The Heat Beat #4 – Prospect Rankings Time!

Plus: Stockton finally beat Laval! It's a Christmas miracle... in April!

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Welcome back to The Heat Beat. In the two weeks since the last issue, the Stockton Heat have won only two games and lost five (including four in a row).

But! They’re currently riding a bit of a high after finally dispatching the dreaded Laval Rocket on Tuesday by a 3-1 score.

The Heat had fared very poorly against Laval prior to their seventh and final matchup against the AHL’s only Québécois team. The two teams had never played before this reformatted season; in their first six meetings, Laval had come away with six victories while outscoring Stockton by a 23-11 margin.

Furthermore, Laval forward Yannick Veilleux was responsible for injuring promising Heat sophomore Martin Pospisil back on Mar. 21. All this being said, Tuesday’s win had to come as a relief and a bit of catharsis for Stockton’s players and coaches.

“That’s a struggle, when you play a team like that and you continually lose,” said Heat coach Cail MacLean after the win. “It weighs on you, as coaches and as players. That was a big win for us, for sure—guys were really pushing for that and ended up pretty happy about it.”

Stockton has had a relatively easy time with the rest of the AHL’s Canadian Division, winning at least two games each against the Belleville Senators, Toronto Marlies, and Manitoba Moose. They boast a 9-6-0 record against those teams this season.

Now, after Tuesday’s game, the Heat can rest assured with the knowledge they have the ability to beat all four of their divisional opponents.

“It’s just that mental hurdle you need to get over, sometimes,” said MacLean. “Us having a younger team, it’s especially important to be able to have that in your back pocket, that, ‘look, we know if we play the right way, we can beat this team.’ And I think that one of the great things about running into a good Laval team is that it makes you better at your craft.

“It pushes you to get better and I think our team has gotten better over the course of our series against them,” MacLean added.

Adam Ruzicka, Byron Froese, and Eetu Tuulola scored for the Heat, which improved to 10-11-1 with the win. Playing in his 21st game of the season, Heat rookie Dmitry Zavgorodniy finally bumped his slump and recorded his first professional point: the primary assist on Ruzicka’s game-tying goal.

Zavgorodniy had initially received credit for a goal in Sunday’s game against Laval; earlier in the season, he had another assist taken away from him.

“I was telling him before the game that he’s getting it tonight,” said Ruzicka. “They took away that goal the other night and an assist the other night so, I was telling him, ‘it’s coming tonight.’ So, I guess it came, and he’s pretty happy about it, and I’m gonna rub it in his face for the rest of the season, now.”


Ranking the Calgary Flames’ 20 best prospects

Some of them even play for the Stockton/Calgary Heat!

Before I ever got credentialed to cover the Heat, one of my good friends in hockey told me that prospects are fun to write about because it’s easy to “sell hope.”

They were absolutely right. Whether they’re playing in the AHL, the NCAA, the CHL, overseas, or somewhere else—prospects are the best.

Some hope is easy to sell. The Calgary Flames own the rights to multiple prospects who have made it difficult to not get excited about them.

Other Flames prospects receive less fanfare, sometimes as a result of them playing in a more obscure league, being a later pick or an undrafted signee, or, simply, not being up to snuff.

I have assembled my list of the Flames’ 20 most exciting prospects. Before we get into it, let’s take a look at the guys who missed the cut.

Mitchell Mattson
Left-handed centre, age 23
2020-21: Michigan State University (NCAA)
Draft: 2016 (CGY), fifth round (126th overall)

Mitchell Mattson made the NCAA two years after he was drafted in 2016, joining Michigan State University in advance of the 2018-19 season. The 6’4” centre scored one point (an assist) over 36 games in his first two seasons. This past year, the 23-year-old played 21 games for MSU and registered four points, including his first two collegiate goals.

Barring any changes, Mattson will return to the Spartans for his senior year in 2021-22. The Flames’ rights to Mattson are set to expire on August 15, 2022, and it looks highly unlikely he’ll be signed.

Pavel Karnaukhov
Left-handed left wing, age 24
2020-21: Michigan State University (NCAA)
Draft: 2016 (CGY), fifth round (126th overall)

The Flames still hold Pavel Karnaukhov’s rights after making him their fifth-round selection in the 2015 Entry Draft. The winger put together a decent season with CSKA Moscow of the KHL in 2020-21, scoring 10 goals and adding six assists in 45 games. He’s under contract with CSKA until 2022-23 and likely doesn’t project as an NHL player, having just turned 24 with only two years under his belt as a full-time KHLer.

Rushan Rafikov
Left-handed defenseman, age 25
2020-21: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL)
Draft: 2013 (CGY), seventh round (187th overall)

Again, the Flames still hold Rushan Rafikov’s exclusive NHL rights despite having drafted him way back in 2013. The former seventh-rounder has turned into a solid two-way KHL defenseman and some have suggested a move to North America might be an option for the left-handed rearguard. His KHL contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Justin Kirkland
Left-handed centre/left wing, age 24
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2014 (NSH), third round (62nd overall)

Justin Kirkland has been used primarily in a defensive role for Stockton this season but has missed the last six games with a lower-body injury and is not close to returning, according to Heat coach Cail MacLean.

He has a decent shot and is big (6’3”) but he lacks footspeed and is relatively average in terms of possessing finishing or playmaking ability. Kirkland is a solid AHL player who might get re-signed in the summer as an RFA, but he’s also not close to knocking on the Flames’ door.

