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Calder to Stanley? Takes A Look At the Effects of Minor League Success Staff

June 1, 2001





Saint John To Calgary

By Aaron McCracken

Top five candidates to play with Calgary

I've singled out five players that I think have a legitimate shot of making the Flames' roster out of training camp.  In order of likelihood, they are:

1.  Chris Clark - He's the real deal and has the entire package (size, speed, scoring, defense, fighting).   I see him as a late-blooming power forward, possibly a Randy McKay type player.

2.  Daniel Tkaczuk - Consistency is the only thing keeping him from Calgary. After his performance in the Calder Cup finals, I think his confidence will be an all-time high during training camp.

3.  Steve Begin - The ultimate team player has what it takes to become a fixture in the NHL.  Above all, he's a "winner". 

4.  Sergei Varlamov - He's no guarantee to make the team, but snipers are a hot commodity in the NHL and Calgary could certainly use one.

5.  Darrel Scoville - A sleeper pick to make the Flames.  Of Saint John's defensemen, he's got the best chance because of his age (25), experience (3 years), and offensive capabilities. 

Players not likely to make the jump next season

I've selected ten players that I don't think fans will see on the Calgary Flames next season.  Some may return to Saint John, while others may pursue employment outside the organization.  They are, in no particular order:

1.  Rico Fata - Based on his play early in the season and during the playoffs, he just isn't consistent enough to play everyday in the NHL.  He has improved significantly as a two-way forward, but still has some work to do. 

2.  Martin Brochu - He's a UFA this summer, and with the young goaltending depth in the organization, I suspect that he won't be re-signed.

3.  Micki Dupont - A solid season, but needs more experience before getting a shot at the NHL. 

4.  Blair Betts - If Calgary needed 3rd and 4th line centres, then Betts would have a shot this season.   Needs to contribute more offensively, but he's got a bright future. 

5.  Levente Szuper - Had a great rookie season, but needs to prove that he can play more often and under pressure. 

6.  Marty Murray - A UFA who has expressed an interest in returning to Europe. 

7.  Jason Botterill - Another UFA that just doesn't have what it takes to be a NHLer. 

8.  David Roche - Doesn't appear to be in the Flames' plans.  I suspect that some NHL team will take a chance with him. 

9.  Chris St. Croix - Healthy scratch in Saint John during the playoffs.  Still has potential, but NHL future isn't a strong possibility. 

10. Derrick Walser - A UFA who is openly seeking employment with another organization.  It's a shame, but life goes on. 

Effect on Calgary

Without a doubt, winning the Calder Cup is a great experience for prospects in Saint John.  The current Calgary management has a philosophy of recalling AHL players who are ready to step into the NHL and contribute on a consistent basis.  Therefore, I see Calgary benefiting from the increased confidence and consistency in prospects and call-ups such as Tkaczuk, Varlamov, and Betts.   The "mental edge" gained from this experience should help the younger players to quickly adapt to the faster and much more competitive NHL environment.   

Effect on minor league players

Many Saint John players should benefit from winning the Calder Cup.  Fringe NHLers like Jason Botterill, Dave Roche, and Martin Brochu should attract interest from NHL clubs during the off-season.  It is unlikely that they'd receive the same interest if the Flames had been eliminated early in the playoffs.  Career minor leaguers such as Mike Martin, Rick Mrozik, Gaetan Royer, and Doug Doull will have an impressive addition on their résumé, which should pay dividends during the off-season when out-of-work IHL players are frantically seeking jobs in the AHL.  For example, there are a handful of minor league tough-guys, but only a few of them wear a championship ring.  All other things equal, teams will always take a player with a winning background over a player without one.

Overall meaning to organization

It's unlikely that the organization will see an immediate impact from Saint John's Calder Cup.  There will likely be some players join the big club this Fall, but that's not directly related to winning the cup.  However, the organization should take some satisfaction in knowing that it has a strong base of young players (and coaches) that are capable of winning in the minor leagues.  Considering that the average age of the Saint John team is 22 years old, it's conceivable that in three year's time, a few or even several of the Saint John players will be making the same impact at the NHL level.  This won't automatically make the Calgary Flames a Stanley Cup contender, but it will certainly help.   Finally, Flames management should have a great deal of confidence in the organization's minor league system.  This will ensure that prospects like Brent Krahn, Jarret Stoll, Kurtis Foster, and future draft picks are learning the Calgary system is a positive environment, thus helping to ensure that the organization has a consistent supply of young talent that will be ready to contribute at the NHL level.


