Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Penticton 2015: Eight Flames Storylines to Follow at This Year's Rookie Tournament

The Flames announced their roster Tuesday for the Young Stars Classic rookie tournament this weekend in Penticton, British Columbia. Here is the complete 31-man roster led by Sam Bennett. The team takes off after fitness testing at WinSport on Thursday, flying into Kelowna and then busing the rest of the way.

Note: I will be on the ground in Penticton from Thursday until Tuesday so for updates, keep an eye on the blog, be sure you're following me on Twitter and while you're at it, why not take a moment to like Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook.

Calgary will play three games:

Upon returning home, the Flames prospects will then hit the ice for one more game against the University of Calgary at the Markin MacPhail Centre at 7 pm MT on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

By the way, this is part 1 of my two-part 2015 Penticton Primer. In part 2, I list the 10 players I'll be watching extra closely this weekend for various reasons. This list includes Emile Poirier, Tyson Baillie, Kenney Morrison and Oliver Kylington.

Not Heading to Penticton

Before we get into the players and storylines to keep an eye on, let's go over the players not making the trip. For background, there are loose guidelines in place around eligibility that are agreed to by the participating teams, This generally excludes players too old or with too much pro experience from participating, even though they are still considered rookies by the NHL's definition.

That said, there can be exceptions with Josh Jooris last year being an example. Typically, at age 24 as Jooris was last September, he would have been considered too old. But Calgary wanted to bring the second-year pro to Penticton so they checked with the other clubs and received permission to do so.

Not attending this year for the Flames but not yet having established themselves as full-time NHLers either include guys like Joni Ortio, Markus Granlund, Tyler WotherspoonMicheal Ferland and Drew Shore. It's a case of been there and done that for all of those guys. Also, as I'm asked this every year, let me remind you that the college kids aren't attending because they're back in school so no Mark Jankowski or Brandon Hickey.

I was surprised that big right-winger Garnet Hathaway is not attending. He's in a similar situation to Jooris last year as an older guy -- he turns 24 in November -- yet he's had just the one pro season after finishing his full four years at Brown University. Hathaway, who I wrote about on the weekend is a real interesting guy and a prospect to watch out for this September, but you'll have to wait until main camp to see him in action.

Eight Storylines to Follow

1. Swedish Twins

They're both Swedes, they're both defencemen, they've both already played hockey against men back in Sweden and they were both drafted by the Flames -- seven picks apart -- in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

I'm talking about right-shooting Rasmus Andersson and left-shooting Oliver Kylington and while we know what they have in common, this will be a great first chance to see them competing side-by-side and get a better sense of their differences.

In my Flames Top 20 Prospects list, which I unveiled in August, I had Andersson and Kylington ranked sixth and seventh respectively. While there has been way more hype around Kylington and some wondered aloud why I didn't have him ranked higher, my rationale was simple. Just over two months ago at the draft, Calgary took Andersson ahead of Kylington. There must have been reason for that and in the limited time since, there hasn't been any reason for either player's value to have fluctuated. That said, seeing them in action together this weekend will be a good chance to formulate my own opinion for next time.

2. Blue-Line Procession Line

The Flames have committed $17.15 million long-term to Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. All three are locked up until the end of the 2019-20 season. When you're committed to that kind of dough to half your starting six on the blue-line for that length of time, there's eventually going to be openings for younger and cheaper guys to round out the D group.

Integrating younger guys into Calgary's line-up may not seem imminent with Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and Deryk Engelland all under contract for this season -- and Wideman and Engelland on the books for two more years, but you never know. Russell will be a UFA after this season so his future is uncertain. The potential for him to be dealt rather than risk losing him for nothing is certainly there. Also, if opportunity comes up to move one or both of the other two sooner than when their deals expire, I'm sure that would also be considered.

So the time is now for the jockeying to begin to determine who is next in line when jobs do become available. Jakub Nakladal, 27, and training camp invitee Ryan Wilson, 28, are older options that are considerations. As I wrote here, there is much to be intrigued about with Wilson. Tyler Wotherspoon remains in the mix also and at this point, by default, is still to be considered the most ready of the kids.

However, then who? Will someone supplant Wotherspoon? Starting this weekend in Penticton, we'll find out where the others are at and if some have begun to separate themselves from the pack.

