The Abbotsford Heat's inaugural season concluded on Monday night with a 4-0 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs, and despite being ravaged by injuries over the course of the season and the playoffs, it was a disappointing year offensively for some of their best players, or the players who were expected to be their best players. Seasoned AHL veteran and free-agent signing Jason Jaffray led the team in scoring with 25 goals and 54 points and was the Heat's only twenty goal scorer followed by David Van der Gulik (40 pts.), Cam Cunning (38 pts.), Colin Stuart (36 pts.) and Mikael Backlund (32 pts.) to round out the top five. Of that group, Van der Gulik and Cunning are both RFAs while Stuart, acquired from Toronto in the Wayne Primeau salary dump last summer, is set to become a UFA. Other players with expiring contracts include RFAs Matt Pelech, Kris Chucko, Matt Keetley, Gord Baldwin, Brad Cole, Brett Sutter, Brett Palin, and J.D. Watt and UFAs Carsen Germyn, Garth Murray, and Andy Delmore. With a new crop of prospects set to make the jump to the AHL, the Flames will likely have to make some tough decisions pertaining to the future of some of their farm hands this summer. Do they keep some players around despite the fact that their progress has been slow or cut them loose and go in a different direction? After the jump, I'll examine each player's status within the organization and whether or not I think they should be retained.
David Van Der Gulik (RW, 209th overall in 2002)
In four seasons in the AHL, Van der Gulik has consistently put up solid numbers with 43, 42, 36, and 40 point seasons, and is a +48 over the course of his AHL career. The abundance of similar players within the organization has bumped DVDG down the depth chart and buried him in the minors. If the Flames find themselves without Eric Nystrom or otherwise short of a competent third or fourth liner, I see no reason why Van der Gulik won't be re-signed and given a good look at training camp come September, especially for the $487,500 he made this season.
Cam Cunning (LW, 204th overall in 2003)
Cunning scored a career high in goals (19) and points (38) this season and was also a career best +4 in 69 games with the Heat. Having never cracked the Flames' lineup, Cunning is in the same boat as guys like Van der Gulik, and this likely makes him expendable.
Colin Stuart (LW, 135th overall in 2001)
Stuart also scored a career-high 36 points and was a +8 this season, but at 27 years old he has likely reached the height of his minor-league potential. He hasn't shown much at the NHL level, scoring 5 points in 18 games with the Thrashers in 2007-08 and 8 points in 33 games in 08-09. He appears to be a good depth player and could prove to be a reliable temporary call-up in the event of an injury, but considering Cunning is three years younger and made $60,500 less than Stuart, re-signing someone like him may be higher on the Flames' list of priorities.
Kris Chucko (RW, 24th overall in 2004)
After scoring a career-high 28 goals and 51 points with Quad Cities last season, Chucko took a step backwards this year, collecting only 9-9-18 and a -11 in 41 games before missing almost half the season and all of the playoffs with a concussion and a neck injury. Chucko has not been a plus player since his first year in the AHL, so he doesn't have the whole "good at defence" thing going for him, and having only ever played two games for the Flames, it looks increasingly unlikely that he will ever become a permanent fixture on their roster. Combined with the $650,000 he made last season, I'm tempted to say cut him loose; it's been nearly six years since he was drafted by the Flames in the first round, and with the addition of Bouma and Cameron and possibly Wahl and Nemisz to the Heat next season, his offensive contributions should be easily replaceable.
Brett Sutter (C, 179th overall in 2005)
Thought of more as a penalty-killer and a checking forward, Sutter has been consistent in his production over the past two seasons with the Flames farm squad, scoring 25 and 24 points respectively and was -1 on a team that struggled to score, especially 5 on 5. I don't think anyone ever really gave much thought to the possibility of calling him up until Langkow was injured and the Flames found themselves in need of a defensive forward. Despite not registering a point in his ten games as a Flame this season, Sutter showed that he could be amongst the front-runners for at least a semi-regular job on the fourth line this fall. Led the Heat in playoff scoring with four goals and eleven points in thirteen games.
J.D. Watt (RW, 111th overall in 2005)
In Watt's second season as a pro, he racked up 267 penalty minutes on a Heat team that led the league in PIMS and scored eight goals and five assists in seventy games. If the Flames are searching for someone to replace McGrattan or Mayers, which we can be almost certain they will be if Sutter is still in charge, than he could likely serve as a cheap replacement. While he's not going to contribute too much offensively, especially in a limited-minutes role, he doesn't appear to be too much of a liability in his own zone, finishing with a -1 this season. One of the things I think the Flames were lacking this season after they traded Prust was an agitator-type player who can get guys off their game and draw penalties, and while Watt takes a lot of penalties, he appears to be capable of filling that role. He's also now famous for taking the penalty that led to Jim Playfair's epic tantrum on the Heat bench.
