After the World Junior Championships, the NCAA’s Johnny Gaudreau received a lot of attention from Flames fans. However, the NCAA is not recognized as the premier developmental league for junior prospects. That distinction belongs to the Canadian Hockey League.
The CHL is made up of three sub-leagues: the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Each league covers a specific geographical area. The CHL has been around since 1975, with its three leagues undergoing very little change during that time. The league is unique in that for all intents and purposes the WHL, OHL and QMJHL are all separate entities yet they all play for the same championship trophy: the Memorial Cup.
The Memorial Cup is also unique. The tournament always takes place in one of the 52 Canadian cities within the league, and the teams participating are the three regional champions as well as the host team. It’s a bit of an odd setup, but the past few years the Memorial Cup has been one of the most satisfying tournaments to watch as a hockey fan.
The quality of play in the CHL is elite — CHL players are constantly in contention for the first overall pick in the NHL draft. This year, three or four — depending on which scout you fancy — of the top-five players in the draft will come from the CHL, including the number-one pick, expected to be either Halifax Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon or Portland Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones.
Tyler Wotherspoon, the Calgary Flames’s most prominent CHL prospect, is from the Winterhawks. A second-round pick in the 2011 entry draft, Wotherspoon has gone from strictly a defensive player to one who’s scored .55 points per game as a defenceman.
He has played on the top defensive paring in Portland the past two years, making it to the WHL finals last year before losing to the Oil Kings in six games. Wotherspoon also had an excellent camp in December at the world junior tryouts and earned a spot on the Canadian world junior team, where he quickly moved his way up the lineup and solidified himself as head coach Steve Spott’s top shutdown option.
The Edmonton Oil Kings are backstopped by another Flames prospect: Laurent Brossoit. Brossoit has performed above expectations since being picked in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. Last year, he made 1558 saves en route to a 42–13–5 record and a .915 save percentage. The playoffs are where he really showed his stuff — a 16–4–2 record to go along with a .933 save percentage earned him an invite to this year’s world junior camp. However, even though Brossoit only allowed 1.5 goals per game in camp, he was cut from the roster. There was a lot of confusion surrounding the decision, but Brossoit was unfazed as he returned to the Oil Kings, where his already stellar .920 save percentage and 12–3–3 record has now improved to a .925 save percentage and a 24–6–5 record. Brossoit has a .936 save percentage and a 12–3–2 record since returning from the camp.
The Flames have more depth in the CHL in players like Coda Gordon, Ryan Culkin, Brett Kulak and Patrick Sieloff — but all were just drafted this year and their potential ceilings are unknown. Then 17 years old, Gordon scored at a high rate but suffered from a fractured femur and missed a significant amount of playing time. As a result, he dropped to the sixth round, but he has scored 46 points in 51 games this year. Culkin, Kulak and Sieloff are all defenders playing top-end minutes for all of their teams but at this point in their careers, they have yet to develop into two-way players, as Kulak and Sieloff are typical bruisers and Culkin often abandons his post on the blue line to join the rush. Sieloff played at the 2013 World Juniors for the United States, but was used mostly as a sixth defenceman.
The Flames don’t really have any elite prospects at the CHL level, but there is quite a mix of talent as well as a long time for the players to develop in the Flames organization. If even two of the six players mentioned become regular NHLers, the Flames’s drafting will have been quite successful.