Excluding the three 18-year-olds just drafted -- Andersson, Kylington and Riley Bruce, who are further out, I'd rank the rest of the organization's Okanagan-bound D prospects like this:
  1. Ryan Culkin
  2. Kenney Morrison
  3. Brett Kulak
  4. Patrick Sieloff
  5. Keegan Kanzig

However that's for now. Let's wait and see if that's still the order next week. I sense there will be some movement. I am especially curious to see Morrison in action as he's the new guy on the scene and was highly sought after by multiple NHL teams when he chose to sign with Calgary in the spring.

3. Crease Competition

Historically dreadful at drafting and developing goaltenders, the future in net for the Flames looks unusually rosy these days with Mason McDonald, 19, and Jon Gillies, 21, both coming along nicely. Suddenly, a chronic organizational weakness has become an organizational strength for the first time in a long, long time.

Credential-wise, McDonald was drafted higher going in round 2, 34th overall, in the 2014 draft. He was the first goalie off the board and looks primed to be a part of Canada's World Junior team this Christmas with a good shot at being the starter.

However, Gillies is further along at this point, turning pro this season after backstopping Providence College to a National Championship.

Standing 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 respectively, McDonald and Gillies are both giant goalies that take up a lot of net. This weekend as they share the Flames crease, it's a good chance to evaluate them both and see how they compare. In my Top 20 Flames Prospects, the single most common feedback was disagreement over me ranking McDonald at No. 3 and Gillies at No. 5. Most readers would have flip-flopped them and perhaps that's exactly what happens in January when I next update the list. The first chance to distinguish themselves this year is this weekend.

4. Pro Auditions

At development camp, there were a trio of players very emphatic about how they were ready to leave junior hockey and their billets behind and head to California to start playing hockey for money.

Hunter Smith, Keegan Kanzig and Morgan Klimchuk are all now age-eligible to play in the AHL and make no mistake, that's where all three expect to play this season, having declared themselves ready at development camp in July. However, it's not their decision. Starting this weekend, they need to make a statement and demonstrate to Flames management that playing in Stockton is the place they need to play, not just want to play.

Smith and Kanzig, both 6-foot-7, are two coke machines, who probably have reached a point where they should start going up against bigger, thicker and older opposition as you do in the AHL instead of the teenagers they push around in junior.

Klimchuk has shown he can be a prolific scorer in the WHL, now it's time to show that his game is ready to be taken to another level also. For all of them, especially Klimchuk, it's going to be hard to make the case they're ready to turn pro if they don't separate themselves in Penticton, where there will be plenty of junior players surrounding them. It's on them starting this weekend to put up or shut up.

5. Something to Prove

It's only three games but there are several players heading to Penticton that have something to prove and they better do so pronto because opportunity to see any action in the regular NHL preseason will be limited.

For many, they're looking to extend their pro try-out beyond this week and earn an extended stay in Calgary via an invitation to Flames main camp, which starts Sept. 17.

Among the nine non-roster guys in Penticton looking to earn longer looks and/or earn an AHL-only contract like Louick Marcotte and Ryan Lomberg (and Hathaway last year) are:
  • D Eric Roy - The 2013 sixth round draft pick is back with the team that drafted him, only now he's on a PTO after Calgary chose not to resign him this spring. He ended up injured in the first game in Penticton last year.
  • C/RW Tyson Baillie - He's a talented but small kid, who despite piling up a bunch of points in Kelowna's run to the Memorial Cup final last, went undrafted yet again. After impressing at development camp, he was immediately asked back for rookie camp.
  • D Jason Fram - A good puck mover, right-shot but not overly physical, Fram went from development camp to Penticton last year on a try-out and he gets that chance again. I wrote about his unconventional path into playing hockey last year.
  • LW Mason Marchment - Now 6-foot-4 and 195 lbs, the growth spurt for the son of ex-NHLer Bryan Marchment came late, as did his development on-ice, only playing his first season of major junior last year with Erie. 

Meanwhile, I'd suggest this is also an important September for a couple other guys already in the organization:
  • D Patrick Sieloff - Missed pretty much the entire 2013-14 season so while last year he was happy just to get back on the ice and stay on the ice, we'll see if he can re-discover his game that made him a hard-hitting, menacing presence, who was once highly touted.
  • D Brett Kulak - Faced the indignity of being dispatched to the ECHL for 39 games last season. However, all reports are he responded as hoped, played well, earned his way back to Adirondack then got called up to play his first NHL game in the season finale in Winnipeg.