Filip Sveningsson
Left-handed left wing, age 21
2020-21: MODO Hockey (Allsvenskan)
Draft: 2017 (CGY), seventh round (202nd overall)

Unfortunately, Filip Sveningsson has hit a wall. The Flames’ 2017 seventh-rounder looked very promising back in 2018-19 when he posted 15 goals and 27 points in 43 games for IK Oskarshamn of HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league.

Oskarshamn earned a promotion to the top-tier SHL for the 2019-20 season but Sveningsson couldn’t keep up, scoring just two goals and four points in 29 games before ultimately being demoted down to Tingsryds AIF on a late-season loan. He remained in the second-tier Allsvenskan league in 2020-21 but tallied just 14 points in 49 games for MODO.

The Flames’ exclusive rights to Sveningsson expire on June 1 of this year.

Colton Poolman
Left-handed defenseman, age 25
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

Colton Poolman’s first AHL season has been a little uneven, to say the least. The 25-year-old defenseman missed two weeks in March with an upper-body injury and has also been a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.

He’s a no-fuss option who plays a simple, north-south game—without much offense—but he simply hasn’t been able to nail down a regular spot in the lineup for the Heat. At his age, that’s a bit of a concern.

Lucas Feuk
Left-handed left wing, age 20
2020-21: AIK (Allsvenskan), AIK J20 (J20 SuperElit), Kalix HC (HockeyEttan)
Draft: 2019 (CGY), fourth round (116th overall)

In 48 career Allsvenskan games, Lucas Feuk has amassed just two goals and three points. The Flames’ 2019 fourth-rounder is currently playing in Sweden’s third-tier league and has done relatively well, having contributed 12 goals and 18 points in 18 games with Kalix HC in 2020-21.

Still, the former U20 Södertälje SK star is playing against low-level competition and will need to start playing and producing in better leagues before he even comes close to earning a contract. His Allsvenskan track record currently leaves a lot to be desired.

Demetrios Koumontzis
Left-handed left wing, age 21
2020-21: Arizona State University (NCAA)
Draft: 2018 (CGY), fourth round (108th overall)

After a strong debut season with Arizona State University in 2018-19, Demetrios Koumontzis has fallen off the map a little. He went from scoring 20 points in 35 games as a freshman to just eight in 25 as a sophomore.

ASU heavily regressed as a whole in 2020-21, posting a 7-16-3 record after going 22-11-3 and 21-13-1 in the two previous years. But Koumontzis went from placing 15th on the team in scoring in 2019-20 to ninth this past season, scoring four goals and 10 points in 22 games. Even so, the 5’10” buzzsaw winger will need to rediscover his previous level of production if he wants to get an NHL deal with Calgary.

Alexander Yelesin
Right-handed defenseman, age 25
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

Alexander Yelesin has been a regular on a Heat team that has cycled through a lot of different defensive options at the bottom of its lineup. He’s a no-nonsense rightie who lacks offensive upside. The 25-year-old played four NHL games last year, becoming the first Russian player since Andrei Zyuzin to suit up for Calgary, but it seems relatively unlikely he’ll ever return to the Flames’ lineup.

With his contract expiring at the end of the season and Johannes Kinnvall about to arrive, Yelesin probably gets let go in the summer.

Eetu Tuulola
Right-handed right wing, age 23
2020-21: Västerviks IK (Allsvenskan), SaiPa (Liiga), Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2016 (CGY), sixth round (156th overall)

Remember that Development Camp scrimmage where Eetu Tuulola played on a line with Matthew Tkachuk and scored a hat trick? Nearly five years later, “E2” is still plying his trade in the Flames’ developmental system but isn’t ready to re-join Tkachuk in the NHL.

The 23-year-old right wing has spent his entire season playing in a bottom-six role for the Heat and has produced accordingly, chipping in just two goals and three assists through 21 games. Tuulola is big and feisty but he also lacks NHL speed and puck-moving ability.

Jake Boltmann
Right-handed defenseman, age 19
2020-21: Lincoln Stars (USHL), University of Notre Dame (NCAA)
Draft: 2020 (CGY), third round (80th overall)

Zero goals, zero assists, zero points. Jake Boltmann was held off the scoresheet entirely in his first NCAA season with Notre Dame, posting those goose eggs in 19 games after joining the team from the USHL’s Lincoln Stars last December.

Boltmann is a mobile right-handed defender and is still only 19. He was selected 80th overall by the Flames less than a year ago but his trajectory already feels a little uncertain.

Artyom Zagidulin
Goaltender, age 25
2020-21: Calgary Flames (NHL), Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL), Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

Remember when Artyom Zagidulin played in the NHL earlier this season? The 25-year-old goaltender made his debut in relief of a struggling David Rittich during a 6-1 loss to Ottawa in February. Zagidulin played 28:13 and allowed two goals on 11 shots.

At the AHL level, Zagidulin has been fine in limited action. He’s started (and completed) six games, going 3-3-0 with a decent .911 save percentage. He’ll be an RFA this summer and will probably stick around to form a tandem with Dustin Wolf in Stockton next year.

Tyler Parsons
Goaltender, age 23
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)*
Draft: 2016 (CGY), second round (54th overall)

Tyler Parsons has yet to play a game this season after suffering an ankle injury prior to the Flames’ training camp. The 2016 Memorial Cup champion is wrapping up his quarantine now and will join the Heat in advance of their upcoming homestand against the Belleville Senators.

Parsons earned rave reviews in junior for his athleticism but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy as a professional, battling multiple injuries (including a concussion) since making the jump in 2017-18. He played exclusively in the ECHL last season and suited up for 25 games with the Kansas City Mavericks, posting an 11-9-2 record to go along with a .911 save percentage.

