Monday, September 12, 2016

Penticton 2016: Eight Flames Storylines to Follow at This Year's Rookie Tournament

What's better than a tournament with one team made up of fast, exciting players aged 23-and-under? How about a tournament in which all four teams meet that criteria?

Most hockey fans these days are caught up in the excitement around watching Team North America. That squad, led by Calgary's own Johnny Gaudreau, certainly has been fun to watch. The appetizer for the World Cup of Hockey is an equally youthful Young Stars Classic rookie tournament that goes this weekend in Penticton. As has become tradition, rookies from the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets get together at the South Okanagan Event Centre for an entertaining round-robin tournament.

It's a beautiful time of year to be going to the Okanagan and I'm excited to be headed out there for a third straight year, and why not. While the threat of snow was at one point in Calgary's forecast earlier in the week, a glance ahead to the weather in Penticton and there is a lot of 25, 26, and 27 Celsius for expected highs. Nice.

For the latest happenings from Penticton, 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. Heck, if goes well, I may even pump out a podcast from Kelowna as another one is certainly due.

The Flames will play three times:

Calgary's roster is available here.

My compilation below of eight storylines for Flames fans to follow in Penticton is essentially part one of a two-part primer. In the second part, I focus in on eight players to watch, all of whom pack some intrigue for me..


Eight Storylines to Follow


1. Duelling Tre Kroners

On paper, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington sound a lot alike. Two offensive-oriented Swedish-born defencemen selected seven picks apart, both by the Flames, late in the second round of the 2015 draft.

For me, they're also side-by-side in my latest Top 20 Flames prospect rankings. Unveiled on July 31, I have Andersson at No. 3 and Kylington at No. 4.

But that's where their similarities stop.

During their draft year, one was in Sweden, the other in Ontario. Last season, one was in California, the other still in Ontario. Going back to when they were in Sweden, they were never with the same club and rarely played at the same level. If one was playing U20, the other was playing second division with the men, etc. It appears they've played together a bit internationally, but not a whole lot.

They're built differently also. Similar in height, there could be 20-30 pounds difference between them. Kylington far more wiry, Andersson more stocky. Actually, make that a bit too stocky in the opinion of GM Brad Treliving in July, but even in better condition, Rasmus will always be thicker.

I'm fascinated to see them this year playing side-by-side, or at least sharing the same blueline and dressing room. With Andersson ready to turn pro after another tremendous season with Barrie, both are destined to be teammates in Stockton where we'll finally get a chance to see how they compare night in, night out, and against the same competition.

Who is the better prospect short term? Who is the better prospect long term? The answer to both is still TBD but seeing them together in Penticton again will be a chance to get that debate restarted.


2. Eyes Peeled for Jooris 3.0

I still remember it well, talking to Josh Jooris outside the Flames dressing room the first day of Penticton two years ago. A relative unknown at the time, he had just arrived with the rest of the players and while on the charter as he introduced himself to the new draft picks, he said he felt like an old man at age 24 while most of the others were 18 or 19.

Jooris also admitted he felt some urgency to make an impression starting right then and there given so much youth was coming in the pipeline. At the time, Jooris -- a free agent signing the previous summer -- was coming off his first pro season, spent entirely in the AHL.

Sure enough, he went out that night, scored twice on a line centred by Markus Granlund and in doing so, penned the first chapter in what would end up being a wonderful story. Jooris carried the momentum from his impressive rookie camp into main camp, was one of the last cuts by Calgary, and then one week after the regular season began, got called up and has been in the NHL since.

Jooris has since moved on, signing as a free agent with the New York Rangers this summer. However, his legacy will remain and it's the question: Who will be this year's Josh Jooris?

Last year, it was Brett Kulak, who after spending much of the previous season in the ECHL, had a great tournament in Penticton to get himself back on the radar. Sure enough, four weeks later, he made Calgary's opening night roster.

Who will be the surprise this year that takes a giant step and threatens to unexpectedly make the Flames on opening night? Rasmus Andersson? Mark Jankowski? Andrew Mangiapane? Stay tuned.


3. Goalie Grapple Begins

You think the three-headed monster last year in Calgary was scary, how about a four-headed monster.

It was an unusual sight at development camp in July to see five goalies and for all of them to be Flames property. Making for a more crowded than usual crease for such a short tournament, four of them will be bound for Penticton with only newcomer David Rittich left behind. The Czech free agent signing is not eligible to participate due to his age. Guidelines state that players must be born in 1993 or after and Rittich, who turned 24 in August, is a 1992.

David Rittich stares down a shooter. (Photo by Rob McMorris)
The headliner is Jon Gillies, who is ticketed to be the starter in Stockton. Joining him but headed back to major junior eventually will be 2016 second rounder Tyler Parsons and Nick Schneider. The latter went undrafted last year but signed a contract with the Flames after impressing at rookie camp and then main camp.

