Saturday, March 05, 2016

One Down, Three to Go: My Take on How the Flames Should Use their Four AHL Recalls

Ah yes, the infamous four-recall rule.

It's a rule that makes many NHL general managers cringe, especially if you're Brad Treliving and in the situation the Flames find themselves in right now.

With playoff hopes extinguished, player evaluations have begun as Calgary looks to the future and takes stock of what they have. With plenty of pending RFAs (e.g. Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, Kenny Agostino, Tyler Wotherspoon, Freddie Hamilton, Drew Shore, Bill Arnold), some key personnel decisions loom this summer. It's time to start determining who could be part of the long term plans and who isn't and address the holes so the Flames can be more competitive in 2016-17.

However, hampering Treliving's ability to evaluate the list of potential NHL players currently suiting up for Stockton is the inability to freely shuttle guys up and down from the AHL to take that closer look. Instead, teams are limited to calling up only four players (in non-emergency situations) after the NHL trade deadline passes.

With one recall already burned and just three more to go, I look at how the Flames might proceed, who might get called up and when.

Recall No. 1 - RW Garnet Hathaway

The first move happened the day of the trade deadline. In fact, just a couple hours before Calgary's game that night in Philadelphia.

Ranked No. 17 in my most recent listing of the Flames Top 20 Prospects, what you've seen in the first three games from Hathaway is exactly what you hoped to see from the rugged 24-year-old. The 6-foot-2, 210 pounder has come up from Stockton and gotten himself noticed.

A smart dude that graduated from the Ivy League school of Brown University, the native of Kennebunkport, Maine, appears to get it. If you're a guy that's oh-so-close to living the dream and you finally get an audition, you don't want to blend in -- heck, you're on a team that is 29th overall -- you want to stand out.

Hathaway has done an excellent job of playing a simple north-south game and continually getting himself in the middle of the action. He's had scoring chances, he's throwing his weight around, he's pissing guys off -- see Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand in his first shift against Boston. In a Flames season that has featured too much sleepytime tea, Hathaway has been can a Jolt Cola.

In his first four NHL games in which he's been used on three different lines, he has two assists, is plus-3 and has 19 hits.

As proof of his instant impact, Hathaway has been on the ice for four Flames goals already. That's just one less that Brandon Bollig on the season and quite a ratio compared to several other forwards this season:
  • Markus Granlund, 12 goals-for in 31 games
  • Mason Raymond, 11 goals-for in 29 games
  • Josh Jooris, 12 goals-for in 45 games
  • Lance Bouma, 8 goals-for in 29 games

Hathaway is making things happen and the Flames need more of that. Much more. Can he keep it up? Not at this rate but for a right-shooting right winger, there is genuine opportunity for him in Calgary.

For one, other than goalie, he plays the position of greatest need. The right wing depth chart is awfully shallow. Secondly, he comes cheap with another year left on a two-year deal that pays an AAV of a modest $690,000. This is a factor considering the hefty pay hikes coming this summer for Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

Recall No. 2 - G Joni Ortio (presumably)

When Ortio was summoned from Stockton on Feb. 12 due to the season-ending knee injury to Karri Ramo, he was an emergency recall. He is still classified as such today. The terms and conditions of being an emergency recall state that you cannot stay with the NHL team once the situation is no longer an emergency. This is defined as a team having an excess of 12 forwards, six defencemen or two goalies.

Niklas Backstrom, acquired from Minnesota in the David Jones deal, has not played a hockey game in 418 days. His last NHL appearance was January 13, 2015 when he got pulled in the third period in Pittsburgh after six goals on 35 shots. The Wild traded for Devan Dubnyk the next day.

Since joining the Flames, the 38-year-old Finn has had one full practice. While technically-speaking, Backstrom seems to be healthy, there is enough grey area in the rule that after such a long period of inactivity, Ortio can remain on the roster as an emergency call-up for a bit longer. There's also an allowance for a newly acquired player to clear immigration. For example, Jiri Hudler after playing his first game with Florida (in Winnipeg) was unable to get across the border and missed the Panthers next game while he got his paperwork in order.

So until Backstrom makes it back to Calgary with the team, I can see a decision on Ortio not being forced upon the Flames and the team took advantage by starting him in the victory over the Penguins on Saturday.

But that was probably the last freebie for Ortio. When Backstrom is deemed ready, Ortio either needs to be returned to Stockton -- like what happened with Tyler Wotherspoon (also an emergency call-up) after the arrival of Jyrki Jokipakka gave Calgary six healthy defencemen -- or be officially recalled. Although it sure seems like a no-brainer.

An Argument to Keep Ortio in Calgary

Common sense would suggest the latter is inevitable and this paper transaction could happen anytime. It's impossible to fathom a reason why Ortio should not remain with the Flames the rest of the year and get a vast majority of the starts.

For one, he's the only goalie with a potential future with the organization. Hiller, a pending UFA, has been awful. The 34-year-old's save percentage of .883 is the worst in the NHL and it isn't even close. Second-last is Jonathan Bernier at .897. Hiller would have to stop his next 86 shots in order to pass Bernier and climb into second-last.

