NHL Prospects

NHL Draft 2015: In-Depth Calgary Flames Preview

NHL Draft 2015: In-Depth Calgary Flames Preview
Steven Ives

State of the Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames were one of the true success stories of the 2014-15 NHL season. Consigned to the bottom of the league standings in virtually every preseason prediction, the Flames exploded out of the narrow cell of limited expectation and did not stop proving the naysayers wrong until they finally fell to the powerhouse Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the NHL playoffs.

That is not to say there are not still naysayers. The advanced stats community has basically all but buried the 2015-16 Flames, claiming a poor Corsi and Fenwick proves they are a fluke. While advanced stats can be a useful tool which tells a small percentage of the whole story, using it to exclusively gauge teams’ propensity for success is like reviewing a novel after only reading the page numbers which are divisible by the number thirteen.

Now, now — I am well aware that the minute you inform a stats-maven that their math is not flawless, their inevitable reaction is to paint you as some sort of troglodyte who is hopelessly fossilized in your own prehistoric ignorance, but I’m here to tell them about a place they might not have heard of.

It’s called: the outside.

If one were to actually go outside, and then actually watch the Calgary Flames play hockey, that person would realize that the Saddledome is home to one of the up and coming teams in the NHL. Actually watching hockey instead of a computer readout would prove to the cynic that the defensive nucleus of Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell emerged last year as one of the best blue line cores in the NHL, and that Giordano may have won the Norris were it not for a season-ending injury.

It also would have proven that Sean Monahan is steadily emerging as one of the top two-way centers in the NHL, that Johnny Gaudreau is the most electrifying living highlight-reel to enter the NHL since perhaps Patrick Kane, and that the Flames’ entire roster is fortified with young talent.

So, we find ourselves at an impasse. I am using this space to guarantee the Flames will be back in the playoffs next year. This notion is certain to be attacked via CORSI and DUSI (Don’t Understand Social Interaction). While they are doing that, I will be among the lucky people who will watch this exciting and talented young team take the next step towards future NHL powerhouse status.

 

Flames Top 5 Prospects (Scale to 10)

  1. C/LW Sam Bennett (8.5) — often compared to one-time Flames great Doug Gilmour, Bennett combines outstanding puck-skills and superstar-level creativity with fearlessness and ferocity.
  2. G Jon Gillies (7.5) — huge 6’5″ net presence was outstanding in leading Providence College to Frozen Four glory, offers an ideal aura of constant cool even when the pressure is greatest, big upside as NHL starter.
  3. LW/right wing Emile Poirier (7.0)  agitating forward plays the game with solid scoring skills and a nasty streak, can be reminiscent of a young Claude Lemieux when he is on his game.
  4. LD Tyler Wotherspoon (7.0) — big, dependable defenseman plays solid positional game and rarely makes mistakes, can be very good second-pairing player if he adds some grit to his smooth style.
  5. C Markus Granlund (7.0) creative playmaking pivot makes the players around him better, not big enough or enough of a scorer for top-line role but can be dependable, two-way second/third line option.

 

Organizational Strengths

  • The Flames’ nucleus of young forward talent is less heralded than in Buffalo or Edmonton, but is not far-off in potential. Sean Monahan is as much of a beast on the ice as he is mild-mannered off it — he is the big, point-per-game, two-way center every NHL team covets for their top line. Combined with the magic puck skills of 2014-15 rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau? Well, this pair might be the closest facsimile we will see to the Chicago combo of Toews and Kane in the NHL for some time. “Johnny Hockey” can stickhandle a chicken cutlet through a moat filled with rabid crocodiles. Adding in Sam Bennett to the mix next season gives the Flames a trio of blue-chip forwards to build around, and this is not even mentioning some very good forwards currently in their primes like Jiri Hudler and Mikael Backlund.
  • Calgary’s blue line was outstanding when healthy in 2014-15, and has the potential to be even better in the future. Mark Giordano emerged as a Norris Trophy-caliber force, TJ Brodie broke through as an all-star with a sterling 200-foot game, while Kris Russell is one of the most unheralded shot-blockers in the NHL. Dennis Wideman is a terrific two-way veteran puck-mover and Deryk Engelland is a brute force in the crease and in the corners.
  • Though the Flames don’t exactly have a Norris Trophy candidate, they have plenty of depth in goal. Jonas Hiller is a proven NHL starter, and both Jon Gillies and Joni Ortio will come knocking on the proverbial door in the near future.
  • We don’t know how Corsi calculates heart, but the Flames penchant for comeback wins both in the regular season and their first-round playoff match-up with Vancouver were simply astounding last season. This is a team which never quits in the third period, a testament to the coaching of Bob Hartley and another quality which harkens back to the early days of the NHL’s current powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks.