Then there is Mason McDonald. I know for a fact the club's plan 'A' is for the Halifax native to turn pro and likely be the starter with Adirondack in the ECHL. But that's not his only option. He also could go back to the QMJHL as an overager. But given Calgary took him as the first goalie off the board in 2014, that pedigree of player should be advancing to the next level at this point to further his development.

How the playing time will get split up remains to be seen but what we know is whoever is in net, they will have a lot of eyes on them and I'm curious to see how each of them performs. They best take advantage of the opportunity too as there won't be much playing time to be had after Penticton.

Calgary has only seven preseason games this season. With a fast start critical after last year's early stumbles became a playoff death sentence, one would expect to see the veterans shouldering most of that workload to get ready. Brian Elliott will surely get the equivalent of around two-and-a-half to three games and I'd expect the same for Chad Johnson. That leaves around 120 minutes or so of preseason minutes. I'd expect most, if not all of that to go to Gillies.


4. 2020 Vision Up the Middle

The four centres to start the season seem pretty set. Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett and Matt Stajan. There's a possibility that they try Stajan on the wing but I'd be surprised if that happens immediately. But there will be changes coming because Backlund and Stajan each have two years left on their deals and then they will be free agents. For different reasons, I'm doubtful either are back.

At his age, Stajan will surely be done at that point and Backlund, based on the calibre of his game, could likely outprice himself for what Calgary will be able to afford for a third-line centre. That means opportunity is looming and it's time for young centres in the organization to make a statement that they want one of those jobs when they become available.

Two guys I'll be keeping an eye on that will be on the ice this weekend are Mark Jankowski and Dillon Dube. Jankowski is the team's first round pick from 2012. Dube is the club's second round pick from 2016. They're not two guys you'll get confused on the ice. Jankowski is a giant presence at 6-foot-4. Dube is a lot closer to 5-foot-10. They're not on the same timeline either. Jankowski, who turns 22 tomorrow, would be ready a lot sooner than Dube, who just turned 18.

But if you look five years out, say the 2020-21 season, and ask who else might be slotted up the middle at that time? Jankowski and Dube are both prime candidates.

Jankowski is a big guy that can control the puck. He's been a project but has come along nicely. Dube is a confident, highly skilled kid that can fly. There will be some prime top-six minutes available in Penticton playing alongside the likes of Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, let's see who gets those plum assignments and more so, who takes advantage of it.


5. Go-Time for the Other 2013 First Rounders 

Monahan will make $6.375 million this season as he begins his second NHL contract. Meanwhile, also taken in the first round by the Flames in 2013 were Emile Poirier (22nd) and Morgan Klimchuk (28th).

Obviously, things have not progressed nearly as fast for the latter two and should they end up in Stockton again and that is the likely outcome when training camp breaks, they will each earn $70,000 in 2016-17. That is 91 times less than Monahan.

Interestingly, despite Poirier having two years in the AHL and Klimchuk just one year of pro -- both are entering the second year of their three-year entry-level contract. Due to his birth date, Calgary got a bonus year of ELC with Poirier. So not only are their games a long way away from being NHL-ready, they're also two years behind Monahan on the contract clock.

For Poirier, his fresh start will have to wait until main camp. While he meets the age criteria for Penticton, he's ineligible due to having logged 125 games between the AHL and NHL. The guidelines for the rookie tournament are 100 pro games or fewer.

Stockton coach Ryan Huska was complimentary of Klimchuk's all-round game last year, despite his struggles to produce. He finished with only three goals in 55 games. Like Poirier, the pressure is on Klimchuk to get back to being a threat offensively this year and he'll get a great chance this weekend to get off to a good start and re-gain some confidence before heading into the Flames main camp on Sept. 22.


6. 'D' Depth Chart Battle

The Flames have three veteran defencemen that are on expiring contracts in 2016-17 in Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid. Depending on how they play, their health and how the season goes for the team, the current GM has shown a propensity to trade pending UFAs for assets. Heck, even if all you can muster is a sixth round pick as the Flames got for David Jones, it still netted the team tiny dynamo Matthew Phillips so it was well worth it.

Even if the Flames are in a playoff race, it was Brad Treliving that nonetheless pedalled away Curtis Glencross two years ago. Calgary went on to make the playoffs anyway.

Also next summer, my earlier look at the implications of the Las Vegas expansion draft resulted in Jyrki Jokipakka being the most likely candidate to get plucked from the Flames. So that would make for another job opening on the blueline.

So if you're a prospect in the Flames organization right now and you play defence, exciting times are upcoming. With the 'big three' of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton tying up over $17 million in salary, Calgary will not only be looking for new defence options soon, but also looking for cheap ones. i.e. Players on entry-level contracts.

So bring it on. Let the battle to be the top of the next-in-line depth chart begin. In the short term, Tyler Wotherspoon and Brett Kulak are probably 1-2 in some order. But Ryan Culkin -- as I wrote on Sunday -- is an intriguing player to watch and isn't someone to discount either.

