Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fork in the Road: Comparing Kylington's Options of AHL vs. WHL

Oliver Kylington is coming to North America.

That was the big news of the day on Wednesday as reports out of Sweden surfaced saying AIK in Sweden's second division, would allow the Flames second round pick to play hockey this upcoming season in North America.

AIK's permission was required because Kylington has a contract with them and because he was not a first round pick. The agreement the NHL has with Swedish hockey is first round picks can be kept by an NHL team without requiring permission but all others must be first offered back to their Swedish club team.

Assuming he doesn't make the Flames line-up this year, now the decision Calgary's management team needs to make is which of two destinations is best for the young man in 2015-16.

In one corner, you have the Brandon Wheat Kings, who own his major junior rights after drafting Kylington 60th in the CHL Import Draft this summer. In the other corner you have the Stockton Heat, the new home of the Flames AHL affiliate.

In a variation of my normal Eight from 80 Feet, this time my eight thoughts are split in half and I look at the pros and cons of the AHL versus the WHL in the format of point, counter-point.

1. Pro AHL - It Worked for Lindholm and Voynov

According to, only four defencemen in the last 22 years have played in the AHL at age 18. To be clear, I'm not talking about those five, seven, nine-game stints players get into at the end of their major junior season. I'm talking about full seasons.

While that's not very many -- and a big reason why it's so low is the CHL-NHL transfer agreement does not permit players from major junior to be assigned to the AHL until they are age 20 -- the good news is half of them became very good NHL players.

Hampus Lindholm, sixth overall pick by Anaheim in 2012 and Slava Voynov, second round pick (32nd overall) by Los Angeles in 2008, both came to North America right after being drafted and opened their pro career in the AHL long before their 19th birthday.

Lindholm, who many experts thought was maybe a reach by the Ducks at the spot they drafted him, is not turning out that way. He needed just one season at Norfolk before he cracked the Anaheim blue-line at age 19 and last year as a 20-year-old, Flames fans saw up close in the playoffs the type of talent and bright future this player has.

Voynov has obviously been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately but if you look past his problems off the ice, he had developed into a real nice top four player for Los Angeles and he was a key member of the Kings Stanley Cup-winning team in 2014.

Voynov's development in the minors took longer than for Lindholm as he played three full seasons with Manchester before he eventually cracked the NHL line-up, but it doesn't change the fact that starting out at age 18 in the AHL did not have a negative impact.

2. Pro WHL - AHL Didn't work for Uchevatov and Golubovsky

The yin to the yang that was Lindholm and Voynov are Victor Uchevatov and Yan Golubovsky, who are the lesser known other two 18-year-olds to play in the AHL over the last 22 years.

Interestingly, the split with these two guys in terms of draft pedigree was the same as above with one first round pick in Golubovsky (23rd overall by Detroit in 1994) and one second round pick in Uchevatov (60th by New Jersey in 2001).

Many were surprised in 2001 when Uchevatov turned pro and was assigned to Albany in the American Hockey League. Most expected him to return to Russia for another season. He was two years younger than the next-youngest player on the team and three years younger than the next youngest defenceman.

That rookie season he went 0-2-2 and minus-16 in 64 games. He played all of the next season in Albany as well and near the end of his third season, he was dealt to Florida as part of the package for Viktor Kozlov. He played the rest of that season and the next year with the Panthers AHL affiliate in San Antonio before disappearing off the NHL radar. He never did play a NHL game.

We know the Red Wings have a reputation of patience with young players but Golubovsky played five seasons with Adirondack in the AHL (285 games) before finally making the jump to the NHL with Detroit. But he didn't play much and was eventually dealt to Florida in exchange for Igor Larionov. Golubovsky went back to Russia a couple years later and never returned to North America. He finished with one goal in 56 NHL games.

You never know with prospects and every case is unique but these are two examples where starting off in the AHL did not pan out as desired.

3. Pro AHL - Develop Under Ryan Huska

The Flames have a really good set-up going on right now with Ryan Huska and his coaching staff at the AHL level teaching and deploying the same system being taught by Bob Hartley and his staff in Calgary. The intention is to make it easier for players to go up from the AHL when openings arise and seamlessly step into the NHL line-up

A lot of long-term good could come from Kylington learning the Calgary system right from day one. Being groomed in Stockton would allow the Flames to keep a close eye on him and focus on the areas of his game that need the most work. Kylington would learn a lot from assistant coach Todd Gill, who played in over 1,000 NHL games. Flames skills coach Domenic Pittis has also joined the Heat staff this year as an assistant coach so some quality instruction would come from him too.

If you're in the minors with Calgary, make no mistake, the priority is on development. Results is a nice extra but the No. 1 goal is preparing players for the NHL. It's why general manager Brad Treliving demanded to have a reduced schedule (68 games versus 76) in order to re-locate Calgary's AHL operations to California. Being based on the West Coast in a league that is predominantly on the East Coast, they wanted to ensure they spend more time practicing and less time travelling.