Glenn Gawdin
Left-handed centre, age 24
2020-21: Calgary Flames (NHL), Stockton Heat (AHL), EHC Visp (Swiss League)
Draft: 2015 (STL), fourth round (116th overall)

Nobody can dispute Glenn Gawdin’s ability at the AHL level, although he’s struggled at times to find an offensive rhythm with the Heat this season. The 24-year-old centre has just two goals and eight assists in 18 games; last year, he paced Stockton with 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 53 games.

Gawdin earned his first NHL reps earlier this season but averaged just 5:42 per night in his five games with the Flames. He may grow into a fourth-line centre role in the NHL, but, at this point, it’s becoming difficult to see him ever pushing past that ceiling.


20. Ilya Solovyov
Left-handed defenseman, age 20
2020-21: Minsk Dynamo (KHL), Dinamo-Molodechno (Extraleague A), Stockton Heat (AHL)*
Draft: 2020 (CGY), seventh round (205th overall)

Ilya Solovyov is an interesting player. The Flames signed their new Belarusian defender to a three-year entry-level deal on Tuesday and he’s expected to join the Heat on a try-out basis in the coming weeks.

After spending his formative years moving up through the ranks in his home country, Solovyov made the jump over to North America as a 19-year-old in 2019. He played 53 games in 2019-20 with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, tying for sixth on the team with 40 points (seven goals, 33 assists).

That was enough to put him on the Flames’ radar. After being picked in the seventh round of the 2020 Draft, Solovyov headed back overseas and carved out a niche as a KHL regular with Dinamo Minsk.

In short: Solovyov has already established himself as a full-time player in a top-level league at a pretty young age. He has size (6’3”, 210 pounds) and will get the chance to prove himself in the Flames’ pro ranks as soon as this year. If things turn out well, Solovyov could become the first Flames seventh-rounder to play NHL games for the team since David Van Der Gulik (2002).

19. Daniil Chechelev
Goaltender, age 20
2020-21: HK Ryazan (VHL), Russkie Vityazi Chekhov (MHL)
Draft: 2020 (CGY), fourth round (96th overall)

When the Flames picked Russian goaltender Daniil Chechelev in the fourth round of the 2020 Entry Draft, the near-unanimous reaction among onlookers sounded something like, “who?”

The NHL’s Central Scouting Services left Chechelev off its ranking of draft-eligible goaltenders. At the 2019 Draft, each of NHL’s 31 teams passed over the lanky 6’2” goaltender in all seven rounds.

The Flames hadn’t drafted a goaltender from Russia since Craig Button’s days as GM. In 2001, Calgary plucked the 6’1”, 249-pound netminder Andrei Medvedev out of Moscow Spartak. He never played an NHL game.

Chechelev started to win over Flames fans by, well, winning. He began the 2020-21 season on a torrid pace over in Russia, winning his first 10 games in the MHL before being recalled to the VHL and recording three consecutive victories.

His numbers tapered off a bit as the season progressed but he still wound up with an 11-7-1 record and a .924 save percentage in the MHL. Chechelev finished his VHL debut season at 8-7-3 with a .912 SV%. He is currently without a contract in Russia and is eligible to sign with the Flames.

18. C.J. Lerby
Left-handed defenseman, age 23
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

This Swedish defenseman—who prefers to be called “C.J.” over his full name, Carl-Johan—has been a fixture on Stockton’s power play in his debut season of North American professional hockey. Lerby has spent time playing on both sides and has produced at a decent clip, contributing seven assists in his first 19 AHL games.

This is actually the second season of Lerby’s two-year entry-level contract. He spent 2019-20 under contract with Calgary but remained in the SHL on loan to the Malmö Redhawks. The Flames opted to utilize a similar strategy with defenseman Johannes Kinnvall, who signed a two-year deal with Calgary prior to 2020-21 but remained with his Swedish club for the first season of the contract.

The purpose of those contracts is to secure a player’s rights while allowing them to continue developing in a familiar environment. Lerby’s deal enabled him to continue honing his craft as a mobile two-way SHL defender in 2019-20; now, as an AHL rookie, he boasts more professional experience and carries himself with a lot of confidence in the offensive zone.

Even as his defensive game continues to develop, Lerby has managed to remain a regular fixture on Stockton’s back-end due to his poise and the value he provides on special teams. He ranks second among Heat skaters with four helpers on the man-advantage. Calgary will likely re-sign Lerby as an RFA this summer.

17. Ilya Nikolayev
Left-handed centre, age 19
2020-21: Buran Voronezh (VHL), Loko Yaroslavl (MHL)
Draft: 2019 (CGY), third round (88th overall)

Ilya Nikolayev has established himself as a star in Russia’s junior leagues and made a solid first impression this year in the second-tier VHL.

The 5’11” centreman, who will turn 20 in June, scored 18 points in 21 MHL games this season with Loko Yaroslavl. He joined the VHL club Buran Vorozenh for 37 additional games, chipping in seven goals and 13 points.

That might seem a little underwhelming, but there’s more to it. Vorozenh finished the season with a dismal 14-27-9 record, good to place 24th out of the league’s 26 teams. In 50 games, the team scored just 99 goals (1.98 G/GP) and allowed 148.

Vorozenh’s leading point-getter had just 26 in 48 games. Nikolayev’s 13 ranked him sixth in team scoring. For a 19-year-old first-year pro playing on a team full of veterans, that’s pretty impressive.

