Future is Now in AHL Playoffs

April 26th, 2014 | Posted in Commentary
By: D'Arcy McGrath

Its been said, but it bears repeating; year one of the rebuild in Calgary was smashing success … in a very odd way.

The team was supposed to be terrible on the ice, and essentially they were finishing 27th in the league, securing the 4th pick overall, and meeting everyone’s expectations of not having a snowball’s chance in Hell of making the post season.

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Yet they did that somehow in a way that left every one feeling giddy and optimistic about the team’s future.

How? For starters they were entertaining playing to a NHL record 49 one goal games.

And secondly they did it with a heap load of youth injected into the lineup; starting with Sean Monahan making the jump out of camp, and great showings from other prospects like Markus Granlund, Paul Byron, Tyler Wotherspoon and Joni Ortio.

Toss in the signing of Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold, and the eye popping late regular season offense of Emile Poirier playing pro hockey and suddenly a franchise that couldn’t get anything right, can suddenly do no wrong.

Tonight the roster bulged Heat in their last playoff drive in Canuck territory take on the Red Wings farm club in round one of the AHL playoffs, with a who’s who of Flames future playing huge roles. The two club’s went to double over time last night, with the Heat out shooting and out chancing the Griffins but coming up short in game one.

Its fitting that the organization that this exciting young group is attempting to defeat is that of the Red Wings, the model franchise in the NHL.

The Wings develop players better than anyone, they don’t rush players to the NHL, they use their system to make the Red Wings perennial playoff clubs, everyone from the GM in Detroit to a fourth liner in Grand Rapids gets his nose dirty.

A model the Flames are aiming to emulate.

But does winning at the AHL level translate into winning at the NHL level? The Wings are in deep trouble in their series against the Bruins, but they wouldn’t even be in the playoffs had their AHL championship club from last season not bolstered their lineup when NHL injuries ravaged the Wings.

A Look into Development Past

The past is always an interesting place to start in attempting to place weight on what you expect to see in the future. It helps however to have the advantage of remembering when the past was the future itself, to have a lingering feeling of how you felt at that time, and how things didn’t go as planned.

A simple look at history without said knowledge would go something like this …

Flames go to the cup final in 2004, so they must have been developing some great young players prior to that.
A quick glance at the Flames system would turn up a farm team in the AHL playing in Saint John.
A record of history shows the Saint John Flames winning the Calder Trophy in 2001.

So there you have it. Three years before the magical run of 2004 the Flames had a championship club in the AHL that fed the NHL team and the rest is history, a story very similar to the Red Wings of today bolstered by the Griffin championship from last spring.

But you’d be oh so wrong.

First some statistics.

The 2001 Saint John Flames employed 37 players through the season, and had an average age of 24.2. The top ten scorers also had an average age of 24.2. Their goaltender for all 19 post season games was the household name of Martin Brochu aged 28.

The 2014 Abbotsford Heat dressed 43 different players, and have an average age of 25.4. Their top ten scorers average 24.3 years of age, and their goaltender will be Joni Ortio aged 23.

Flames fans have to hope this is where the similarities end, because other than AHL hardware, that 2001 club never transpired into the NHL feeder juggernaut many had hoped.

Sometimes AHL success has little to do with developing talent for the NHL, and more to provide healthy bodies and sell tickets. These teams are laced with veteran AHL players that compete well against younger developing kids making the AHL clubs successful year after year.

However, that wasn’t the case in Saint John that spring, the Flames had prospects and Calgary fans were excited about them.

I remember following AHL box scores and dreaming of the future of these soon to be NHL graduates, its easy to put together the list of players that everyone was discussing 13 years ago.

The NHL Flames had just finished the season under Greg Gilbert when head coach Don Hay was fired 75% of the way through the regular season schedule. The team went 27-36-15-4, finishing 4th in the North West Division and out of the playoffs. The large budgeted Avalanche when on to win the Stanley Cup.

The Flames that frustrating season were lead by 23 year old Jarome Iginla who scored 31 goals and 71 points, followed by Marc Savard, and Val Bure. Phil Housely and Derek Morris were key defenders, and Fred Brathwaite was the guy between the pipes. Craig Conroy finished the season up in Calgary after coming over in a head scratching move for the productive Cory Stillman. Of that roster only Iginla, Conroy, Robyn, Regehr, Toni Lydman and Oleg Saprykin played a role in 2004′s march to the final.

As said earlier this 75% turnover wasn’t created by a push from the farm.

