Now that it's June, thoughts will start turning to futures and the upcoming draft. The network has some plans in the works for June 26th, including a mock draft and draft hub (similar to the trade deadline hub from March 4) but those are a few weeks away. For now, let's take stock of what the club has in the pipeline currently. So, without further ado, I present my Top 10 Flames prospects:
1.) Mikael Backlund
First because he's probably the only future asset with a "blue chip" potential in the Flames hopper currently. Rated as one of the best European skaters in his draft, Backlund fell to the Flames at 24 because of a leg injury that limited him to only a few games during his draft season. His development seemingly stalled in Vasteras this year where a minor feud between himself and his handlers resulted in Backlund bolting for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. The 6' center scored at a better than PPG pace after emigrating and was declared the "most exciting player in the league" by some during the WHL play-offs, where the Rockets went on to upset the favorite Calgary Hitmen on their way to the memorial cup championships. Backlund has also excelled at the WJC in the past, frequently finishing amongst the top scorers on very strong Swedish clubs.
From what I've seen, Backlund has soft hands and excellent vision, especially in the offensive zone and during the power play. Accoding to reports, he is able to release his hard and accurate shot in full flight as well. That said, he visibly suggled during his most recent training camp, ever though the organization gave him all sorts of time and circumstances to succeed. He played a single game in the NHL this year just before joining the Rockets and looked capable in the offensive zone, but was frequently overwhelmed in his own end of the rink. There's a chance he could impress and make the show this September, although Calgary's glut of players at his position (Boyd, Conroy, Primeau, Langkow, Peters) makes that fairly unlikely.
2.) Matt Pelech
"Defensive defensemen" might be the most difficult players to adequately project or define quantitatively. I struggled with where to put Pelech given his unappealing stats and apparent stagnation in Quad Cities last year, although his plus/minus improved nominally over his rookie effort (-3 versus -10). That said, the big man played a couple of games at the NHL level during the Flames spate of injuries and didn't look out of place despite his lack of experience and lackluster foot speed. A defender in the Regehr mode, Pelech is never going to put up any numbers that will be indicative of his worth: until he makes the show and starts taking on a decent level of opposition, he won't look like much of a player on paper. The organization clearly has plans for the former first rounder, however, seeing as they've twice called him up as a "black ace" during the post-season. He was also apparently neck-and-neck with Adam Pardy to make the squad last year, so look for him to challenge for Jim Vandermeer's spot this season.
3.) Kyle Greentree
The 39 goal scorer is 25 years old, so he's likely much closer to his ceiling than kids like Nemisz and Wahl. That said, he's also much closer to making the show. Setting a Flames AHL franchise record in goal scoring last season by gathering the 2nd most tallies in the entire league (on a non-play-off team) is pretty difficult to ignore as well.
Despite his numbers, it's hard to imagine Greentree having legitimate top 6 upside given his advanced age and the fact that more than half of his goals last year came with the man advantage (20). He also has a severe handicap in his skating stride, which is goonishly slow from what I've observed. Undrafted out of college, he's only put up respectable numbers the last few seasons which either indicates a solid, late blooming project - or a guy that needs to be older than his peers in order to get results. Recently re-signed by the Flames, he has a shot to make the club this season thanks to the organizatoins dearth of talent on the wings.
4.) Keith Aulie
Another big defender a la Matt Pelech, Aulie has has actually had the superior Junior career as compared to the older guy. A stalwart with Tyler Mysers on Canada's WJC team this past season (the only Flames prospect to make the Canadian team), the 6'6", 222 pound monster also put up career best offensive numbers (6 goals, 33 points) and plus/minus rating (+12), despite seeing the toughest opposition on a nightly basis for the Brandon Wheat Kings. Aulie turns 20 in June and will likely graduate to Abbotsford to begin his next leg of developement this coming year.
5.) Greg Nemisz
The Flames first rounder from last season put up gawdy numbers on (36g-41a-77pts with a +52) on the Memorial Cup winning Windsor Spitfires. The problem is, the strength of his team is skewing Nemisz's counting stats to such a degree that's it's difficult to get a true read on whether he took a legitimate step forward this season or not. For example, Rob Schremp scored 57 goals and 145 points the year after he was drafted by Edmonton, mainly because of a slew of PP time on a juggernaut London Knights squad. He was - and remains - a lackluster prospect, however, which may be true of Nemisz as well.