(These highlights are from a couple of years ago, but they’re just too good to ignore).

Nikolayev is under contract to Vorozenh (and its KHL affiliate, Dynamo Moscow) through the conclusion of the 2021-22 season.

16. Rory Kerins
Left-handed centre, age 18
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL), Soo Greyhounds (OHL)*
Draft: 2020 (CGY), sixth round (174th overall)

The OHL still has yet to start play this season. As a result, Rory Kerins has spent the entire campaign skating with the Heat and, at the age of 18, he’s even managed to get into three professional games.

Kerins fell to the sixth round of last year’s draft despite scoring 30 goals as a 17-year-old on a thin Soo Greyhounds team. In 2019-20, Kerins scored the fourth-most goals at even strength of any first-year draft-eligible OHL player. Only Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and Jack Quinn scored more, with all three of them going on to become top-10 picks.

At 5’11” and 185 pounds, Kerins isn’t the biggest guy ever but he also has the ability and thickness to establish himself in dangerous areas of the ice. Prior to the 2020 Draft, McKeen’s ranked Kerins as the 109th-best player eligible to be selected. He ended up going to Calgary 165 spots lower.

It’s difficult to judge Kerins’ three games with the Heat. The coaching staff eased the teenager into his new league, deploying him almost exclusively in a bottom-six role. Kerins has been with Stockton on an amateur try-out and will likely get an entry-level deal if he continues to impress once he returns to the Greyhounds.

15. Luke Philp
Right-handed centre/right wing, age 25
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

One of U Sports’ most successful recent graduates, Luke Philp looks to be on the cusp of cracking the Flames’ lineup. Even during Stockton’s recent losing streak, Philp has remained one of the team’s most consistent contributors and has been relied upon to take on big assignments in all situations.

Philp leads the Heat with 27 goals in 74 games since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. The right-handed forward has played all three positions up front and can drive a line with his speed and ability on breakouts. His hard shot comes with a quick release.

Only six Heat players currently boast a positive relative goals-for percentage at even strength. Philp is one of them: With #39 on the ice, Stockton has outscored its opponents by a 16-15 margin, good to give Philp a +2.38% relative goals-for rate through 21 games.

At his age, Philp might be a long-shot to become a top-six NHL contributor. He has some impressive attributes and, in the right situation, he could probably carve out a niche as an effective third-line centre (perhaps even with some power play deployment). Derek Ryan is a good comparable in more ways than one.

14. Josh Nodler
Right-handed centre, age 19
2020-21: Michigan State University (NCAA)
Draft: 2019 (CGY), fifth round (150th overall)

Josh Nodler scored just three goals and 11 points in 27 games as a sophomore for MSU in 2020-21. His situation is pretty similar to Nikolayev’s, however: Michigan State, as a whole, scored just 40 goals in 27 games this season. That translates to an average of 1.48 goals per game (read: bad). MSU finished with a 7-18-2 record (read: also bad).

A heart-and-soul type who gets playing time in all situations, Nodler ultimately finished third on the Spartans in scoring. His offensive output is likely being limited as a result of his surroundings.

With Nodler on the ice, the Spartans scored 12 goals and allowed 12 goals. He was the only MSU player to emerge with at least a 50% goals-for rate at 5v5 and his relative goals-for percentage, +17.16%, paced the team.

To summarize: Nodler was good, his team was bad, and the Flames should probably look at giving him a contract after his junior year.

13. Yan Kuznetsov
Left-handed defenseman, age 19
2020-21: University of Connecticut (NCAA), Stockton Heat (AHL)*
Draft: 2020 (CGY), second round (50th overall)

Very few teenagers are able to play in a regular capacity at the collegiate level. Even fewer teenage defenseman can pull it off.

Yan Kuznetsov just turned 19 and already has two excellent NCAA seasons under his belt. After being selected 50th overall by the Flames in the 2020 Draft, Kuznetsov returned to UConn as the youngest player on the team and put together a campaign which saw him post a 60% goals-for rate at even strength.

Kuznetsov’s +12.73% relative goals-for rate ranked as the seventh-best on the team and the fourth-best of any NCAA defenseman in his draft-plus-one season. (For context, Jake Sanderson ranked one spot behind Kuznetsov in the latter category).

Prior to being drafted, Kuznetsov played the 2019-20 season with the Huskies as the youngest player in the NCAA Division I ranks. The Flames signed the 6’4” rearguard to a three-year entry-level contract on Mar. 30; Kuznetsov’s deal begins this year and he’s expected to report to Stockton as soon as possible.

12. Dmitry Zavgorodniy
Right-handed winger, age 20
2020-21: SKA St. Petersburg (KHL), Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2018 (CGY), seventh round (198th overall)

Let’s get it out of the way: Dmitry Zavgorodniy has zero goals and one assist in 21 games this season. The jump from the QMJHL to the AHL can be a big one but, even still, Zavgorodniy’s past production indicates he should be capable of providing Stockton with more offense.

In an admittedly small sample size at the professional level, Zavgorodniy has already made strides and has increasingly looked like the relentless scoring threat he was in Rimouski. Zavgorodniy is coming off a game against Laval on Tuesday where he was arguably Stockton’s best player, earning his way up to the top line and showing terrific chemistry with Matthew Phillips.

Phillips represents a big upgrade on some of Zavgorodniy’s other linemates with the Heat. The 20-year-old rookie has spent most of the year playing in an unfamiliar role on his team’s third and fourth lines. At 5’10” and 180 pounds, Zavgorodniy’s profile more closely resembles that of a typical skilled top-six winger than it does a bottom-six two-way player.