4. Pro WHL - Kelly McCrimmon

Kelly McCrimmon, who turns 55 in October, joined the Wheat Kings organization in 1988 and is the team's Governor, General Manager and Head Coach. He is a legend, not just around Brandon or the WHL, but in all of Canada.

Under his leadership, the Wheat Kings have made the playoffs in 19 of the last 20 seasons. That includes winning nine Eastern Division pennants including six in the last 11 years. They've won five Eastern Conference Championships, made five WHL final appearances and three times have gone to the Memorial Cup.

Recent alumni in the NHL include Micheal Ferland, Mark Stone and Brayden Schenn and a bunch more appear to be on the way.

McCrimmon is so highly respected that he was sought after this summer by the Toronto Maple Leafs for a management position. However, he decided to stay pat in Brandon.

There are plenty of organizations in junior hockey that would make the decision to go the AHL route with Kylington very easy. Brandon, however, is not one of them. They have a very good reputation and Treliving must have been ecstatic when he heard it was Brandon that took Kylington in the CHL Import Draft.

5. Pro AHL - Face Tougher Competition

Kylington has played parts of the past two seasons playing against men in Sweden. His totals break down to 4-7-11 in 50 games with Farjestads in the main Swedish Hockey League and 4-3-7 in 17 games with AIK, which plays in the Allsvenskan league, which is Sweden's second tier.

That's 67 games total or the equivalent of one full season of pro hockey in North America. There is certainly some merit to building off of that by having him play in the AHL, which would be along the lines of the Allsvenskan, and would put him in a position to play against older and stronger players. There are a lot of very good forwards in the AHL that are on the verge of the NHL and defending them on a nightly basis -- as well as matching up against the likes of Emile Poirier, Markus Granlund and big Austin Carroll in practice too -- would be a stiff challenge.

For those of you not familiar with how the divisions work in Sweden, it's difficult to compare the Allsvenskan to the AHL as it's fundamentally different. For your background, it is not a feeder league made up of all the players not good enough to play in the Swedish Hockey League like the AHL is to the NHL. Instead, it's made up of teams that aren't good enough or have been relegated out of the Swedish Hockey League.

Think of it this way. If the NHL was set up the same way and had two divisions, a 10-team second division based on 2014-15 standings would be made up of Colorado, San Jose, Columbus, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Carolina, Toronto, Edmonton, Arizona and Buffalo.

So on average, the teams are not as good, but they're still pro teams playing in pro buildings and there are plenty of top players you're up against on each of those teams. For example, when the Coyotes drafted Oliver Ekman-Larsson sixth overall in 2009, he had been playing for Leksands in the Allsvenskan. He also then returned there for one more season.

6. Pro WHL - What's the Rush?

Kylington has been fast tracked much of his early hockey career. It's a trend that has continued into pro hockey when just over four months past his 16th birthday, he made his debut for Farjestads in the Swedish Hockey League. He even scored a goal in that first game making him the youngest player to score in league history.

By why continue to push him unncessarily? When I talked with Treliving two weeks ago when Kylington signed, he made some interesting comments that are fair points when it comes to handling a young man, who may be really skilled on the ice but is still a young man off it.

"When you're 16 and playing against men, at some point you have to let the person breathe. You like to get him around his peer group," said Treliving. "You don't want to always be over-reaching. Like you're hanging onto a cliff just to stay in a league with players that are five or 10 years older than you."

Treliving compared Kylington's hockey career so far to a 15-year-old, who is granted exceptional player status and enters junior hockey early.

"As soon as you play ahead of your weight class, there are all these expectations placed on you," said Treliving. "You still have to let the person grow and develop and mature."

Because they could and not necessarily because they should have, former GM Jay Feaster assigned Patrick Sieloff to the AHL at age 19 when a second season in the OHL seems like it would have been the smarter move. With a year of WHL eligibility left, Micheal Ferland was sent to the AHL at age 20. Turns out he wasn't ready for that jump and he eventually found his way back to the WHL. Instead of rushing prospects and then changing course or dealing with the aftermath should they fail, why not be cautious and let them thrive at a level before you promote them. Keep developing them and keep their trajectory pointed upwards.

7. Pro AHL - He's Just a Flight Away

An advantage to having Kylington in the AHL is he becomes a call-up option for the Flames at any point this season. It's not to say that he would necessarily be a candidate to get called up in November but should he have a great first half of the season and start looking very comfortable in the AHL, perhaps he becomes the top call-up candidate eventually making him an option for promotion should Calgary lose a handful of defencemen to injured reserve in February or March like we saw last year.

Also, depending on how Stockton's season goes, Kylington would be called up to Calgary to be a black ace at season's end should Calgary make the playoffs and see its season extend longer than Stockton. That experience of being around the big club during the playoffs, as players that were a part of the group last year will attest, is never one to be discounted.

