With Flames prospect camp opening this weekend, there's plenty of narratives to focus on. One minor, potentially overlooked issue, is the ever shrinking window of opportunity for former first rounder Kris Chucko. As he ages and the organization continues to stockpile capable players around him, Chucko's status will soon change from "project" to "bust"
I haven't written about Chucko much in the past, mainly because I never thought much of him as a prospect. Aside from a single season in the BCHL, his results have been underwhelming and he's almost never impressed me when I've viewed him live. From what I've seen, Chucko is slow, awkward, poor with the puck in open ice and lacks the type of intelligence and awareness a player would need to overcome those kinds of limitations. He doesn't even strike me as a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy like, say, Eric Nystrom. The best thing I can say about him is he's pretty big.
Chucko is significant to the Flames because of the opportunity he represents. For those unaware, Kris was the second first round pick of the Sutter regime after Dion Phaneuf. He was chosen 24th overall in the 2004 entry draft and was the only Calgary draft choice inside the top 65. Ironically, of the Flames first 3 picks in that draft year, Chucko is thus far the least successful (Prust and Boyd were chosen in the 3rd round in 2004).
Described as a "project pick" with size and leadership qualities, Chucko was chosen right out of the BCHL. He was dominant in his draft year, scoring 32 goals and 87 points in 53 games for Salmon Arm. Unfortunately, his offensive totals were probably inflated by his line mate - one Travis Zajac, now of the New Jersey Devils. That same season, Zajac centered Chucko and collected 43 goals and 112 points. The fact that Chucko never approached that level of offensive potency before or since that year can probably lead us to conclude that Kris road coattails to his first round selection. I hope he bought Travis a beer or two.
There's no question that Chucko has been surpassed by most of his cohort. Of the thirty 2004 first rounders, only three have played less NHL games (Aj Thelen, Devon Dubnyk and Andy Rogers). Chosen after Chucko that same year was Mike Green, Dave Bolland, David Booth, Nicklas Grossman, Brandon Dubinsky, Alex Goligoski and David Krejci. Many of these guys are impact players at the NHL level at this point, while Chucko is still struggling to dominate the AHL.
Some small glimmers of light appeared for Chucko supporters last year, however. In his third pro season, Chucko was second on the QC Flames in terms of goal scoring with 28 and he actually led all skaters in terms of ES goals with 18. He played some of the tougher competition amongst forwards on the team and actually managed to grab a cup of coffee with the big club (although, for my money, he was probably the least impressive of all the call-ups).
Significant challenges beset Chucko's NHL aspirations going forward:
First, Sutter has gone about stocking the farm with similar (if not superior) players this season, all of whom have pro contracts. Chucko will not only have to battle with the incumbents on the big quad (Nystrom, Sjostrom, Prust, McGrattan, Boyd, Conroy), but also other capable players including Jamie Lundmark, Kyle Greentree, David Van Der Gulik, Riley Armstrong, Jason Jaffray and Garth Murray. That's a lot of depth to have to climb over, especially for a guy whose progress can be described as "glacial".
Second, the Calgary prospect ranks are poised to swell further after this year. Mikael Backlund is making the leap to pro this season and he will be joined by Mitch Wahl, Greg Nemisz, Lance Bouma and Aaron Marvin in 2010. Not to mention the continued development of dark horse John Armstrong.
It's probably fair to say that Chucko will never be a significant contributor at the NHL level. The question now is whether he will be an NHL player at all. How long he sticks around training camp this fall will go a long way to giving us an answer.