Zavgorodniy hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as his stat-line might suggest, although he needs to start shooting the puck more often. He’s gotten plenty of good opportunities to get on the board and he finally broke through with a helper on Tuesday. If he remains on Stockton’s top line with Phillips, he’ll likely start producing with more regularity.

11. Martin Pospisil
Left-handed centre, age 21
2020-21: HC Kosice (Extraliga), Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2018 (CGY), fourth round (105th overall)

Martin Pospisil was a joy to watch in his 14 games with the Heat this season. He was engaged on every shift he played and bested his offensive production from last year in 12 fewer contests.

On Mar. 21, Pospisil suffered a torn left MCL and MPFL as a result of a knee-on-knee collision with Laval forward Yannick Veilleux. He underwent shoulder surgery later that week to address a nagging issue, ending his season. Pospisil is one of the toughest players in the AHL and will surely put up a good fight in his recovery.

The Flames entered the 2018 Entry Draft without picks in the first, second, and third rounds. They made up for it, somewhat, with three selections in the fourth round: Pospisil was the first. After being drafted, he returned to the USHL and scored 63 points (16 goals, 47 assists) in 44 games with the Sioux City Musketeers before turning professional with the Heat in 2019-20.

Pospisil missed nearly three months of playing time in his rookie season after being knocked out in a fight with Colby Cave on Oct. 19, 2019. He returned the following January and ended the year on a high note, scoring his first three AHL goals and adding four assists in his last seven games.

Prior to his injury, the Heat primarily used Pospisil as their third-line centre and gave him plenty of power play time. Pospisil scored three of his five goals this season on the man-advantage and routinely set up shop in front of the opposing goaltender. He’s capable of playing both at centre and on the wing and, regardless of his position, he never shies away from inserting himself directly into the middle of a scrum. His skating is also improving.

At this point, Pospisil needs to come back and play as much as possible. The Flames don’t currently have another prospect quite like him.


10. Adam Ruzicka
Left-handed centre, age 21
2020-21: Stockton Heat
Draft: 2017 (CGY), fourth round (109th overall)

Adam Ruzicka currently leads the Heat with 10 goals and 19 points in 22 games. Why, then, does he rank so low on this list?

It’s nothing personal against him. Win or lose, he’s always a joy to interview after a game. Ruzicka’s placement has less to do with any of his own shortcomings and is more a result of the players ahead of him having exhibited greater potential upside.

With the season he’s had, Ruzicka will likely be recalled by the Flames in short order. The 21-year-old pivot stands 6’4” and boasts a high-end shot to complement his long reach. He’s a bit of a gentle giant but his skill has done a great deal to make up for his lack of truculence.

Ruzicka’s biggest issue is his skating. He’s got a long stride but he doesn’t set the pace on his line and he sometimes has issues with finding separation on breakouts. That said, he’s been playing on a line with Matthew Phillips, one of the AHL’s fastest players, and he hasn’t shown much difficulty keeping up.

It remains to be seen whether Ruzicka will follow a similar trajectory as a player like Mark Jankowski at the NHL level. Both players have issues with footspeed, consistency, and physical engagement, but they also possess good hands and can wire the puck. If Ruzicka keeps up his current level of production in the AHL, he’ll earn a call-up and get the chance to prove me wrong about his agility.

NHL ETA: 2021-22

9. Jérémie Poirier
Left-handed defenseman, age 18
2020-21: Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Draft: 2020 (CGY), third round (72nd overall)

Prior to the 2020 NHL Draft, the league’s Central Scouting service ranked Jérémie Poirier as the 18th-best North American skater available. TSN’s Craig Button had him slotted to go 22nd overall in the first round. Bob McKenzie had him 33rd; FC Hockey, 35th; McKeen’s, 52nd.

Instead, Poirier fell out of the first round. He went unselected in the second, too. Eventually, the Flames picked him up with the third-rounder they acquired from trading down with Washington in the first.

Poirier’s lengthy fall likely occurred due to concerns over his defensive game. He certainly qualifies as an offense-first rearguard who loves to carry the puck on his stick. He led all QMJHL defensemen with 20 goals in the 2019-20 season.

In 2019-20, Poirier ranked in a tie for fifth among QMJHL players (and first among defensemen) with 261 shots on goal in 64 games. Among the league’s first-year draft-eligible skaters, only Alexis Lafrenière (261 shots in 52 GP) was able to match or better Poirier’s shot volume.

Poirier is off to a great start this season, once again putting his high-level skating and puck-moving ability on display. He already has nine goals, 33 points, and 116 shots in just 28 games. Saint John has scored 33 goals and surrendered 31 with Poirier on the ice at even strength, giving him a goals-for percentage that ranks close to the middle of the Sea Dogs’ pack.

Before this season, Poirier admitted to the Calgary media his underdeveloped defensive game was likely the reason he went in the third round instead of the first. “For sure, if my defensive game was better, I could have gone higher,” he told Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson last October.

Even so, with his offensive production, the sky is the limit for Poirier. He’ll be able to join the Heat on a full-time basis in 2022-23.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

8. Ryan Francis
Right-handed centre, age 19
2020-21: Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL), Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Draft: 2020 (CGY), fifth round (143rd overall)

If you take a look at the QMJHL’s scoring leaderboard, you’ll see a few familiar names near the top. 2020 firsts Mavrik Bourque, Dawson Mercer, Hendrix Lapierre, and Justin Barron are all up there. So is Jakob Pelletier, the Flames’ first-rounder from 2019.

