemate Johnny Gaudreau, but he's already showing glimpses of why some considered him the best defensive player in college hockey in his last season of NCAA.

Grad List: Flames Players That Have Made the Jump

Here is the full list of Flames AHL grads going back to 1989 when Calgary 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 (and possibly longer) in the AHL prior to that.

2014-15 (1) – Josh Jooris
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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