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Since it’s prospect month here at FlamesNation, let’s take a look at their closest source of future Flames: the Stockton Heat.

Although things aren’t written in stone yet, here’s a preview of what Stockton looks like right now, their strengths and weaknesses, and where they could add before the season gets underway.

The forwards

New additions in bold, how acquired in brackets.

LW C RW
Justin Kirkland (UFA) Byron Froese (UFA) Buddy Robinson (UFA)
Martin Pospisil (4th round, 2018) Adam Ruzicka (4th round, 2017) Matthew Phillips (6th round, 2016)
Ryan Lomberg (NCAA FA) Glenn Gawdin (WHL FA) Eetu Tuulola (6th round, 2016)
Mason Morelli (NCAA AHL FA) Luke Philp (USports FA) Jeremy McKenna (QMJHL FA)
Alex Gallant (AHL FA)

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The strenghts for the Heat next season will be down the middle and on the right side. Starting from the centre position, the Flames added Froese as a quality veteran leadership option. Stockton didn’t name a captain last season, and they may not this season, but Froese’s the oldest, most NHL experienced player on the roster, so if it’s going to be anyone, it will be him.

Behind Froese are three Flames prospects, all with different MOs. OHL graduate Ruzicka is a glass cannon type player: he can put pucks in the net, but he also struggles with keeping them out of his own. He’ll be there to provide firepower, but will also spend a decent amount of time on his defensive game. Gawdin is a boring player, in the most positive sense of that word. He won’t do anything flashy or exceptional, but he is generally safe in all aspects of play. Philp is the unknown, having signed with the Flames out of the Canadian university system. His WHL career was pretty cookie cutter, but he seemed to turn the corner that most CHL-to-USports players don’t. He might have higher than expected upside, but at 23, he could just as easily flop out quickly.

The right wing also has a variety of interesting pieces, and will probably have the most interesting depth battles throughout the year. I put Robinson number one because he’s been a consistent offensive weapon in the AHL, but I think Phillips, and even Tuulola might see spins on the top line at various points throughout the season. If Phillips breaks through this season and shows the offensive potential he had in the WHL, he’s undeniably the best RW on this roster. Tuulola has already seen in success as a top six winger in Finland’s top league, so it’s totally feasible that he comes overseas fully assembled. Picking up the rear is McKenna, a dev camp standout with intriguing QMJHL numbers. As a late bloomer looking for an NHL contract, he’ll be eager to make a positive impression.

The only major weak point to me is the left side. I’ve put Kirkland at the top of the depth chart because, well, he’s the best of the bunch. He has three seasons of AHL experience, which is three more than Pospisil and Morelli. He’s more than a role player (Lomberg) and definitely way more than a facepuncher (Gallant), so he kind of just wins out based on that.

Pospisil and Morelli are going to be two very interesting players this season. Let’s start with the guy who is actually Flames property: Pospisil’s most recent USHL campaign proves that he has the skill and tenacity to succeed in professional hockey (albeit as an overager), but he’s been forced by circumstance to go big earlier than expected. The initial plan was that he would work out some of the kinks in his game in college, but being ruled academically ineligible threw that out of the window. Without the NCAA to act as a buffer between junior and pro, predicting Pospisil’s performance next season is essentially throwing darts at a board. The last significant prospect to go directly from the USHL to the AHL was Zemgus Girgensons, who wasn’t great after making the jump.

I also highlight Morelli because I think he has some potential. His two final college season (14 points in 16 junior games due to injury, and 34 and 36 as a senior) were strong, and he had a decent run out as an ATO, scoring four points in nine games. I’m not going to say that he’ll break out and become a found money player, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he turns enough heads to earn a contract by the end of the season.

There will definitely be some more depth headed Stockton’s way, so don’t take these lineups as guarantees. The Heat will take in a few PTO players the Flames like from training camp, and could possibly see the returns of Alan Quine and Dillon Dube depending on how things change with the big club’s roster in the next two months.

The defence

Rinat Valiev (trade) Alexander Yelesin (KHL FA)
Rob Hamilton (AHL FA) Corey Schueneman (NCAA AHL FA)
Andrew Nielsen (trade) Zac Leslie (AHL FA)

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Just a quick glance at what they have already is enough to tell you that Stockton’s defence will be their weak point again this season.

The only major addition is Yelesin, a KHL all star. Even though he hasn’t played a second of North American pro hockey, he might just be the best Stockton has, which is pretty telling. The Flames are hoping that they can fast track him to the NHL, so he’ll be seeing the most minutes of any defender on the roster. He also has job security, as he’s the only right handed defenceman on the roster.

