Jon Bateman The Hockey Writers
Who Can Help Flames’ Defense?
Every time Dennis Wideman pinches in from the point, head coach, Glen Gulutzan and the Calgary Flames collectively must hold their breath. All too often a speedy winger will chip the puck off the boards to create an odd-man rush and the result is often a goal against. Wideman isn’t the only problem however. The trio of Jyrki Jokipakka, along with prospects Tyler Wotherspoon and Brett Kulak have not been consistently good enough for the Flames this season. In fact, all three have done time in the press box with only Jokipakka being able to successfully avoid a trip to the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League thanks to his one-way contract.
So, let’s examine the best of the Calgary Flames prospects on defence. Here are the top prospects in order of NHL-readiness in my opinion:
Back on Dec. 8th, the Flames sent Brett Kulak down to the Stockton Heat to give the 22-year-old defender more ice time in a top pairing role. He had been with the Flames since mid-October after being called up when the Nicklas Grossman experiment in Calgary failed miserably. Last season, Kulak was the best defenceman in the Flames system and earned his spot this season by just being reliable.
Kulak isn’t flashy or offensively gifted as you’ll see in the fluke video clip above but he can usually put together 15 minutes per game of solid defensive play. He’s a solid skater who is good with the puck but he doesn’t have a big physical presence at 6′ 1″ and 187 pounds. Basically, Kulak is good but not great in any one area and the Flames felt his play was stagnating earlier this season, so he was sent down and replaced with Wotherspoon.
Tyler Wotherspoon has only played a handful of games with the Flames so far this season averaging just ten minutes of ice time per game. Right now, he doesn’t yet have Glen Gulutzan’s full confidence to play well defensively at the NHL level. He also hasn’t yet been able to register a shot and has a plus-minus rating of minus-1 in his short stint in Calgary. His aren’t great but they have been pretty strong with the Stockton Heat this season as he has a team-leading plus minus rating of plus-16 to go along wit a goal and five assists in 20 games. He has more offensive upside than Kulak but isn’t as strong defensively and is average at best with his physical play. Right now, Wotherspoon is a fringe NHL player whose time to impress in Calgary is quickly running out.
Even though he’s only in his first AHL season, Rasmus Andersson is quickly becoming a very intriguing Flames prospect. You can read a more in-depth analysis in this article. The attributes that impress most when it comes to Andersson are his play making abilities, his puck moving skill and his overall poise. At just 20 years old, he is showing great promise as a potential top-four defenceman in his first AHL season and is also proving to be very durable at 6′ 1″, 214 pounds. He has regularly faced off against stronger skill players this season and still holds an impressive plus-minus rating of plus-14 as a rookie.
The Flames went with a very high risk/high reward prospect when they selected Oliver Kylington with the 60th pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Kylington was originally projected to be a top ten pick but his stock fell in his draft season thanks to an injury and a demotion to play in a lower level Swedish league with players his own age. Scouts worried that he had a bad attitude and that the defensive gaps in his game might not improve enough for him to play in the NHL.
However, Kylington is also nothing short of an elite skater with a tremendous offensive upside. Yes, gaps in his defensive play do exist but in his rookie season in Stockton he still holds a respectable plus-minus rating of plus-7. He also earned a roster spot with Team Sweden at the 2017 World Junior Championships as well. Need more convincing? Former Flame, Hakan Loob called Kylington an unbelievable skater who can take the puck in his own end and be an offensive threat against any team in any league. That’s a lot of upside but judging from some of the turnovers he has given up in Team Sweden’s games at the World Juniors, Kylington still has lots of work to do. Check out the Stockton Heat broadcast blog for more about Oliver.
Does a future Harvard graduate who can speak Zulu have a place on the Flames blue line? Tod Button, director of amateur scouting seemed to think so when he told CalgaryFlames.com, “He’s an undersized defenceman, but he’s really smart and he’s a skill guy.”
At just 5′ 10″, 181 pounds, Fox is a smaller defender but he is currently playing for Team U.S.A. at the World Junior Championships and he also set a single-season record for points by a defenceman in the USHL with 59 through 64 games. It’s hard to argue with those results but Fox is just 18 and his journey to the Flames line-up will likely be a long one.
The Bottom Line
The painful truth for the Calgary Flames is that they just don’t have an NHL-ready defenceman who can consistently help them this season. The future on the blue line does have some impressive bright spots however. Andersson, Kylington and Fox are likely to be solid NHL players one day but if the Flames are seeking depth to help them with a playoff run this year they won’t find it without making a trade.
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