 

Organizational Weaknesses

  • Flames’ GM Brad Treliving needs to formulate a a financial plan and a way to keep his young talent nucleus together. Though the Flames are currently in fine shape with well over $20 million under the cap, they need to sign five RFAs (headlined by Backlund) this off-season, and then have far bigger fish to keep in the fold after 2015-16, when team building blocks Monahan and Gaudreau are set to become RFAs. Most pressingly, Giordano and Hudler are set to become UFAs after next season. Giordano will be due a huge raise from his current $4.02 cap hit, and it would behoove Treliving to extend his contract before the Flames’ captain hits free agency. Hudler presents a different kind of dilemma — also underpaid (by today’s NHL standards) at $4 million, Hudler is 31 and offering a large, multi-year pact to a scorer coming off a career year may hamper the team’s ability to re-sign their core players.
  • The Flames are almost hilariously lop-sided on the wing. While extremely deep at LW with Gaudreau, Bennett, Mason Raymond, Micheal Ferland, Brandon Bollig and Lance Bouma (and Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk on the way), the only true RWs on their depth chart are Hudler and David Jones (both of whom have expiring contracts after next season). You can downright bet that Calgary will address their need at right wing in the draft this year, probably in starting in the first round.
  • The Flames prospect pool is dangerously shallow on the blue line, where Wotherspoon is the only young player with even mid-pairing, much less top-pairing, upside. Though we expect the Flames to draft a right wing in the first round, they also have a trio of second-round picks which we expect them to use in this crucial regard.

 

Trade Winds

The Flames are an up-and-coming team with a current surplus of cap space. This offers them a great deal of flexibility in the offseason trade/free agency market.

A recent rumor had the Flames kicking the proverbial tires on Maple Leafs’ rumor-magnet right wing Phil Kessel, who has an all too well-known history of being acquired by current Calgary Team President Brian Burke. We at TSS do not believe this is a likely scenario, however. Calgary Flames blogger Todd Cordell recently reported that the Flames were “aggressively working the phones” in the off-season trade market, intimating that one or more of their three second-round picks could be in play in the hopes of improving their depth at right wing.

Could Phil Kessel land with the Calgary Flames?

Could Phil Kessel land with the Calgary Flames?

We do not foresee the Flames making any huge moves. We see them being more conservative, filling their depth right wing roles with mid- or low-cost free agents and can see them looking into players like Justin Williams or Joel Ward.

If anything, Calgary is a strong candidate to use their trio of second-rounders to move up in the draft, perhaps even making a splash by moving up late into the first round or earlier into the second round if a right-shooting defenseman they really like (rumblings have them intrigued by Brandon Carlo and Noah Juulsen) were to fall a bit.

 

GM Brad Treliving Draft Dossier

As Treliving was just hired two months prior to the 2014 draft, there is not a whole plethora of draft history to judge the man on. We will say that while he absolutely nailed it with his first ever first-round pick of Sam Bennett (No. 4 overall), it was kind of the obvious move to take the player whom many scouts had rated as the best in the entire 2014 draft class.

We were very disappointed by Treliving’s second pick, taking Charlottetown netminder Mason McDonald (No. 34 overall). It is not that we do not like McDonald, we think he is a solid prospect who could develop into a contributing NHL player. It is simply that, just two picks later, the divisional rival Vancouver Canucks drafted Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko, whom we had rated as, far and away, the top goaltending prospect in the entire 2014 draft.

 

We often state that projecting and drafting goalies is extremely difficult and often amounts to as much voodoo as it does science, but we believe the talent gulf between these two players is not even close enough to offer a solid debate.