You can't teach success

By D'Arcy McGrath

Fans of NHL teams that miss the playoffs often find themselves grasping at hope of any kind to turn their fortunes around.

A big trade, a key free agent signing, the drafting of an 18 year old that will somehow make a difference despite being a dot on a futuristic horizon, all get bandied about in the off season.

But what does it mean when a struggling NHL franchise suddenly find itself the parent of a championship AHL franchise? How much will that affect a turn around with the big club?

It all depends on how you look at it, or more succinctly when you look at it.

In the short term fans shouldn't expect too much from any of these players. A handful will get a longer look in training camp because of the scrutiny their play was held under in the AHL playoff drive, but none will make major impacts in the NHL next season.

As much as a player like Clarke Wilm will keep you firmly in your Saddledome seats, there is a reason he's in Calgary while others toil in Saint John - consistency. If the select few of possible Saint John graduates can find an element of consistency, they will make the team and learn on the job. If not ... more seasoning.

Long Term

The Flames may look back to the 2000-2001 season as the subtle yet effective turning point of the franchise. Possibly fans will refer to the season as BJP and AJP, or Before Jim Playfair, and after Jim Playfair.

It's ironic that the Missisauga Ice Dogs fired former Saint John coach Rick Vaive in the same week as the Baby Flames won the Calder Trophy.  Vaive all but stalled all development for Flames prospects, stunting their growth for two seasons. Playfair, in one season has managed to elevate expectations for a Flames future that appeared to be waning in recent seasons.

No matter what level is being discussed, a winning atmosphere builds winners, and that is likely the most important legacy of the 2001 Saint John Flames.

The players have learned how to play within a system because they had faith in their head coach. From this group two to four players will finally make that final step to the NHL, while the players left behind will have a renewed faith in their chances to also make the grade because of the trail blazers success.

So who will make the jump?

Possible Graduates

 1. Daniel Tkaczuk:

Daniel Tkaczuk represented the most stunning and dramatic development in the AHL playoff run. He joined the team in the second round, coming off his third concussion in four months, and immediately found his game. As the rounds progressed so did Tkaczuk's dominance. High draft picks will always score points, but the guys that do it in key situations like the Calder finals get noticed.

2. Sergei Varlamov:

Varlamov has a good chance at making the leap for two key reasons. One he led all AHL players in playoff goal scoring with 15, showing himself to still be the sniper he was in Swift Current. Plus his age dictates that he can't return to Saint John without clearing waivers, which should give him every opportunity to succeed.

3. Chris Clark:

Clark won't be a popular choice to many given his up and down, non-flashy style, but he is a very consistent hockey player. Clark spent most of the playoff flanking Daniel Tkaczuk, a position he may fill in Calgary as well.

4. Steve Begin:

The Calgary Flames lacked accountability last season, a factor that led to the firing of Don Hay. If Greg Gilbert is looking for someone to lead by example than look no further than this fireplug AHL playoff MVP. Begin was the picture of sacrifice during the playoffs, and has the rounded game to compete in the NHL.

5. Darrel Scoville:

Scoville had a tough season in Saint John, dealing with family issues that distracted him for half the season. It's fitting that the 25 year old defenceman scored the Calder Cup winning goal because it was representative of a player back on track. With uncertainty surrounding veteran defencemen in Calgary (Albelin a UFA, Werenka's concussion, Housley and Kravchuk's pending moves), Scoville could make the team as the sixth or seventh defencemen.

Looking Ahead

Not one Calder Cup Champion is likely to make the difference between playoffs or another year in frustration for the Flames next year. That's too much to expect for a player getting his feet wet at the NHL level.

However, down the road as many as 10 players from the 2001 Saint John Flames will find themselves with successful NHL careers, and with expansion behind us most will be pushing the current Calgary Flames from below.

Often the improvement of an NHL hockey team is seen in the acquisition of a big name talent, or the improvement of a can't miss franchise player, but that's not always the case. For most teams the move from dog house to pent house is a much more gradual ascent, with marginal gains in each of their 23 man roster positions. Winning the Calder Cup will put a lot more options in the pipeline, options that together will bring respectability back to the Calgary Flames.

