The American Hockey League has long been the place to develop top draft picks, test potential rule changes and store players that will eventually need to be recalled. The AHL has been around in one form or another since the early 1930s, but has only really been used as an affiliate league since the late 1970s.
The Calgary Flames have relocated their affiliate team four times in the past 10 years but currently they reside in Abbotsford, British Columbia. However, the Abbotsford Heat face some significant geographic challenges. The closest team to them in distance — the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers’s farm team — are 1,548 kilometres away, and the Heat are the only AHL team west of the Central Time Zone.
As a result, there has been a lot of speculation that the Flames may look to move the team to New York state in the future but nothing concrete has been decided.
As for Flames talent in Abbotsford, TJ Brodie has spent the balance of the NHL season with the Flames, but prior to the resolution of the lockout he was playing top-pairing minutes in Abbotsford. Brodie, 22, has emerged as the Flames’s most NHL-ready prospect and has been playing big minutes since the departure of Jay Bouwmeester to the St. Louis Blues. Brodie has put up good numbers in Abbotsford, scoring at a 0.5 point-per-game rate in his 115 AHL games. He also was the team’s lone representative at the 2011 AHL All-Star Game. Brodie has been playing top-four minutes and is likely the best defender for the Flames at this point. Currently, Brodie projects to an offensive-minded number three defenseman but, based on his play this season, his ceiling may be higher than that. He will be relied upon heavily in the future.
The most well-known prospect in Calgary’s system is without question Sven Baertschi. The first-round pick in 2011 is likely the most-hyped prospect the Flames have had since defender Dion Phaneuf. Baertschi’s debut in 2012 was electric, scoring three goals over the course of his five game call-up. He started this season in the AHL with the Heat due to the lockout, where he suffered a concussion 21 games into the season. By the time he had fully recovered, the NHL was back in session and Baertschi was on the Flames’s third line. However, after 10 games and a hip flexor injury he wasn’t having the impact that was expected of him and was sent back to the AHL.
Baertschi tallied 18 points in 21 games at the AHL level prior to the NHL season and since being sent down he has scored four goals to go along with three assists in nine games. His AHL results are encouraging, and he won’t turn 21 until the start of next season, so expect big things from him in the future.
Roman Horak was acquired from the New York Rangers in the Tim Erixon trade and he has performed pretty well. He might not be producing points at the NHL level yet, but he has killer speed and started this year in Abbotsford with 12 goals in 14 games. He will be a solid third-liner in the future.
Max Reinhart, Calgary’s third round pick in 2010, has been deployed in a defence-first, shut-down role this year, so that’s where the lack of points has come from. It is significant that head coach of the Heat Troy Ward trusts a 20-year-old rookie in every situation, and Reinhart projects to a third-liner at some point in the future.
Past those four players, however, the production of the rest of the team isn’t terribly encouraging. Forward Akim Aliu hasn’t done anything to show he can be a full-time NHLer and Ben Street and Paul Byron are likely replacement-level forwards. Pending free-agents Greg Nemisz and Leland Irving likely won’t be receiving contract offers this offseason with the Flames looking to overhaul their prospect base and open up roster spots for incoming NCAA players.
Defender Chris Breen will likely get his last legitimate shot at an NHL roster spot next year and forward Lance Bouma has shown the ability to move the puck the right way at the NHL level but it is still unknown what effect missing an entire year with an injury will have on Bouma.
The Heat also have Mark Cundari, a newly acquired 22-year-old defenseman coming from the Peoria Rivermen, the St. Louis Blues’s affiliate. He will likely challenge for an NHL roster spot coming out of camp next year, but isn’t viewed as a high-impact player down the road.
Goaltender Danny Taylor has played well, but might find himself without a contract due to a glut of goaltending prospects in the Flames’s system.
When evaluating the Heat roster as a whole, it is pretty easy to see who has a chance at the NHL on this roster and who doesn’t — but most AHL teams look like this. Three or four players are out in front of the rest, and the remainder of the roster is made up of grinders hoping for one more chance at an NHL job.
One way or another, the AHL team will start to look better with prospects such as John Ramage possibly coming through next year from the NCAA. The Flames are in full-blown rebuild mode now and the changes will certainly be felt in every part of the organization, including the farm team.