Backstrom, also a pending UFA, was only acquired because Calgary had to take him back in order to move Jones and get back a sixth round draft pick. As part of the negotiations, the Flames had to promise Backstrom some playing time in order to get him to waive his no-trade clause but how many starts he'll get, we'll have to wait and see.

Ortio has to be the guy playing a vast majority of the games at this point. Every start, other than the games you're obligated to give to Backstrom, should go to the 24-year-old Finn.

Maintaining Ortio's RFA Status

Written into the CBA is a stipulation for the players benefit that allows them to become unrestricted free agents if they're 25 years or older, have played pro hockey for three or more years and have not played in a set number of NHL games.

It's called group 6 free agency and this clause is in place to allow players to move onto a new organization if their current organization isn't giving them a chance.

For the Flames to keep Ortio's free agent status at season's end as restricted and keep him still under the team's control, he must start between five and seven more games. The exact rule states that a goalie must play 28 games (of 30 minutes or longer). After Saturday, Ortio has played 21 but from what I'm hearing, there's been some discussion around two other starts that were just shy of 30 minutes (e.g. Ortio was the goalie of record for >30 mins but played less due to being pulled late in a game for an extra attacker). As a result, I've heard the team has him at 23 now. Regardless, he should be starting at least a dozen of the team's final 17 games anyway.

While you sense the team is greatly chagrinned with its goaltending situation and it would not surprise me at all if none of this year's goaltenders are back next season, it would make good business sense to get Ortio his starts so you at least have the option to bring him back.

Candidates for the Other Two Recalls

When you have limited recalls, there is a strategy to how you use them. When Hudler was traded, many were surprised it was a grinder like Hathaway that came up when the Flames would seemingly be looking for a replacement top line right winger. But the season is about evaluations now.

In his fourth year of pro hockey and on a hot streak offensively lately, a more seasoned pro like Freddie Hamilton would seem like an obvious choice for a call-up and if Calgary was in a playoff race and looking for the best short-term fit, perhaps it would have been him or Drew Shore as another guy in a very similar situation. However, that is not where this team is at so I wonder if they don't go another direction.

If it were me, I would lean towards some call-ups that still have a bit more mystery to them. Might they be NHL players? Where could they slot in the future? As I see it, the call-ups when you're not in a playoff race should be guys you still see as having untapped upside that you're trying to get a better read on.

Top Five Candidates to Be Recalled

1. C Derek Grant

Grant was having one heck of a season in Stockton with a career-high 23 goals and 38 points in 30 games. He was far and away their best player and offensive catalyst and you can bet he would have been here already if not for the terrible misfortune of suffering a fractured jaw in practice on Feb. 8.

While he's older at 25, could he be a late bloomer? In addition to the gaudy offensive numbers he put up (including a whopping 139 shots), there's a lot to like about his potential to be an effective and economical bottom-six NHL forward. He's got size at 6-foot-3, is proficient at the face-off dot and is an adept penalty killer. All are things Calgary lacks.

His injury is one that comes with a 6-8 week recovery timeline normally. As we close in on four weeks since it happened, might the Flames be waiting to see how he's coming along. If it looks like he can make it back sooner than later, I can see Calgary saving a recall to use on Grant to bring him back for the Flames final 5-10 games.

In addition to rewarding him for the tremendous season he was having, which included a nine-game stint with Calgary early in the season in which he didn't look out of place, it would also be a show of good faith by the Flames that they are interested in bringing him back and that he could factor into the team's plans for 2016-17.

Why that matters with Grant is he is in the same situation as Ortio in terms of group 6 free agency. With just 34 NHL games on his resume (played in 25 over two seasons with the Ottawa Senators), he will not reach the 80 NHL games skaters threshold so he is in a position to become an unrestricted free agent. You'd think Calgary would be interested in bringing him back.

2. LW Kenny Agostino

In his second season with Stockton, Agostino has been one of the team's most prolific scorers in the last year and a half. If you remove his first few months from his rookie season as he adjusted from NCAA to pro hockey, he's gone 28-45-73 in his last 78 games, a clip of nearly a point per game.

If you're looking to bring up an extra forward and want to reward a player that has been one of the most consistent performers in the AHL the last couple seasons, the 23-year-old would be a good choice.

Whether or not he projects to be full-time NHL player, I'm not sure he does enough things well enough, but as one of the pieces the team got from Pittsburgh in the Jarome Iginla trade, you certainly need to give him the benefit of the doubt you'd think and give the 2010 fifth round pick another NHL trial. You'll recall two years ago after his season ended at Yale and he immediately signed with the Flames, he got into eight games and scored a goal for Calgary.

3. RW Emile Poirier

The second pro season for the Flames 2013 first rounder didn't start off very well with a disappointing rookie camp and his year never really has gotten on track. His goal Friday was just his first goal and second point in 10 games. He then added two more including the overtime winner on Saturday night.