After that, I think you can take out the blender and try to make pairings. All of the other defenders are lefties, so there’s going to be shuffling around to see what works. Valiev and Hamilton are the only two who can even come close to Yelesin, and they’re both tweeners at best. Nielsen’s time in Toronto’s system suggests that he’s better than his poor showing with the Heat, but he’s really only factored in as a physical option with questionable skills at both ends of the rink.

Of the additions, Schueneman seems to have some potential. He picked up at least 20 points in his last three seasons with Western Michigan, captaining the team in the final season. He’s kind of excessive given Calgary’s LHD depth, so I don’t think he’ll be signed at any point, but he seems to be an interesting pickup for the Heat. Leslie is an AHL veteran who’s been brought in to provide some stability.

There is the chance that they get to add one of Juuso Valimaki or Oliver Kylington back into the fold depending on whether or not a TJ Brodie trade happens (I think Brandon Davidson is the Flames’ 7D no matter what). If they get neither, they’ll likely have to resort to PTO signings and ECHL loans to fill out their blueline.

Goalies

Jon Gillies (3rd round, 2012)
Tyler Parsons (2nd round, 2016)
Artyom Zagidulin (KHL FA)

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The netminder battle will be the tightest for the Heat. There’s almost no certainty about who the best goalie is right now, but I think the solution is more simple than most think.

Gillies is coming off his worst season as a pro. He was abysmally bad, but it’s out of line with his general AHL career thus far. A bounce back isn’t impossible, but it’s not entirely meaningful to his future. Gillies is seven years removed from his draft year and still far from the NHL. If he isn’t passed on the depth chart this season, he’ll likely be passed on it by next season. If that holds true, why devote anymore time to him?

The issue is that neither of the other two goalies are sure things at this point. If Gillies returns to average Gillies, the Heat at least have a safety net in case the other goalie starts to struggle, which is likely.

Parsons is a question mark. His appearances have been heavily limited by his general health, so what he is right now is still a bit unknown. As a backup last season, he fluctuated between highs and lows, so he doesn’t have a convincing case to be a starter. Given that he’s still on an ELC, I think there might be a chance that he at least starts the season in the ECHL to get his feet under him while they figure out the overall situation in the AHL. The Flames are dedicated to his development, so it’s not as if an ECHL stint is giving up on him. But the Flames also want to challenge him, so sending him to the ECHL doesn’t entirely do that.

As the new kid in town, Zagidulin has all the hype, but has yet to prove that he’s worth it. He’s been stellar in Russia since turning pro, and it isn’t out of the question that he might steal the net, but there’s always a chance that absolutely nothing translates over, at least not in the early goings of the season.

Regardless of how he performs in the preseason, I believe he’s the most likely candidate to go down to the ECHL. It’s not a quality thing, but a convenience thing. Although some might worry that his one year deal essentially gives the Flames exactly that long to figure out what he is, that’s the only contract he could’ve signed with the club. ELC age is measured by your age on September 15th of the year your contract begins. In the eyes of the NHL, Zagidulin signed that contract as a 24 year old, although he was only 23 when he actually put pen to paper. He’ll get another contract regardless of how this year goes.

The Flames are likely to give him a year in the ECHL to acclimatize to the North American game and move him up when the goalie situation is less jumbled (wishful thinking knowing the Flames’ track record). I’m keeping him on this list because I still think there is a chance he outperforms Parsons, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up with the Mavericks to begin the year. A midseason promotion to the AHL isn’t out of the question, though.

For those curious, Nick Schneider was left off this list. He had a great eleven game stint with the Heat, but his poor performances in the ECHL are probably more accurate and telling. The Flames don’t see him in their long term plans, so tucking him away as an ECHL backup is the most likely route for him.

Final thoughts

2018-19 was a rough one for Stockton. They lost many of their best players to the Flames, especially from the blueline, and could never get regular good goaltending. That’s enough to sink an AHL team.

Unfortunately for the Stockton fans out there, this season could be more of the same, but for different reasons. The roster has seen a lot of turnover, with only nine familiar faces returning to the fold thus far. There’s a huge injection of young, rookie pro talent that will see a lot of ice time next year. It’s a great recipe for growing pains.

That just might be the way Brad Treliving likes it. He’s gone on record before as wanting the Stockton Heat to function primarily as a development team. The way the roster is set up thus far, that’s how they’ll be run again: maximizing ice time for younger players who the Flames want to see in the NHL soon. It might not change their win-loss record, but that’s what the big club wants.


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