Saint John was lead by Marty Murray in scoring, a historical version of today’s Paul Byron. However the guys that had people in Calgary excited were Rico Fata, Daniel Tkaczuk and Sergei Varlamov. The trio went on to play only 54 games for the Calgary Flames before either moving on to tepid NHL careers or leaving the league completely.

In Fata and Tkaczuk things were going as planned. The duo were drafted in 1997 and 1998, had starring roles in the World Junior tournament, and now were cutting their teeth with impact roles in the AHL, readying themselves for NHL duty with the Flames.

Instead the only diamonds mined out off this roster were support players like Chris Clark and Steve Montador, while Steve Begin was long gone playing a role in other NHL cities.

Rico Fata just couldn’t get his head to catch up to his feet, was moved, and had a undistinguished NHL career of 230 games. The Daniel Tkaczuk story was more tragic, as his graduation to Calgary was going well until he took a skate to the head from Phoenix’s Shane Doan and was never the same player when he recovered from his concussion.

Ironically both Varlamov and Tkaczuk were traded together to St. Louis for Roman Turek a few years later.

Will that same fate fall to the 2014 AHL edition, or will today’s prospects have an impact like the 2013 Griffins in Detroit?

The 2014 Heat don’t have two 26 year olds leading the way in scoring like the 2001 Saint John club. Instead, three of the top four point producers are younger including Max Reinhart, Markus Granlund, and Corban Knight. Veterans like Ben Street, Brett Olsen and Blair Jones provide secondary scoring and leadership to help tutor the young snipers. On the blueline veterans lead the way as injuries and inconsistency have some of the club’s younger players like Patrick Sieloff, Tyler Wotherspoon and John Ramage. However Brett Kulak has become a mainstay in the lineup since signing a pro contract with the Flames and leaving the WHL upon Vancouver’s season coming to an end.

Additionally 2011 first round pick Sven Baertschi rides shot gun on the third line, and has been one of the club’s hottest players down the stretch. His game, stripped down to the skeleton has been rebuilt into a 200 foot model that the Flames feel will better translate when his offense returns.

A similar program was followed by current Flames TJ Brodie and Mikael Backlund in their AHL phase.

In goal, Flames draft pick Joni Ortio has gone from 5th on the future depth chart to a potential replacement for Miikka Kiprusoff due to his stellar season that resulted in an AHL all rookie team berth and an impressive stint in Calgary.

Clearly the Flames have key young players playing key roles and key situations in this playoff series.

So what can Calgary fans point to as to why 13 years later success at the AHL level will this time mean success at the NHL level?

Coaching?

Shouldn’t be a difference once again. The 2001 club had Jim Playfair at the helm, an up and coming NHL coaching prospect known for teaching and working with young players. Playfair went on to coach the Flames before returning to the AHL, and now is an assistant in Phoenix.

Troy Ward gets great recognition from the Flames for not only developing young players that can step into Calgary, but also developing human beings and character two huge factors in players taking that next big step into long professional careers.

Sadly when the pieces are put in place, that is: top draft picks accumulated under a solid coaching foundation, it all comes down to injuries, luck, and the players themselves.

At 18 a player needs to be in the top 60 on the planet to get drafted in the top two rounds, but from there its all on the player to keep developing, taking those next steps, getting faster, getting stronger, getting smarter about nutrition and training and developing mental strength.

Additionally, a franchise needs later round picks to become significantly more important than first envisioned, something we’ve seen recently in the rise of Johnny Gaudreau, a fourth round pick three years ago.

In the end an organization needs more lottery tickets, that is a deep quantity of players in the system pushing for spots and developing in order to have quality at the NHL level, and there in lies the difference we can cling to in 2014, and my feel good finish to wrap this AHL piece up.

Rico Fata = Sven Baertschi
Derek Walser = Chad Billins
Daniel Tkaczuk = Max Reinhart
Sergei Varlamov = Corban Knight

While I’m not comparing these players in terms of style, I’m attempting to connect them in terms of how they got to the Flames organization and the role they play in this year’s playoffs.

However, my larger point is that the comparison stops there, and I haven’t found 2001 versions of Emile Poirier, Markus Granlund, Brett Kulak, Joni Ortio, Tyler Wotherspoon, to say nothing of Johnny Gaudreau, Ken Agostino and Bill Arnold.

The stable is deeper, leaving the Flames less dependent on the continued steps of two or three 21 year old hockey players.

Long or short ride from the final playoff drive of the Abbotsford Heat; the future in Calgary is looking brighter and brighter these days.

And with 5 picks in the top 90 at this year’s draft, its about to start busting at the seems.


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