Carsen Germyn (C, Signed as UFA in 2004)
Germyn's numbers have been solid and fairly consistent up until this season; he twice scored sixty points in 2008-09 and 2006-07, but was limited to only 21 games with the Heat this season due to injury, scoring 5-10-15. With a +6 rating this season, this is the first time Germyn has been a plus player in his AHL career, and in four games with the Flames he has no points and is a -1. At 28 years old, Carsen Germyn is a guy who may also have to be sacrificed to make room for the incoming youth movement on the farm.
Garth Murray (C, Signed as a UFA in 2009)
The only member of the Heat to play all 80 games this season, the 27-year-old Murray came in sixth in scoring at 9-22-31 with a -5 rating and 169 penalty minutes. Murray's nine goals this season included 2 short-handed markers, which ties him for second on the team. With Murray on the roster and the possibility of Mitch Wahl joining the team to start next season, the Heat currently have six centres on their roster, making at least one of them expendable. I'm not sure if Tyler Spurgeon is signed through next season or not, but if he is, Murray, as a UFA, will likely be the one to go. His future with the Heat may be largely dependent on that of Brett Sutter, who is an RFA this off-season and looks to earn a full-time job with the Flames this fall.
Matt Pelech (26th overall in 2005)
Regarded as perhaps the most NHL-ready of all the Flames' defensive prospects, Pelech's development has been slowed by injuries. This past season was Pelech's best as a pro, as he scored 2-8-10 and finished a +7. He collected four assists and was a +2 in the post season after returning from injury. "Defensive defencemen" are always good to have around, and Pelech has been described as relatively mobile for his size (6"3, 220 lbs.) Assuming Adam Pardy stays on as the seventh defenceman, unless someone is moved over the summer or one or more blueliners are lost to injury over the course of next season, I don't expect to see him in the Flames' lineup full-time in the near future.
Gord Baldwin (69th overall in 2005)
The 6"5 twenty-three-year-old had something of a "breakout" season this year in the absence of some of his injury-plagued teammates, scoring four goals and adding twenty assists for 24 points; in 67 games with the Heat, he also finished a career-best +7. He struggled in the playoffs, however, scoring only two points and accumulating a -8 rating in twelve games, and has been criticized for being slow and sometimes getting caught out of position on the past. With the loss of Keith Aulie, the possibility of T.J. Brodie playing another year of junior, and the seemingly injury-prone nature of the Heat's blueline corps, keeping Baldwin around to see if he can equal or improve upon his career season next year couldn't hurt.
Brad Cole (Signed as a UFA in 2007)
After accumulating a career-high eleven points and a +9 rating while with Quad Cities last season, Cole totaled ten points and a -5 rating with the Heat this season. At 23 years old and also a big defender at 6"4, 200 lbs. with limited offensive potential (noticing a pattern here?), Cole doesn't seem to have anything more to offer than any of the of the Flames' other free agent defensive prospects.
Brett Palin (173rd overall in 2004)
After totaling a career-high 15 points in 57 games with Quad Cities and making the Canadian AHL All-Star Team last season, the 25-year-old suffered a concussion this season and finished with 3 assists and an even +/- rating in 21 games. Palin ranks above both Cole and Baldwin on the Flames' depth chart, but that is likely due to his seniority more than anything else. Much like Cole, he hasn't done much to differentiate himself from the group.
Acquired from Detroit for Riley Armstrong at the trade deadline in an attempt to provide the Heat with some injury relief, the 33-year-old veteran tallied one goal and three assists in nine regular season games with the Heat before succumbing to injury himself. In five post-season games, Delmore totaled 3 assists and a -3 rating. Delmore has bounced around various NHL and AHL clubs over the past five seasons, and might prove useful on what could be a fairly young Heat squad next season, but I don't really see any reason to retain him other than as a reinforcement. Random Fact: Delmore became the first rookie defenceman in NHL history to record a playoff hat trick on May 7th, 2000 against the Penguins.
Matt Keetley (118th overall in 2005)
Keetley played in twenty-three games with Abbotsford this season and went 10-7-1 with two shutouts, a 2.59 GAA, and a .912 SV%--decent numbers for the third-year pro after struggling earlier in the season. He also played nine games for the ECHL's Victoria Salmon Kings, going 2-7 with a 3.84 GAA and a 0.88 SV%--not so decent. As neither Shantz nor Irving emerged as the clear-cut number one until the post-season, Keetley may still have a shot, but with the crowded crease in Abbotsford and Ortio developing in Finland, the Flames will likely have to part ways with one of their 'tenders eventually.
It's difficult to properly evaluate these players without knowing things like who they play against and whether they start in the defensive zone more often than the offensive zone or vice versa, but more often than not, a prospect's play at the AHL level is indicative of their potential for success in the big league, and by that measure, most of the players listed above aren't quite there for whatever reason.