With the Abbotsford Heat playing in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs, many Flames fans are paying close attention to their results and what it means for the development of some of the team's prospects. These prospects range from AHL vets like Kris Chucko, Cam Cunning, and David Van der Gulik who have nearly fallen off the organization's depth chart, to Mikael Backlund and on-the-cusp defenceman Matt Pelech, to the likes of Lance Bouma, Mitch Wahl, Bryan Cameron, and T.J. Brodie--all making their pro debuts fresh out of junior. Despite the recent improvement in the Flames' prospect stable, the question remains--how many of these players could adequately fill a roster spot with the big club when needed?
Jonathan Willis had this to say in his piece on the topic of depth at the AHL level yesterday:
"...NHL organizations need to be sure they have at least one NHL-calibre forward and one NHL-calibre defenceman at the AHL level to start the season, and that there should be at least six other players that they’d be okay with playing at least limited minutes at the NHL level.
It goes without saying that for teams with more significant injury problems, even more players might be expected to play minutes in the NHL. At a minimum, I think an NHL manager would be well advised to have two NHL-calibre forwards in the AHL, and one NHL-calibre defenceman in the AHL, as well as being sure that his 13th and 14th forwards and his seventh defenceman are capable of playing regular minutes, because they’ll be required to at some point over the course of the season.
The logical extension of this is that when looking at a team’s AHL system, if they don’t have at least two NHL-ready players there at the start of training camp, the G.M. probably hasn’t done his job."
This past season, with no forwards making the team out of training camp, the Flames' best options for NHL-calibre replacements in Abbotsford were Jamie Lundmark, Jason Jaffray, and Mikael Backlund, all of whom were recalled over the course of the season before Lundmark was lost to to the Leafs via the waiver wire. Not too shabby for any team in need of a relatively short-term fix up front. With Staffan Kronwall making the cut as the team's seventh defenceman out of camp and occasionally filling in for Aaron Johnson, who was later traded, or Adam Pardy (later demoted to seventh defenceman), as well as the likes of Keith Seabrook, Matt Pelech, and John Negrin in Abbotsford and seemingly capable of temporarily making the jump if need be, the Flames were and are sitting pretty in the event of an injury-stricken blueline.
The only problem is that the majority of their defensive prospects are unproven for that very same reason: during Sutter's tenure as Flames GM, very rarely has there been a pressing need at the position of defence, or one that he hasn't filled via a trade or a free-agent signing (excluding short-term call- ups nec essitated by injury), yet he has drafted at least one defenceman in every year but 2006. Judging by the length of Matt Pelech's AHL career after he was drafted late in the first round nearly five years ago, one would think he'd be the first to get a crack at an open roster spot, but younger prospects John Negrin, T.J. Brodie, and Tim Erixon have all now usurped him on the depth chart, much like Pardy, a sixth-round pick, did previously.
Sutter made it known through his late-season shopping spree that he would not be caught short of capable NHLers in the case of another nasty bought of injuries like his club experienced down the stretch last season, and that strategy worked to some extent--with post-Olympic break injuries to Langkow, Higgins, and Glencross, the Flames were able to field a full roster without having to insert Brian McGrattan into the lineup and only necessitating one call-up in the form of Brett Sutter, as Backlund was already with the team. While the addition of this dearth of forwards theoretically gave the Flames depth and a variety of options up front, it doesn't exact ly speak volumes of Sutter's confidence in his forward corps on the farm. In a season where just about every player on the Heat's roster was injured or otherwise unfit to play at some point for varying amounts of time, no player was particularly dominant, which typically indicates a readiness to move on to the NHL level. Their leading scorer, free agent pick-up Jason Jaffray scored only 54 points in 72 games, the next closest being David Van der Gulik (7th round pick in 2002) with 40 points in 64 games, then Cam Cunning (8th round, 2003) at 38 points in 69 games and Colin Stuart with 36 points in 67 games.
This summer, only five forwards--McGrattan, Conroy, Mayers, Higgins, and Nystrom-- will be UFAs; assuming that at most two of those players are re-signed, Backlund makes the team next season, and the other two remaining spots are filled by a UFA signing and maybe a guy like Brett Sutter making the team out of camp should he be re-signed, the selection of forwards that could be called upon as reliable, NHL-calibre replacements dwindles significantly. While there appears to be hope for the future with guys like Bouma and Cameron turning pro with the Heat and Wahl getting some AHL experience under his belt with returning for a final year of junior hockey next season still a possibility, the Flames might be forced to give guys like Van der Gulik and Chucko another look over the course of next season. If not, then Cameron and Bouma could shoot up the organizational depth chart almost immediately as members of the Heat next season.
As it stands, the Flames meet the minimum requirement established here of having two NHL-calibre forwards and one NHL-calibre defenceman at the AHL level for next season, but anything beyond that, specifically in the forward department, is a stretch, especially if Backlund makes the team right away next season. The anticipated loss of Brian McGrattan as the team's thirteenth forward will likely prove to be addition by subtraction, and if the blueline remains in tact, Adam Pardy is more than capable as a seventh defenceman. The organization is stuck in sort of a weird position at the moment. Their best prospects from a few years back have either joined the team or moved on, and they are still awaiting the development of the next class with no immediate need to rush them, resulting in them being left with a largely middling group. With the majority of their more promising looking forward prospects still in junior or in their first go-around on the farm, the Flames will likely have to make do with what they have next season and hope that their AHL prospects continue to move in the right direction, barring an unforeseen improvement or the acquisition of one or more more NHL-ready prospects in the off season.