For the past few seasons, there has been a lot of hand-wringing surrounding a lack of organizational depth in Cowtown. The ‘win-now-at-all-costs” Sutter attitude meant that draft picks were often treated with as much care as gum wrappings.
For example, in the 2010 NHL draft, the Flames’ first selection was Max Reinhart in the third round, 64th overall. The Flames paid dearly for free-agent talent, forcing them to spend to the salary cap and not developing the precious few prospects they did have.
Well, those days seem to finally be over and the Flames organization are far more interested in the future than they have been in previous years. With that in mind, the Flames have been a lot more astute (or lucky depending on your view of player scouting) with their draft picks in the past three drafts and the result is that the Flames farm team are starting to display some of the fruits of those draft years, and a few shrewd, forward thinking trades.
If one takes a peak at the AHL standings, the Abbotsford Heat currently sit atop of the entire AHL, and are leading the Western Conference by a healthy five points while currently riding an eight game winning streak. What is perhaps most encouraging about the Heat’s success has been the contributors to the Heat’s rise to the top of the standings.
The Heat are getting offensive production from Blair Jones, Corban Knight, Max Reinhart, Paul Byron, and more recently Markus Granlund and Michael Ferland. What is notable about this group is the fact that most of these players are centreman, even though Reinhart seems to have been permanently converted to the wing. The recently traded Roman Horak was another natural centreman who was producing (7 points in 13 games) for the Heat before his departure.
A by-product of that Horak deal is Markus Granlund getting a lot more ice-time and opportunity with the Heat, something I am certain Flames management is pleased about after convincing him to play in North America this season. Granlund had a strong development camp, a dominant young-stars tournament, then was injured and was not able to really strut his stuff in Flames main camp. Now, Granlund will likely be getting a great opportunity to earn a call-up at some point this season, though the Flames actually now have something resembling centre depth throughout the organization, a large contributor to management’s decision to move Horak in the first place.
With Stajan, Backlund, Colborne, Monahan, Street, Blair Jones, Byron, Granlund, and Knight all at centre, there are precious few opportunities to be had with the Heat or the Flames, the evidence of which is Backlund dragging around two miserable oafs with the big club. Also in the college ranks, Boston College’s Bill Arnold currently is playing centre with Johnny Gaudreau and Flames 2012 seventh rounder Matt DeBlouw is a centreman from Michigan State. So, there will be a lot of competition upcoming for the eight centre spots in the Flames organization over the next few seasons.
Horak being moved will also give more time to a player that has been of keen interest to all Flames fans since he was acquired in the summer for a fourth round draft pick to the Florida Panthers, Corban Knight. Through 17 games, Knight has 16 points and has been the recipient of high praise from coach Troy Ward in an interview with Dan Kinvig:
“He can turn into a top-six forward (at the NHL level) over time.“He’s got huge-end skill. He’s a prolific passer – he can move the puck really well, and he does it very subtly, very skillfully, very artfully. He can also shoot the puck very well – he shoots it better than most NHL players.”
Those are some pretty good things to hear for Flames fans as if he can keep up this level of production, Knight would be a logical replacement to some of the current NHLers who may be dealt at or near the deadline, someone like Matt Stajan for instance. Trading Stajan makes a lot of sense for the Flames as thought his play has been solid, the Flames must make room for their young centreman and free Backlund from having to play his minutes with ogres.
Defensively, the Heat are getting offensive production from Chad Billins and are using Tyler Wotherspoon in every situation on the ice. Pat Sieloff will only benefit from getting to learn the pro game this season and will play for Team USA at the 2014 World Junior Championships. On the back end, the Flames don’t have anything resembling a blue-chip stud prospect, but they do have a couple of possibly solid NHLers in the making with Sieloff and Wotherspoon. And a very tall person named Chris Breen.
Similarly at forward, the Flames still have dearth of high-end skill but there are precious few organizations that boast an excess of that. The Flames have quite a few intriguing players in the AHL who currently look like they might become NHLers and a few in college that might become impact players. Overall, what this means is that the talk of improved organizational depth by Corey Pronman and others seems to be coming to fruition, at least as evidenced by the Heat’s performance early on in this season.