A big guy who can play center or wing, word is Nemisz doesn't use his size enough yet and isn't overly aggressive in the corners. He has a good shot and release and his skating isn't the kind of issue it usually is with guys his size, which is encouraging though.
6.) John Negrin
Highly coveted by Sutter judging by the significant amount of attention the org has lathered on the third rounder, Negrin is a tall, slick skating defender with decent offensive instincts and a good first pass. Negrin posted career best totals in goals (8) and points (49) between the Kootenay Ice and Swift Current Broncos last year. He also got a late season cup-o-coffee with the big club and didn't look entirely overwhelmed (although he was severely sheltered during limited ice time). Although tall, Negrin isn't really physical from what I've seen and never put up the kind of offensive numbers at the Junior level where one could pencil him onto the power play without reservations, which limits his upside somewhat. I'm partial to his combination of smooth skating stride and passing ability, however, and think he might actually have the higher ceiling than, say, Pelech depending on how he develops from here on in.
7.) Mitch Wahl
Although his PPG pace didn't improve over last season, Wahl finished the year 2nd on the Spokane Chiefs in goals (32 - career best), points (67) and first in plus/minus (+42). He also co-led the team in points during the post season with 13, due to his team high number of assists (11).
Wahl is a slick skating center who is known for his vision and ability to set up his linemates:
What makes Wahl such a special player, Peters said, is his ability to find the open man and his maturity for his age.
"He makes his wingers better and for a young guy at 17 years old, we have high expectations for Mitch," the Chiefs head coach said. "He plays against other teams best guys a lot of nights. That's hard to do at a young age in the western league but he's able to do it.
"For a kid who came out of a non-traditional market in Seal Beach, Ca., he's got very good hockey sense and elite on-ice vision."
That Wahl was deployed as a tough match-ups guy at 17 and has a cumulative plus/minus of +75 over the last two seasons is big arrow pointing in the right direction.
8.) David Van Der Gulik
A favorite dark horse of mine over the last few years, VDG was a late round, injury prone pick out of the college ranks. At just 5' 10", he doesn't possess a "projectable frame" as scouts like to say and has probably been held back from being a considered "key prospect" due to his size. That said, he's put up favorable results at the AHL level over the last two seasons despite less than ideal circumstances. One of only 3 regular skaters in the black for the QC Flames last season (Eriksson and 4th liner Cam Cunning were the others), VDG has spent a lot of time as a PKer and tough minutes checker since he went professional and has regularly outperformed many of his teammates in the context of his tough assignment. His offensive totals, while consistently decent, aren't enough alone to recommend him as a future NHLer - however, his ability to outscore tough minutes at ES, even with lackluster linemates, suggests he has 3rd/4th line upside at least. His turn on the Flames 4th line this past year, where he put up a great corsi rate in a limited number of games certainly didn't hurt my evaluation of him. I think he has legit shot at finaly making the jump this season.
9.) Leland Iving
The 2006 first round pick had a tough time initially in the AHL, but managed to stabilize himself part way through the year and steal the starting job from the older Matt Keetley. Irving has a good pedigree and put a respectable, if unspectacular, SV% in his first pro season as a 20 year old which has him about on track in terms of his development schedule. Probably not ready to make the leap like cohorts Simeon Varlamov or Steve Mason, I would also put him behind former Flame property Kevin Lalande in terms of NHL readiness. Another year as the undisputed starter and an improved save rate would go a long way to convince me he's a legitimate threat to eventually usurp Kiprusoff.
10.) TJ Brodie
Perhaps a diamond in the rough, Brodie took a big step forward with the Saginaw Spirit this year, scoring a career best 12 goals and 50 points in just 63 games. He improved his PPG pace from 0.44 to 0.79 and was the highest scoring defenseman on his squad by 5 goals and 8 points (despite playing a couple games less than the next closest guy). He was also the 10th highest scoring defender in the OHL.
In addition, Brodie stood out during the Flames prospect camp/tournament where his blend of speed, poise and offensive instincts made him appear to be one of the strongest youngsters in the batch. Another step forward in the OHL next season would indicate the Flames have a keeper on their hands.