SUN Hockey Pool

Flames' heat on the rise

John Gaudreau and fellow prospects good make for a bright future for the Calgary Flames. (DARREN...

John Gaudreau and fellow prospects good make for a bright future for the Calgary Flames. (DARREN MAKOWICHUK/QMI Agency)

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

There was a time not so long ago when things seemed bleak.

With few of their own developed players in the big-league lineup and not much confidence in what was growing on the farm, the Calgary Flames cupboards were considered bare as recently as just a few years ago.

But anyone who watched the summer development camp at the Don Hartman Northeast Sportsplex this week has to be happy with what’s becoming a bunker of rations for the future.

Not many — if any — of the

37 prospects who hit the ice in Calgary the past few days are expected to make a major impact in the NHL in the next year or two, but the young crop of steadily improving players, on the farm, in major junior, or in the college ranks, offers hope for a parent club still long in the tooth.

“I like our kids that are coming,” said Flames director of player development Ron Sutter. “We’ve got depth now, in terms of diversity.”

There are skilled forwards who project to top-six roles — guys like Sven Baertschi, Max Reinhart, Ryan Howse and Paul Byron — and others who, at the very least, appear capable of providing energy and responsibility along with the potential to put the occasional puck in the net — Lance Bouma, Patrick Holland and Carter Bancks are among those.

Along with the smooth-skating T.J. Brodie and still-young John Negrin who can move the puck and join the rush regularly, there are your strong and steady blueliners like Chris Breen and John Ramage progressing.

And the Flames are always on the hunt for the next Mark Giordano-type signing, inviting a handful of undrafted hopefuls to the summer camp, some of which will likely join the prospect tournament in Penticton in the fall.

“It’s a great blend,” said Sutter, who has been with the Flames in some capacity for more than a decade. “This has been our best camp in all my years being with the Flames.”

Dealing with players ranging from their teens to early 20s, nothing is certain when it comes to their futures. But 2011 fourth-rounder John Gaudreau made waves because of both his lack of height (generously listed at 5-foot-8) and raw skills exhibited in drills and Thursday’s scrimmage, and he’s not alone in impressing those watching the action.

Byron is small but speedy and has a knack of making things happen. Flames staffers expect him to be knocking on the door this year.

Baertschi will also be given every opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL — much like fellow Swiss sniper Nino Niederreiter with the New York Islanders last year — before they decide whether or not to ship him back to the WHL Portland Winterhawks.

And if neither of them make it with the Flames this fall, the team will continue to practise patience with the hope the payoff in the form of a youth movement is coming shortly.

Other question marks remain: Can Negrin and Mitch Wahl stay healthy and take advantage of possible call-ups? Can goalie Joni Ortio push Leland Irving for playing time between the pipes in the quest to be the next Flames starter? Can Howse and Chilliwack Bruins linemate Roman Horak light it up in the pros the way they did in junior? Is Breen the next Giordano or Adam Pardy on the blueline? Does Brodie stick with the Flames full-time this season?

While waiting for answers, at least you can rest easy knowing they’re legitimate questions, about legitimate prospects.

There was a time, not so long ago, the answers were too easy to guess.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca


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