We did very much like Treliving’s third pick (No. 54 overall) of hulking 6’6″ Oshawa right wing Hunter Smith. He just missed our top-5 Flames prospect list after a brilliant run in the 2015 Memorial Cup. We feel that Smith will be a difference maker in the crease and the corners, the kind of player to intimidate defensemen and stand up for teammates while offering enough skill to tally some valuable contributions on the score sheets.

Reliving apparently covets toughness out of his draft picks more than most GMs. Three of the five skaters he drafted had more than 100 penalty minutes, including Bennett, Smith and seventh-round selection Austin Carroll. These are the types of tendencies which allow us to better forecast the draft landing spots of players like Keegan Kolesar and Jesse Gabrielle.

We are holding off on judging Treliving’s draft record until we get some more data to crunch. Since his only pick which left us scratching our heads was at a position (goaltending) of which the drafting leads many scouts and GMs scratching their heads, we will say that thus far he has done a commendable job.

 

2015 Calgary Flames Draft Preview

Flames fans should get excited. The 2015 draft class has been lauded as the strongest and deepest in over a decade by myriad scouting bureaus, and Calgary is armed with four picks in the first two rounds and six in the first three rounds (No. 15, No. 45, No. 52, No. 53, No. 75, No. 82).

We expect the Flames to go after a high-scoring right wing in the first round. As we isolated earlier, it is their top organizational need for an influx of high-end talent. Fortunately, the 2015 draft might be the deepest at right wing in draft history, headlined by Mitchell Marner, who is certain to be gone in the top 6. In most draft years, Travis Konecny, Mikko Rantanen, Timo Meier, Nick Merkley and Denis Guryanov would all be top-10 picks. In 2010, as many as four of them could be available to the Flames at No. 15.

With their ensuing five picks, we expect the Flames to take at least three defensemen (especially those who shoot from the right side). Though not as deep as right wing in the 2015 class, we feel there will be several players with top-pairing upside available well into the second round, and many future NHL contributors taken as late as the fourth round (like we said, it’s a deep draft, folks).

 

1st Round (No. 15 overall)

Focusing on the right wing, in our totally super-awesome two-round mock draft, we have Marner, Rantanen, Konecny and Meier all off the board by the time Brad Treliving steps up to the podium. Recent speculation has the Flames enamored with Konecny, a kid who plays with the heart and hustle of Ryan Callahan but with the highlight-reel speed and talent of Evander Kane.

 

We would not rule up the possibility of Treviling using a second- or third-round pick to move up (to No. 12 overall, Dallas) and grab the young Ottawa 67’s star.

Still, let’s assume that Calgary stands pat at No. 15 and Konecny is off the board. The player we have donning the Flames sweater would be an especially good story in that he was born and raised in Calgary — Kelowna right wing/C Nick Merkley.

Merkley was one of those players that did not jump out at us early in his draft-eligible year. Though we always knew he was a terrific player, in a draft year sparkling with huge names (Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel come to mind), Merkley came off as a bit undersized (5’10”-175) and not superlatively athletic. And then the more we watched the him, the more we fell in love with his game.

Merkley is not just smart — his hockey IQ might be as high as any player in the 2015 draft.

He never makes a mistake in any area of the ice and always seems to be thinking three steps ahead of the developing plays on ice. This is a major reason why his passing is simply extraordinary — we would rank his playmaking skills as fourth in this draft behind only McDavid, Marner and Mathew Barzal. His intangibles all jump off the charts — he is a leader, a hard worker and a fierce competitor. Merely plays the game with a fearlessness and grit which belies his modest size — he backs down to no one.

Every thing about this him is intense. We think Merkley will be a high-scoring first-line right wing at the NHL level, and we think he will be doing this for a long time as a member of his hometown Calgary Flames.

 

Second Round (No. 45, No. 52, No. 53) and beyond

As we previously intimated, we believe the Flames will shoot for a franchise right wing with their first pick and then fortify the prospect pool at RD with at least one of their trio of second-rounders. We also previously stated that their top defense prospect was Tyler Wotherspoon. This all comes together with the realization that one of the highest-upside options at RD likely to be available in the second round is two-way, smooth-skating Tri-City RD Parker Wotherspoon, who also happens to be Tyler’s younger brother.