Despite a good weekend, his performance with Stockton this season has been inconsistent and the result has been a disappointing year offensively with Poirier's totals of 11-13-24 in 47 games down significantly from his rookie season when he was 19-23-42 in 55 games.

While this would run counter to the 'Always Earned, Never Given' motto, one wonders if giving Poirier another taste of the NHL in the final few weeks of the season might be the little confidence boost he needs heading into the off-season to remind him of what could lie ahead and motivate him to have a great summer of training and come back strong in the fall. He's still only 21 and as a right winger, Calgary would love to get this guy back on track.

4. D Tyler Wotherspoon

Let's not kid ourselves. Wotherspoon played six terrific games for the Flames in February and if not for the four-recall rule, he would still be with Calgary.

The 22-year-old looked very steady and formed an effective pairing with Jakub Nakladal. In those six games, he was only on the ice for one goal against and that was a power play goal late in the second period of that sixth and final game.

While Wotherspoon won't wow you with his offensive ability -- he has yet to score this season -- a guy that can be solid and reliable defensively while also killing penalties is an ideal fit for this team that has given up the most goals in the NHL and ranks last on the PK.

With Dennis Wideman's looming return, it's the body count on the blue-line that would be the only reason why Wotherspoon may not get another look this year (although Nakladal's minor eye injury on Saturday could prompt another brief emergency call-up). But I trust he was told loud and clear when he departed last week that he's very, very close to making it. Between Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid, if somehow the Flames can get out from under at least one of those contracts for next season, Wotherspoon could slide right into that opening and remain there for good.

5. LW Hunter Shinkaruk

Acquired a couple weeks ago from the Vancouver Canucks for Markus Granlund, they say the Calgary native still has lots of holes in his game to work on in the minors.

That said, as a hometown kid new to the organization, giving Shinkaruk a little taste of playing for his favourite NHL team growing up would be a nice show of good faith towards a guy you hope will be able to make the Flames line-up in the next year or two and bring some badly needed secondary scoring.

Shinkaruk, 21, is 23-19-42 in 50 games this season. He's tied for the team lead in scoring with Agostino.

Other Candidates: C Freddie Hamilton (right-hand shot and C/RW flexibility would be attractive), C/RW Drew Shore (see Hamilton), D Brett Kulak (next in line after Wotherspoon), C Bill Arnold (two-way centre).

Final Word

The Flames are running at the bare minimum for forwards and defence at the moment. With the team mired in a seven-game losing skid, you know coach Bob Hartley would love to have some extra skaters available to him so he can scratch guys that are not performing or are not integral piecesBrandon Bollig wasn't a line-up fixture back when the games mattered, there's certainly no reason for him to be an everyday player now that the focus is on the future.

Wideman's return will give the team the luxury of an extra body on defence but surely the recall of an extra forward is imminent and will be a player that would insert right into the line-up. Other than keeping one recall for Grant if he can get healthy, there's no reason to hang onto the other allotted recalls as you still have the ability to bring up guys later on in the case of an emergency.

In fact, wouldn't surprise me if a couple banged up veterans (situations like Matt Stajan's "maintenance" injury earlier) get shut down early. That will open up additional opportunities in that final week for even more kids to get into a game or two.

Also, a guy like centre Mark Jankowski could end up signing immediately when his college season ends and joining the Flames with the promise of getting into some NHL games. He could arrive in town with 6-7 games still to go if Providence College gets eliminated early in the NCAA tournament. So that's a bonus addition that could happen and would not count as one of the four recalls.

If I were the GM, I'd use call-up No. 2 on Ortio, I'd use No. 3 on a forward this week and then I'd wait on the fourth for a little while longer and see how Grant is doing.

At this point, the priority should be all about evaluating your youth. Play as many kids as you can and play them a lot. Take your lumps but see what they've got and know that in doing so, you're likely helping and not hurting your draft lottery position and that, more than anything, might be the single biggest priority.

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  1. "Since joining the Flames, the 38-year-old Swede has had one practice."
    He is finnish, absolutely no connection to Sweden. You're mixing him up with the swede from Capitals..

    1. Thank you. As someone with Swedish on my Mom's side (Ecklund), I always think Backstrom is Swedish, it's just such a Swedish name! Thanks for pointing that out and I've fixed it up. Cheers.

    2. You're welcome.

      Just being curious, but you would not happen to know if Calgary is the first NHL team to have three Finnish goalies under contract in the NHL at the same time.
      I know Rämö is injured, but still the possible record piques my interest as a Finn and you have a pretty good track record in finding out things like this ;)

  2. Good list Darren and thanks for clarifying the Group 6 free agent rules.

    I mainly agree with your list, mine would be as follows:
    -Grant (once healthy)

    If for some reason, one of these is unavailable or injured:
    -Wotherspoon (if we need a D)
    -Hamilton (has performed well, will be a nice gesture to the family)
    -Arnold (after an unlucky year, show him that he is still in our plans)