Ryan Francis currently sits just one spot below Pelletier despite being nearly a whole year younger. Francis is a right-shooting centre from Beaver Bank, Nova Scotia who stands 5’9” and was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 Entry Draft.

Where did this guy come from? NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the 55th-best North American skater available in 2020. Bob McKenzie had him 79th and FC Hockey put him 80th, the spot where the Flames would later select Jake Boltmann.

Francis turned 19 last December and would be eligible to make the jump from the Q to the AHL as soon as next season if he signs an entry-level contract with Calgary. The Flames would need to have a very good reason not to sign Francis if he continues at his current level of production. This season, he has 13 goals and 41 points in just 28 games split between Cape Breton and Saint John.

The Sea Dogs acquired Francis from the Eagles in January in a deal which saw multiple high picks heading the other way. The deal united Francis with Poirier and gave Saint John a top-notch playmaking forward with tremendous skating and vision. Much like the next player on this list, Francis’ 200-foot game is a work in progress but he’s capable of doing incredible things on the rush.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

7. Emilio Pettersen
Left-handed left wing, age 21
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2018 (CGY), sixth round (167th overall)

Emilio Pettersen’s success this season has been strongly tied to Stockton’s trajectory. In his first two AHL games, he scored zero points and the Heat recorded two losses. Stockton won its next eight games and Pettersen tallied nine points (four goals, five assists).

Since then, the Heat have played 12 games and won only three. Pettersen has contributed one goal and one assist over that span while continuing to occupy his usual spot on the left flank of Stockton’s second line.

Even considering his recent slump, Pettersen’s production this season has been relatively impressive for an AHL rookie who just turned 21 last week. Among the 54 AHL players in his age group, Pettersen ranks in a tie for 11th in scoring. The Heat have scored 10 goals and allowed 10 with Pettersen on the ice at even strength.

Pettersen made the jump to the AHL after an electric sophomore year at the University of Denver. Among players in their draft-plus-two seasons, Pettersen ranked behind only Jack Drury and Tyler Madden for third in the nation in scoring. A word of slight caution: 20 of Pettersen’s 35 points came on the power play.

In contrast, seven of Pettersen’s 11 points this year have been scored at even strength. For comparison’s sake, Pospisil also had 11 points before his injury but seven of them came with the opposition down at least one player.

Pettersen is a speedy player who generates a lot of offense in transition. He thrives making plays from the perimeter but he can also work from the slot. He could stand to shoot the puck more (he’s only taken 28 shots in 21 games) and his defensive game is a work in progress, but the talent is undeniably there.

NHL ETA: 2022-23

6. Johannes Kinnvall
Right-handed defenseman, age 23
2020-21: HV71 (SHL)
Undrafted

Johannes Kinnvall might be the best Flames prospect you’ve never heard of. He’s been connected with the organization for a while, having attended the Flames’ prospect development camp in Calgary back in the summer of 2019. After about a year of on-and-off rumblings, Kinnvall finally signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Flames last April.

Remember how Lerby spent the first year of his ELC in Sweden before coming over to Stockton in year two? That’s exactly what Kinnvall (pronounced SHIN-vall) is doing. He put up 40 points in 51 SHL games with HV71 in 2019-20, good enough to earn him his NHL contract and rank second among the league’s defensemen in scoring. This year, Kinnvall battled through injury but still put up seven goals and 22 points in 32 games.

HV71 was not very good in the 2020-21 regular season, winning just 17 out of 52 games and entering the relegation playoffs. Kinnvall continued to shine despite his team’s subpar year and posted a +13.12% relative goals-for percentage at even strength, the third-best mark on HV71.

With Yelesin, Rob Hamilton, and a few others likely on the outs, Stockton will have plenty of room for Kinnvall to come over and establish himself as a top-four defenseman on the right side. Kinnvall’s impressive offensive ability, particularly on the power play, should ensure he remains high in the lineup on a regular basis. If everything goes right for Kinnvall, he could force his way into the Flames’ lineup and nail down a spot as a special-teamer.

NHL ETA: 2022-23

5. Connor Mackey
Left-handed defenseman, age 24
2020-21: Calgary Flames (NHL), Stockton Heat (AHL)
Undrafted

Connor Mackey has logged huge minutes in all situations with the Heat and has been the lone fixture on the team’s top pairing.

His results have been nothing short of fantastic. Mackey currently ranks second among all AHL defensemen with 14 points in 22 games. No first-year AHL rearguard has managed to outscore him.

All 14 of Mackey’s points have come at even strength, although five have been secondary assists. He leads the AHL in primary points and even-strength points by a defenseman. With Mackey on the ice at 5v5, the Heat have scored 25 goals and surrendered 20.

Mackey’s +10.53% relative goals-for rate at even strength ranks second on the Heat. He’s managed to find success on the top pairing whether he’s played alongside Alex Petrovic, Michael Stone, or Zac Leslie.

The only reason to doubt Mackey is his age. He’s already 24 and will turn 25 in September. He’s probably ready to be brought back into the NHL, where he played his first three professional games back in February and looked a little shaky. Mackey has since been given plenty of time to hone his craft at the AHL level and has passed every test thrown his way.

With Stone and Nikita Nesterov unlikely to return for the 2021-22 season, it’s time for the Flames to see what their younger defensemen have to offer. That ideally means rotating Juuso Valimaki, Oliver Kylington, and Mackey into the lineup with various different partners.