Hold Your Horses

By Rick Charlton

When it comes to developing prospects, team championships are nice but it's the progression of individual players the parent club is ultimately interested in.

That prognosis differs little from the impact Calder Cup champions of the last decade have had on other parent clubs. Or, for that matter, no different than the meaning of any other championship earned by any other development team in any other sport.

In that light, only a handful of prospects in Saint John will likely make an impact in Calgary next season.

The single worrisome point in Saint John's victory is that it truly was a total team effort which, on the surface, I'll admit, is a remarkable criticism. For the purposes of the Calgary Flames, however, that may be the entire point. GM Craig Button praised the Flames as being "a terrific minor league team," the implication being there are no truly shining emerging talents on the roster sure to raise eyebrows in Calgary.

Looking at the opposition, Wilkes-Barre, we find Milan Kraft, a youngster with the potential to be a superb front-line NHL'er. There is also Andrew Ference, already blessed with Stanley Cup playoff experience.

For the Flames, only Daniel Tkaczuk or perhaps the nebulous Sergei Varlamov stand out as potential front-line players. Beyond those two we find the best potential among flat-nosed third and fourth line pluggers of which the parent club already has legions.

So what will this championship mean for the Calgary Flames? Unfortunately, not much unless Tkazcuk and Varlamov can prove themselves capable of snaring roster spots in October, or, and this is more likely, GM Craig Button packages some of his NHL pluggers together and trades for some skill. That in turn would open spots in Calgary for the likes of Steve Begin and Chris Clark.

This is not to belittle the accomplishments of those who put their hearts and souls on the line to bring home a championship in Saint John. But the question from 3000 miles away in Calgary is:

"Where's the beef?"

From the Saint John roster I would estimate Daniel Tkazcuk, Chris Clark, Martin Brochu, Sergei Varlamov and Steve Begin, in that order, as having the best chances of competing for spots in Calgary's opening day lineup.

Of the five names listed above, Tkaczuk probably has the best opportunity to crack the Calgary lineup given the Flames lack skilled depth at centre. A lot could happen between now and the start of training camp given it is hardly a secret Button is searching the NHL for veteran skilled forwards. If Button is successful, Tkaczuk may find himself part of a deal or frozen out for another season. Arguing against Tkaczuk is the fact an excellent playoff may not be enough to overcome the fact he has yet to be a consistent professional, at various times excelling or brooding. But Tkazcuk demonstrated in his brief stay in Calgary that he is more than capable of competing in the NHL, probably at a high level.

The Flames since the days of Doug Risebrough have talked about speed, speed, speed and while the current Flames roster is faster than most look for an increased emphasis on that quality in the coming two years. While Begin is as tough as they come, Clark is probably the better prospect for the NHL Flames for that reason alone.

Varlamov is the most intriguing prospect available from the Saint John roster, his high-end offensive potential offset by his off and on willingness to compete. To the credit of himself and Tkazcuk, both have been quoted recently as conceding their heads haven't been living up to the same level as their talent. Both now seem to understand what it will take for them to compete successfully at the NHL level.

But will that new-found attitude translate into an opening day roster spot? This might astonish some but I could see Varlamov moving up while Oleg Saprykin, now eligible for AHL duty, moves to the farm to develop his game with more ice-time than he can get in Calgary.

Missing from my list is Derrick Walser. Whatever the Flames might bid for Walser some other organization is going to have $100,000 more to get the deal done. But this situation reminds me somewhat of Ryan Bast, a $1.5 million bust for the Philadelphia Flyers. There are some battles you don't need to win and fighting over a 5'-10" defenceman might be one of them.

Although I have Brochu on my list it would not surprise me if he, along with Jason Botterill and Dave Roche along with other older professionals end up being moved to make room for a new generation of prospects. That in turn frees up more space for the likes of Fata, Begin and yes, Szuper as well.

Probably the most profound surprise of the Calder Cup championship was the development skills shown by the man in charge, Jim Playfair. While he seems to be shoving Varlamov and Tkazcuk in the right direction it will be his impact in coming years on youngsters such as Blair Betts, Rico Fata, Lavente Szuper and those to follow in coming years which will be of greatest help to Calgary.

Small market teams need to excel at player development, more so than larger markets, to overcome the fiscal disadvantages they face. But the Flames have been only modestly successful in this area, which is probably why the team continues to lounge in the NHL basement.

Playfair will be the key man in coming years.