On the flip side, if Kylington is in the WHL, he's locked into remaining there until the Wheat Kings season is over and as mentioned, that may not be until the Memorial Cup concludes on May 29.

8. Pro WHL - Play a Significant Role

The 2016 Memorial Cup will be held just up the highway in Red Deer and with Philadelphia seventh overall pick Ivan Provorov and Kylington anchoring the blue-line, you'd have to like Brandon's chances of being one of the four teams participating. Among the 18 players expected to return for another season are C Jayce Hawryluk (2nd round by Florida in 2014) and C John Quenneville (1st round by New Jersey in 2014) and I wouldn't completely rule out LW Morgan Klimchuk (1st round by Calgary in 2013) either.

The Wheat Kings have never won a Memorial Cup but this season could be their year. They're coming off a season in which they posted the league's best record at 53-11-4 and went to the final before losing to Kelowna. Joining this juggernaut team would put Kylington in a position to be a star player relied upon to play a big role, log big minutes and shoulder big responsibility. Comparably, his role would be far different in Stockton with Ryan Culkin, Jakub Nakladal, Tyler Wotherspoon and Kenney Morrison all seeking top four minutes, never mind the presence of guys like Patrick Sieloff and and Brett Kulak as well.

Provorov, selected 53 picks higher, would be a nice measuring stick too. The two can push each other, while also feeding off each other. It also gives Kylington a high-end future NHLer to work with where together, they can take their game to the next level.

The Non-Factors 

Two big factors that don't enter the decision-making process because they apply the same in either landing spot is how Kylington's entry level contract works and his eligibility for the World Juniors.

Entry Level Contract

If Kylington goes to the AHL, even though he would make $70,000 per his entry level contract (which is the maximum minor league salary allowed under the CBA on an ELC), that three-year deal still slides if he plays less than 10 NHL games. Just like for a junior player, it can slide as many as two times as long as that 10 NHL games threshold isn't reached. So technically, he could play five pro seasons on his three-year entry level contract.

World Junior Championships

Interestingly, Rasmus Andersson, Calgary's other second round pick in 2015, was invited to Sweden's World Junior orientation camp this summer while Kylington was not. I'm not clear on why not and whether there is some behind-the-scenes political stuff at play here. Nonetheless, should he become a candidate for that team, he is eligible to leave the AHL to join Team Sweden in the same way he would be able to leave Brandon for the event, which is in Finland this year.

Ollie's Choice

I am very confident in saying that if Kylington had a choice of where to play -- if it can't be Calgary -- it would be Stockton, for sure.

He's been a pro already in his career, he's played for money. Once that happens and you shift into that mode as a player, it would be hard to go back and lose that paycheck you've become used to.

Additionally, Kylington has a thing for Los Angeles as it sounds like he's got some friends or family there and he's spent time there in the past (it was where he hung out between the draft and Flames development camp). Stockton may be a five-hour drive away but a flight from San Jose to L.A. is just over an hour.

Another thing to consider. After playing most of the last two seasons with older players, his appetite to be sharing the ice with lots of 16 and 17-year-olds again may not be very high. In that sense, he could view an assignment to Brandon as a demotion.

The Winner Is...

We'll wait and see.

We probably won't know for sure until late September once we get deep into training camp. Personally, I'd assign him to Brandon for one season and have him turn pro next year but I can see the arguments on both sides and it's far from a slam dunk decision, more 60-40.

We'll learn in a couple months which way Treliving is leaning although what he ends up deciding then may not be what he's thinking now and I reserve the right to change my mind too. After all, that's why they hold a training camp. Seeing how Kylington fares in some NHL exhibition games could go a long way to determining what the best fit is come October.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading
  • StickTAP: Your Questions Answered - In my first mailbag feature of the summer, I tackled 24 of the over 60 questions submitted by readers by answering in the form of a Thought, Analysis, or Prediction. Lots of interesting conversation topics on the minds of Flames fans these days. (July 27, 2015)
  • Breaking Down the Flames 2015-16 Roster - I've updated this roster breakdown to include the recent RFA signings of Josh Jooris and Paul Byron. How close are the Flames to the cap? Well, come and find out. (July 26, 2015)
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Perspectives on Bouma Contract - It was a deal that was celebrated by many while also being soundly criticized by others. To help evaluate it, I dig into the contract and viewed it from a number of different perspectives. (July 23, 2015)
  • Story of How Kylington became a Flame - A look behind the curtain at how the Flames ended up chasing Kylington on draft day -- and getting him -- and now that he's signed, a look at what his options are moving forward. (July 16, 2015) 
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Reflections on Development Camp - Looking back on the week that was development camp including what we learned, what we saw and some comments from GM Brad Treliving as he spoke at its conclusion. (July 9, 2015)

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