These are two guys that need to step up and start making inroads towards NHL employment or their time in this organization may end the way it did this spring for John Ramage.

6. Seeking Josh Jooris 2.0

I first met Josh Jooris last September in Penticton after he was one of the players that stood out in the Flames opening game against Winnipeg.

Little did we know at that moment that this dynamite first impression he just left would be a sign of things to come. What a story Jooris was last year as he parlayed a great tournament in Penticton into an impressive main camp with the Flames. While there wasn't enough forward jobs available for him to open the season in Calgary, his return to the minors lasted only about a week before a spot did open up and as the guy who earned the right to be the first call-up, Jooris came to Calgary and never left.

Back at development camp, the Jooris' story was referenced all the time by players using it as both inspiration and proof that any guy can come in and win a job if he has a terrific camp. The question as I skim over the rookie camp roster is simple: Will there be another Jooris this year?

Two guys I'd categorize as possibilities but extreme long-shots are Austin Carroll and Kenney Morrison. The strikes against them being very little or no pro experience at all. Carroll is just graduating from major junior and Morrison is coming out of NCAA, although he did get in 10 AHL games late last season after his college year ended. Keep an eye on both of them for next year though.

My leading Jooris candidate for this year would be Bill Arnold. I have the former centre at Boston College ranked as the Flames 14th ranked prospect and I believe he has a shot at one day becoming a Matt Stajan-like type of player. Sound defensively, kill penalties, take important face-offs.

Arnold had a great rookie year going last season before he went down with a shoulder injury.  After missing only two games in four seasons at BC, it was his first major injury. Already 23 years old, he could muscle his way into the Flames crowded situation at forward before long.

7. Right Wing Recruitment

In addition to Russell, there are two other notable pending UFA skaters on the Flames and they make up half of the club's right side up front. Jiri Hudler and David Jones, fixtures on right wing during most of their time in Calgary, are both about to enter the final year of deals that pay them an even $4 million in 2015-16. With it extremely doubtful both are re-signed and a decent chance neither are, there are going to be some vacancies opening up soon.

Candidates to play on the right side include the likes of Shore, Jooris, Joe Colborne and Hathaway, but there are also a couple candidates in Penticton that should be salivating over the opportunity that could be forthcoming this year or next. One candidate, who with a good impression this month could really change the landscape is Emile Poirier.

Poirier is a guy fans should be real excited about seeing. I have him ranked as the Flames No. 2 prospect behind Bennett and deservedly so. He is a fast, skilled player that can score goals but also plays with a little snarl. Injured to start last year after off-season shoulder surgery, this September is a huge opportunity for him to settle in right from the start and really showcase himself.

Other candidates for RW employment down the road include Carroll, who I wrote about not that long ago and how his blend of size and skill are a rare combination. He's a real mature kid too, who is already 21. You never know but this kid could be ready for a taste of NHL action by next fall.

A right-winger attending rookie camp on an invite is Czech Tomas Soustal, who was also at development camp. The Flames also list Baillie as a RW and as a right-shooter, that's not a bad idea given the depth Calgary has at centre.

8. Stoking the Fire in the Battle of Alberta

Only once in the last 24 years have the Flames and Oilers made the post-season in the same year. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 1991. How bad is that? Boston and Montreal have played 49 playoff games against each other since Canada was last treated to a Battle of Alberta playoff game. It's awful and it's why the once great rivalry has turned from a blood bath into a pillow fight.

Now, it will never return to the glorious heights it was in the 80s in terms of fisiticuffs but if the new GM, new coach and Connor McDavid can start turning things around in Edmonton, we're suddenly and thankfully a lot closer to meaningful Calgary-Edmonton games and selfishly as a hockey fan, I can't wait.

On Saturday, each side's prospects will meet at the South Okanagan Events Centre and while the odds are much better McDavid and Bennett will see each other in the press box that night instead of on the ice, you know it will still be a game packed with emotion and intensity.

Adding to it is players from both sides bound for the AHL will see each other at least 12 more times this season as that's how often Stockton and Bakersfield will tangle with the new re-alignment, including an outdoor game in December.

Some of these players will play each other again in the NHL preseason too as Oilers and Flames split squads meet in both Calgary and Edmonton on Sept. 21.

Either way, expect and hope that Saturday's match-up will be a sign of things to come.

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.


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1 comment:

  1. Poirier is listed at 200lbs this year... awesome.