A high-end skater who plays the game very smart and very composed, similar to his brother, Parker is a very low-risk pick — while he is unlikely to be a Duncan Keith or Shea Weber-type second rounder who winds up in the Norris conversation, he has very little downside and, to us, is quite certain to one day be a fixture on an NHL blue line. We are equivalently confident that there is no way Parker Wotherspoon falls past Calgary with the #45 pick.

Studying the history of Flames’ drafts, it immediately becomes clear that no team drafts more heavily out of the WHL (13 picks since 2010). We believe the Flames will continue that trend in 2015, and we are reporting a strong possibility of them taking another big right wing with their No. 52 or No. 53 pick. Red Deer C/right wing Adam Musil is 6’3″, 210 pounds, has NHL bloodlines, and was called by the scouts at Future Considerations “a prototypical power forward if there ever was one.”

Seattle right wing Keegan Kolesar is one of the more interesting sleepers in the 2015 draft — perhaps the best fighter available among all the forwards in this draft, he is also a very good defensive presence who is nearly impossible to strip from the puck in the corners or on the cycle.

In our two-round mock-draft we have the Flames walking out of the second-round with both Musil and Kolesar, although we would not be shocked if they spent another second-round pick on a tough, right-shooting defenseman like Matt Spencer. Another player we have repeatedly pumped up in our NHL draft previews also comes from Seattle: RD Ethan Bear, a tough and smart defensive defenseman who always seems to make the right play and is quicker to stand up for a teammate than any player in the entire draft.

Bear lives up to his name if you’re the opposition, but if you’re his goaltender there’s probably no safer feeling than having the character rearguard on the ice with you.

 

In Conclusion

Many writers have discussed the wealth of young talent being amassed by the Sabres and Edmonton, and have dubbed them the future powers of the NHL. We at TSS would like to remind them not to forget the Calgary Flames in that conversation. We believe the one-two center combination of Monahan and Bennett will be competitive with McDavid/Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton and Eichel/Reinhart in Buffalo. We believe that, while there is only one Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau will be the closest facsimile we will see in the NHL for some time. And we believe that the Flames blue line corps is simply sublime.

We warn the Flames fan ahead of time that several of the statistically-obsessed hockey writers in the blogosphere will write off this team in next season’s preseason predictions due to a few numbers which have only been invented in the past decade. We advise you to take the CORSI with a grain of salt and pay more attention to what YOUSI on the ice — and in Calgary, you will see a terrific, young and up-and-coming hockey club.

Agree? Disagree? Think we are insane for disputing the legitimacy of a statistic which will likely be entirely replaced by a new statistic in the coming decade? Feel free to use the comments section located conveniently after this column, or hit me up on the Twitter-verse @StIves72.

All the teams drafting ahead of the Flames can be found right here.

  • Joe

    Excellent, and murk-free, characterization of Merkley.

    Kolesar’s description packed a punch (that’s why I want my beloved Oilers to get him); Ein schwartzes McSorley.

    Calgary’s team building management is exceeded only by Chicago’s and Tampa Bay’s.

    There was a typo or a misspelling above, let me just help you out with it…G̶u̶r̶y̶a̶n̶o̶v̶. There. That’s better.

NHL Prospects
Steven Ives
@StIves72

Steven Ives is an extremely unsuccessful cryptozoologist who, when finding himself unable to find Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, considers himself a writer. He was born in the Bronx, New York and grew up in New Jersey and somehow survived both of these things. He now lives in an area of Brooklyn where people used to shoot each other and now just shoot independent movies. He has immense experience in sports journalism, having contributed over a billion words of content to mlb.com and several hockey writing websites. He has also written for DC Comics, but that had more to do with Wonder Woman than with Pavel Datsyuk though, if you ask Steven, they both have super powers. Unlike certain former Vice Presidents of the United States, Steven admits he has made many mistakes in his life. He often finds himself in the throes of unspeakable angst due to the fact that People Magazine has never once included him in its "50 Most Beautiful People" edition. He now writes about hockey stuff for todaysslapshot.com and is hard at work on a novel which he hopes will vault him into a rarified air of artistic obscurity.

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