'Be difference-makers': For Wranglers who spent time with Flames, expectations are high

‘This is an opportunity for them to continue getting better and help the team win’

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When their second-round series against the Coachella Valley Firebirds kicks off on Friday, the Calgary Wranglers will be armed with eight players who made NHL appearances this season.

They’ve also got a whole host of guys who were knocking on the door for playing time with the Calgary Flames this year. It’s definitely not like the guys who played in the NHL this year are the only ones worth paying attention to, that’s simply untrue — and a little unfair to the rest of the guys, if we’re being honest about it.

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But if you’re a Flames fan who is fascinated by Dustin Wolf’s continued development between the pipes … or how Jakob Pelletier is rebuilding from the shoulder surgery that disrupted his season … or wants to see how Matthew Coronato can use the experience he gained in his first pro season … well, right about now would be a good time to start paying attention to the Wranglers.

And in the eyes of Flames head coach Ryan Huska, getting in some playoff action with the Wranglers could be invaluable for all of the in-development young players.

“Other than Stanley Cup playoffs and playing games that matter as you come towards the end of the season, it’s the next best thing,” Huska said at the Flames’ end-of-season media availability last week. “When you have young guys who are in those situations there’s a heightened level of pressure, of course, every play in the game matters. You learn quickly what’s the difference between winning and losing.”

Jakob Pelletier Calgary Wranglers
Jakob Pelletier, No. 49, and the Calgary Wranglers. Terence Leung/Calgary Wranglers

The 2023-24 season was a year of transition for the Flames. They traded away veterans who were set to become unrestricted free agents and got younger. Even if a few of those established NHL guys had chosen to sign on the dotted line and extend their stays in Calgary, Craig Conroy had made it a priority to find opportunities for young players. He said that explicitly when he got the Flames’ general manager job last spring.

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And that didn’t always make life easy for the Wranglers.

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When guys earned a shot through their play in the AHL, the Flames were more than willing to give them a go in the NHL. That wasn’t always true when Darryl Sutter was head coach.

On the one hand, that served as motivation for guys when they were with the Wranglers.

On the other, it meant that guys like Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil left the Wranglers early in the year and never came back. Wolf, the AHL’s top goalie the last couple years, played 17 games with the Flames this year. Coronato basically split his time between the teams, playing 34 games with the Flames and 41 with the Wranglers. Ilya Solovyov, Adam Klapka, Cole Schwindt, Jordan Oesterle and Yan Kuznetzov all spent time with the Flames, too, and are now back for the playoff push.

Matt Coronato at Calgary Wranglers practice
Calgary Wranglers forward Matt Coronato was photographed during team practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday, January 5, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Having those guys come in and out of the lineup was obviously a little disruptive for the AHL team and they wound up with a 35-28-6-3 record, but getting guys back for the playoffs after they’ve gained some NHL experience can only be a good thing.

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The Wranglers were considered underdogs heading into their first-round playoff series against the Tuscon Roadrunners, but swept them aside confidently.

“They should have confidence now, they’ve done great things in the American League before,” Huska said. “What we need is for them to be impact players and help the team win. It’s not just going down there and being a body that’s being put on the ice, they have to take this as an opportunity to be difference-makers when they step on the ice. That’s what the Wranglers need of them and long-term, that’s what we need of them.

“This is an opportunity for them to continue getting better and help the team win.”

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