NHL ETA: 2020-21

4. Matthew Phillips
Right-handed right wing, age 23
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL)
Draft: 2016 (CGY), sixth round (166th overall)

Like Pettersen, Matthew Phillips is currently in the midst of a cold streak. Phillips has been held to just a single point (an assist) over his last 10 games. He’s had opportunities to score and has taken 13 shots in that span but has been shut down at almost every opportunity.

Despite his recent slump, Phillips remains Stockton’s most skilled player. He’s fast, has quick hands, and can make passes nobody else on the Heat could pull off. In many ways, the chemistry he displayed with Ruzicka in the early part of the reason almost evoked memories of the early days of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

It would be extraordinarily impressive if Phillips made the same impact at the NHL level as Gaudreau. He’s not as dynamic of a skater and he’s two inches smaller than the Flames’ star winger. Owing to his inconsistency, Phillips’ AHL production has thus far topped out as very good and not quite great.

At the end of the 2019-20 season, Phillips found himself mired in a similar cold spell where he scored a single goal and added two helpers in his final 11 games. When he’s off, he provides little in the way of physicality or defense and he sometimes tries to overcompensate when entering the zone by trying to do things all by himself.

When he’s on, though, Phillips might be the best player in the AHL. He was the primary catalyst of Stockton’s eight-game winning streak in late February and early March. In the seven games between Feb. 24 and Mar. 10, Phillips racked up 13 points (four goals, nine assists) and was a dominant force all over the ice.

Phillips just turned 23 this week and has likely proven himself enough at the AHL level. Until he’s recalled, it will be interesting to see if he can continue his resurgent play next to Dmitry Zavgorodniy on Stockton’s top line.

When Connor Zary returned to WHL Kamloops on Mar. 11, the effects of his departure rippled through the Heat lineup. The coaching staff cycled through numerous different options to replace Zary at the left wing position on the top line, with varying degrees of success. Phillips and Ruzicka both struggled to replicate their earlier production and the team began to slide.

Zavgorodniy’s arrival on the top line started to change that duo’s fortunes. In Tuesday’s game, he assisted on Ruzicka’s goal and worked closely with Phillips on breakouts and in the offensive zone. Phillips played well with Zary, a talented distributor of the puck, and he’s starting to look like himself again after being paired with a similar player. Sense a pattern beginning to emerge?

Phillips has the skill to become a very successful complementary player at the NHL level. At this point, all he needs is a chance to prove what he can do.

NHL ETA: 2020-21

3. Jakob Pelletier
Left-handed left wing, age 20
2020-21: Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
Draft: 2019 (CGY), first round (26th overall)

Jakob Pelletier is a very skilled and creative player who thrives when he has the puck on his stick. He’s an extremely talented distributor who relentlessly battles on the forecheck and has impressive finishing ability.

Pelletier served as the captain of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats in the 2019-20 season. He was traded to Val-d’Or in the off-season and was almost immediately named captain there, too. He leads by example on the ice and currently sits atop the Foreurs’ team leaderboard with 43 points (13 goals, 30 assists) in just 28 games.

Team Canada may have settled for silver at the 2021 World Juniors but Pelletier was a big part of their push for gold. He finished in a tie for fourth on the team with seven points in seven games and ended up skating on the top line with Dylan Cozens and Connor McMichael.

Pelletier can be relied upon to kill penalties and has little trouble fitting into whatever role is expected of him. He currently owns the sixth-best points-per-game rate (1.54) in the Q and has already taken 124 shots. 27 of his points have come at even strength.

With Pelletier on the ice at even strength, Val-d’Or has scored 37 goals and conceded only 10. Pelletier’s +19.51% relative 5v5 goals-for rate is the best on the Foreurs. He drives play at the rate expected of a major junior player his age and with his draft pedigree.

Pelletier’s next test will be to crack the Flames’ lineup. His entry-level contract should slide again and will officially start ticking down when the 2021-22 season begins. He’ll be eligible to join the Heat on a full-time basis next year but, with the uncertainty surrounding much of the Flames’ roster, there might be room for him to make the jump.

Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett currently occupy half the Flames’ spots on the left wing. If they leave, Pelletier could enter.

NHL ETA: 2021-22

2. Dustin Wolf
Goaltender, age 19
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL), Everett Silvertips (WHL)
Draft: 2019 (CGY), seventh round (214th overall)

Yes, Dustin Wolf is small. The AHL lists him as 6’0” and 175 pounds. For years, the goaltending position in the NHL has been dominated by puck-stopping pillars measuring at least three or four inches taller than Wolf.

Don’t let Wolf’s size fool you. He is a ridiculously talented keeper who makes up for his relatively tiny stature with excellent lateral movement and aggressive positioning. He’s practically a puck magnet who is already challenging Carter Hart’s all-time Canadian Hockey League shutout record despite having played 55 fewer games.

Hart posted 26 shutouts in 190 games over five seasons with the Everett Silvertips. Wolf played his first WHL season as Hart’s backup in Everett and posted four shutouts in 20 games. The next season, he recorded seven in 61 contests. In 2019-20, he had nine in 46 (and was named the CHL’s Goaltender of the Year). This season, in just eight games, Wolf already has three shutouts (and a .961 save percentage).

Team USA selected Wolf to play for them at the 2021 World Juniors. He suited up for the Americans in two games, making his first appearance in relief of Spencer Knight in a 5-3 loss to Russia. Wolf started the next game and, surprise, posted a shutout, making 10 saves in an 11-0 win over Austria.

Wolf relinquished the crease to Knight for the rest of the tournament and, eventually, took home a gold medal for his efforts.