Then we have the next wave. Brandon Hickey won't be showcasing himself this weekend as he's back at Boston University and Adam Ollas Mattsson is in Sweden, but Andersson, Kylington, where are they at? Can Kenney Morrison get himself back in the picture? What about Keegan Kanzig? His pro career is just getting going. Could he get himself into the picture?

I'm curious to see who stands out this weekend. Will it be the usual suspects or might there be a couple of surprises.


7. The Lore of Pick 166

It all began back in the olds days of the 21-team NHL when the Flames used pick No. 166 in the 1987 draft -- at the time, that came near the end of round eight -- to select diminutive junior scoring sensation Theoren Fleury. A member of the 1989 Stanley Cup champion team, Fleury went on to play in over 1,000 NHL games, collect over 1,000 points and score 455 goals.

Curiously, with that same pick 28 years later -- only this time it coming in the sixth round -- Calgary seems to have found another undersized offensive star-in-the-making in Andrew Mangiapane. The 5-foot-10 Barrie forward piled up 106 points (51 g, 55 a) in 59 games in 2015-16. He chipped in another 21 points (10 g, 11 a) in 15 playoff games.

But wait, there's more.

In June, the sixth round pick received from Minnesota for David Jones, was once again pick No. 166. Continuing the theme, Calgary used it to draft the tiniest player in the draft in Calgary native and highly-skilled winger Matthew Phillips, who led all WHL rookies in scoring with 76 points (37 g, 39 a) in 72 games last season with Victoria.

While Fleury played in a different era and was a lot more of a pit bull than the other two, the one thing in common with all three beyond their height or lack there of, they are all highly-skilled and very creative players. Watching Mangiapane and Phillips fly around the ice this weekend is going to be one of the most exciting parts of the tournament.

And in Calgary, don't you know, there's a soft spot for little guys that are highly skilled. In fact, it's Johnny Gaudreau's presence that leaves fans wondering/hoping/dreaming that these two other guys might also eventually find a home in the new NHL where speed, speed and more speed seems to be the direction the game is moving towards.

If you're heading to the South Okanagan Events Centre to take in the games in person, know that they'll sell you the whole seat but with these two guys, you'll only need the edge.


8. New NHL Coach, New System

Changes are coming to how the Flames play structurally with Calgary having a new bench boss in Glen Gulutzan. With assistant coaches Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard new as well, expect fresh approaches on the power play and penalty kill also.

What we also know is philosophically, it will continue to be the organization's desire to have Stockton mirror what the parent club is doing in all of these and other areas to make it easier and more seamless for AHL call-ups to transition into the NHL line-up. That means Huska, in his third year behind the bench, will also have all new systems to implement.

Will we see evidence of a new approach by the team in Penticton? Doubtful, that's a tad early. Keep in mind the rookies will be jumping almost immediately into game action on Friday. That's just a couple days after they report for fitness testing. A new defensive system, which will be the biggest change, is not learned in a day or two.

As well, I'd estimate that nearly half the 29 players travelling to the Okanagan won't be with either Calgary or Stockton this season. A bunch will be returning to major junior and most of those on tryouts will end up released. So again, systems instruction is not likely to be the top priority at this weekend's game-day skates.

Nonetheless, it's a subplot to watch starting in Penticton and carrying over into the NHL preseason. While the changes may be subtle for the casual hockey fan and maybe even for the avid fan too, they will be a conversation topic. Can the team become more of a possession team? Will they de-emphasize blocking shots as Gulutzan hinted at and what does that look like? These are all things we'll begin to learn starting this weekend.




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7 comments:

  1. Will Eetu be there? Likely someone else to watch from the edge of your seat.

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    1. He definitely should be. He's at Everett's camp right now. He'll leave there like all of them will leave their junior camps and head to Calgary. He is, indeed, a player to watch out for. Spoiler alert/teaser - Have Tuulola listed among my eight players to watch, which is part two and will be out the next day after the rosters are released.

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  2. Doesn't make a lot of sense to have a tournament like this without any practice beforehand. It is a team game right?

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    1. Young stars is basically pre-preseason to help the kids get a bit of a jump start.

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    2. You've got a boatload of guy on tryouts, players heading back to their respective junior teams afterwards. Not sure what more you achieve by practicing with such a mixed bag of players. Let them play and see if anyone catches your eye. As the other person said, this is just a warm-up to main training camp. In the old days, this never even existed.

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  3. What do you think is the likelihood that they sign Burke? I'm a huge fan of his lol

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    1. Not great. When you go undrafted like Burke did, and just like Tyson Baillie last year, it's usually for a reason and scouts will have watched you for six months. Not sure he can change minds over a weekend but if Calgary had him close to next on their list when the draft ended, maybe they'll entertain the thought, but he'll have to stand out this weekend, me thinks. In the end, I'll set the odds at doubtful.

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