Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Penticton 2015: Revisiting My Eight Pre-Tournament Storylines With What We Learned

A day has passed since the conclusion of the 2015 Young Stars Classic rookie tournament in Penticton, British Columbia. As a final exercise before we close the book on this year's event, I thought I'd take a few minutes to revisit each of the eight storylines I identified prior to the tournament and for each one, summarize what we learned.

Calgary played a total of three games, going 1-1-1. To jog your memory on what you may have missed, here are links to each of my 10 Impressions recaps that were cobbled together after each game and included extensive reaction from the Flames dressing room:

Eight Storylines to Follow
(Originally posted on Sept. 8, 2015)

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: It was great to see them both on the ice finally in real games although I would have liked to have seen more of Kylington, limited to just the one full game. For me, Andersson was the best defenceman in Penticton. Easily. He stood out in both of his games, logged a ton of minutes and was strong and poised in both ends of the ice. You see some raw abilities with Kylington and he's certainly flashy, but strikes me as a bigger project in terms of rounding out the rest of his game. I have no regrets at this point listing Andersson ahead of Kylington on my Top 20 Prospects and where it was No. 6 and 7 last time, the gap between them could grow.

2. Blue-Line Procession Line

The Flames have committed $17.15 million long-term to Mark GiordanoTJ 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 WidemanKris 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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: It's too bad Culkin got hurt as seeing him in a second game would have been nice. It's hard to gauge anything on that first game, which is all about shaking the rust off and getting the timing back. Looking back at the top five, I will give the benefit to Culkin as he was playing at a high level when he got hurt last February and leave him at No. 1. I was expecting more out of Kenney Morrison and did not get it and with Kulak looking very confident and sharp, carrying the puck with authority, I'd flip-flop those two guys and have Kulak No. 2.  I'd leave Sieloff and Kanzig in that same order. Kanzig struggled and he's quite a ways back.

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: The future of Calgary's goaltending looks as good as it has in a very long time, if not ever. Jon Gillies was especially good in his five periods, stopping 45 of 47 shots. He's very smooth in the net. No wasted energy. He plays very big and is quick side-to-side. McDonald gave up four goals but also made a series of good saves. Considering he's two years older and closer to the show, Gillies certainly made a case to move ahead of McDonald in my next prospect rankings although to be clear, if that occurs, it would be a case of Gillies moving up and earning a higher ranking more than McDonald moving down. There was nothing wrong with McDonald's game and with a couple more starts to showcase himself, he could end up back ahead of Gillies again.. 

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 SmithKeegan 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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: Smith seems to get taller every time I see him. He's outgrown the OHL in my opinion and is most ready to go to the AHL and play against bigger and stronger players -- and in arenas with higher ceilings. As a second round pick with some alluring offensive tools the Flames covet, there's something to be said about getting him into the Flames system to get him working closely with coach Ryan Huska, assistant coach Domenic Pittis, etc. I'm indifferent on Kanzig as he has a long, long way to go regardless of the level he plays at this year. Lastly, I'm leaning towards the AHL for Klimchuk to get him into some higher competition as it feels like things have gotten a little stale for him in junior. Play pro in the organization will also help Calgary start to get a better sense of what they have in this player and where he might fit into their future.

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: Let's start with the latter two names. I really liked what we saw from Kulak in Penticton, who has plenty of tools -- skates well, moves the puck well, always looking to jump into the rush, good size. He's dynamic and fits the style of defence Calgary wants to play. In talking to him last Saturday, sounds like a light bulb went off for him when he got sent to the ECHL last year and he's bounced back nicely and gotten his career back on track. Sieloff is further down the depth chart in my eyes. But he's also a Penticton veteran too so I'm more interested to see how he fares in some NHL preseason games. As for the other guys on a try-out, I liked what I saw from Marchment in his only game. Good size, he gets after the puck, had a nice set-up to Klimchuk. He's an intriguing late bloomer. Would not surprise me if the other three listed don't get invites to main camp. Roy didn't show much, Baillie's skating is a concern and given his size disadvantage already, not sure there's enough there. Fram is a nice kid but he's not overly big or physical and his overall game doesn't appear to be at the same level as the other young blue-liners.

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: I like Arnold's game a lot. He's a bit more leaner now, a bit quicker and I'd like his chances to surprise and make the hockey team a lot better if Sam Bennett was playing on the wing. At this point, however, Arnold is a solid fourth line centre and that role is taken by Matt Stajan. But he's responsible, gets in on the forecheck like a wasp and is hard to evade also. Good penalty killer, is underrated offensively (if possible, given he centred Johnny Gaudreau for so long). There is no plans to move him away from centre so he'll need an injury to get an NHL opportunity. As for the others in Penticton, I don't see anyone else ready. Carroll showed that he's not there yet. Service time in the AHL will be really good for him. On the back end, can't see Morrison making this team either. From what I saw on the weekend, the AHL is the right place for him.

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: I really thought Poirier would stand out more. It's not to say he was bad, but he didn't barge down the door and say I'm too good for this level as a forward prospect is going to have to do in order to have a shot at making this roster. He has the tools to step in and be a key contributor in the NHL but more AHL seasoning is definitely needed. Fans want him to be closer than he is. Patience. The key for him is having the confidence to play the same effective antagonizing style that made him so good in the QMJHL. Last year in his first pro season revealed a player that is streaky. More consistent performance in a vital top-six role in Stockton is what management will want to see from Poirier this season. If so, perhaps he earns a call-up later in the season around the trade deadline. The next in line for a Flames right-wing job could very well be Garnet Hathaway, who wasn't in Penticton, but who I featured earlier in the month. He's a real interesting guy and if you're not familiar, you'll enjoy getting to know him.

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.

Post-Tournament Thoughts: If the Battle of Alberta ends up being back this year and by 'back', I'm talking about starting the long journey of returning to what it once was, perhaps we end up thanking Darnell Nurse as he certainly got both teams fired up Saturday night with his pummeling of Andersson. The Flames are a group that likes to stick together and I'd expect Nurse to have to answer for his player selection at some point in the near future, whether it's with the Oilers or in the AHL with Bakersfield. Or, as soon as Sept. 21 when Calgary-Edmonton split squads do battle to begin the NHL preseason. If retribution waits until the AHL, Hunter Smith would be the guy I'd keep an eye on. Also, the McDavid hype -- as we saw on Saturday when he didn't even play -- will be a catalyst for fan trash talking and that's a big part of a big rivalry.

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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