The WHL had to delay the start of its 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Wolf joined the Heat (a year ahead of schedule) to begin the year. He was named Stockton’s starter for the team’s season-opening game against the Toronto Marlies on Feb. 21.

It didn’t go well. Wolf allowed five goals on 11 shots before being pulled in favour of Garret Sparks. That said, watch the highlights and you’ll see how three of the goals came directly off deflections and the other two were the result of awful turnovers within 10 feet of Wolf’s net. Everything that could have gone wrong, did.

Wolf got his next start three days later. Once again, he allowed a goal on Toronto’s first shot of the game (although, in fairness, it barely qualified as a “shot”). From there, Wolf locked things down and stopped 62 of the last 64 shots he faced in the AHL. He made highlight-reel saves against Rich Clune, Joseph Duzsak, Rourke Chartier, Kenny Agostino, and even Connor Mackey.

Despite eventually returning to the Dub with an .895 save percentage in three AHL games, Wolf’s performance in his first professional go-round was nothing short of spectacular. He persevered through some rotten luck and rebounded to become Stockton’s most valuable player in back-to-back wins.

With his gaudy WHL numbers and early AHL success, Wolf is undeniably the most exciting goalie coming up through the Flames’ system. It wouldn’t be surprising if he pushes for an NHL job shortly after making the full-time jump to professional hockey.

NHL ETA: 2022-23

1. Connor Zary
Left-handed centre, age 19
2020-21: Stockton Heat (AHL), Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
Draft: 2020 (CGY), first round (24th overall)

Under current general manager Brad Treliving, the Calgary Flames have never shied away from trading draft picks. Only the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have picked less frequently in the first round since Treliving took over in Calgary.

Treliving traded two first-rounders on the day of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and still managed to come away with Connor Zary. The Flames entered with the 19th selection in the first round and wound up taking Zary with the 24th pick after trading down twice. In doing so, the Flames ended up acquiring two additional thirds and used them to select Jérémie Poirier and Jake Boltmann. All told… not bad.

In moving down from pick 19 to 24, the Flames passed on selecting Braden Schneider, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Yegor Chinakhov, Hendrix Lapierre, and Tyson Foerster. It will be fascinating to track the careers of these five players in comparison to the high-scoring centre Calgary ultimately snagged.

Zary was one of the most effective players in the Canadian Hockey League last season. He scored 38 goals and 48 assists in 57 games with the Kamloops Blazers and led his team with an average of 1.51 points-per-game. With Zary on the ice at even strength, the Blazers outscored their opponents by a 67-40 margin.

In 2019-20, Zary’s 86 points ranked fifth in the WHL (and second among draft-eligible skaters, behind only Portland’s Seth Jarvis). He had one more point than Dylan Cozens in six more games. In short: Zary put himself in very good company, and he went on to join Cozens (and beat out Jarvis for a spot) on Team Canada at the 2021 World Juniors. Zary played in all seven of Canada’s games at the tournament but skated in a depth role and scored two points, both assists.

With a silver medal in his back pocket, Zary joined his fellow WHLer Dustin Wolf on the Heat to begin the 2020-21 campaign. Eventually slotted on a line with Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka, Zary established himself as a key piece of Stockton’s attack and scored three goals and seven points in nine games.

Zary stands 6’0” and weighs 185 pounds. He’s a left-handed centre with a nice shot, but his most impressive attribute is his playmaking ability. Much like Phillips, Zary has tremendous vision and hockey IQ that enables him to find players through the smallest of seams.

After recording points in five consecutive games with the Heat between Feb. 24 and Mar. 6—including a two-goal, three-point effort against the Belleville Senators on Mar. 3—Zary played in two more contests before returning to the WHL for his fourth (and likely final) season in Kamloops.

Zary currently has seven points (two goals, five assists) in his first five games back with the Blazers. He’s also trying stuff like this:

The Flames have a supremely talented and smart prospect on their hands who will be able to play the entire season for the Heat next year. Whether he remains in the AHL or pushes for an NHL gig will be his perogative. Despite being picked in the 2020 Draft, Zary is only six months younger than Pelletier and would have been eligible to be selected in 2019 if he was born 11 days earlier.

Zary has the talent to be a good top-six forward at the NHL level for a long time. He’s not the fastest skater ever but he’s not slow, either. The Flames desperately need a skilled young centre who can drive play and create offense. Zary is their best and brightest hope to fill that void.

NHL ETA: 2021-22


The best Heat goal and save since the last issue

Pay close attention: These guys might all be Flames in a week or two

Best goal

Check out the beautiful passing by Matthew Phillips and Glenn Gawdin that led to Connor Mackey’s game-tying goal against the Toronto Marlies on Mar. 29.

Best save

Former Montreal Canadiens first-round pick Ryan Poehling put Artyom Zagidulin’s glove to the test in Stockton’s game against Laval on Apr. 2.

The Russian sophomore AHLer got just enough to the puck to direct it away from his cage.


Coming up…

The Heat are currently in the midst of a week away from game action. They last played on Tuesday, winning 3-1 over Laval, and will return on Apr. 14 to kick off a three-game homestand against the Belleville Senators.

In three games against Belleville this season, the Heat have won 4-1 and 7-1 while also losing one game by a 2-1 score. Luke Philp is the only Heat skater with points in all three games against the Senators this season. Adam Ruzicka leads Stockton with five points (one goal, four assists) in the season series against Belleville.

All games will be broadcast on AHL TV and live-tweeted at @miketgould. Continue to follow that account for all the latest Stockton Heat updates.

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