Wranglers clinch AHL playoff berth, and that’s ‘a really big thing’ for the Flames

Wranglers GM Brad Pascall: ‘The opportunity for our group to play in the playoffs, we think it’s tremendous as part of their development’

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The news was made official as Connor Zary hustled to gear down for an interview on Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours, as Martin Pospisil relaxed at his locker stall after another night of his wrecking-ball routine and as Dustin Wolf peeled off his pads after his latest appearance as the big-league backup.

It was confirmed late Saturday that the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers, their roster depleted by countless call-ups, have secured an invite to the Calder Cup playoffs.

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The Wranglers’ season could already be declared a resounding success, based simply on the number of guys who have proven ready for primetime, but this is another major development for an organization in the early stages of a youth movement.

“For us, I think anytime you can play your group of prospects in pressure environments, where every play matters, I think that’s really, really important for their development,” said Brad Pascall, vice-president of hockey operations for the Flames and general manager for the Wranglers. “And to have the opportunity for our group to play in the playoffs, we think it’s tremendous as part of their development.”

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“It’s a really big thing,” agreed Flames head coach Ryan Huska, formerly the skipper for Calgary’s top affiliate. “When you look at the year they’ve had, we’ve taken a lot of guys off their roster. A lot of guys. And for them to keep trudging along the way they have and finding ways to win, with us having taken a lot of their best players … I think it’s a credit to their entire staff, from Pasc to (Trent) Cull and to all of the guys there.

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“And to get the opportunity to play and hopefully play a long time in the playoffs is valuable for young guys. You don’t get that experience anywhere else. We have talked a lot about the American League and how important it is for young guys and that you don’t have to feel like you have to rush them. It’s OK for them to play there. It’s even better if they get playoff experience.”

This spring, they will. That’s now a certainty.

While a few of the Flames’ most promising prospects — a list that also includes rookie right-winger Matt Coronato — are currently on NHL employ, it’s crucial that this pipeline continues to pump. It’ll be a slow retool if you can’t grow your own, and that includes the sort of supporting pieces necessary to surround the star power that you hope to find in the NHL Draft.

Calgary Flames vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Calgary Flames forward Matt Coronato, right, celebrates a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights with MacKenzie Weegar, centre, and Dryden Hunt at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Photo by Brent Calver /Postmedia

Young prospects powering Wranglers’ success

After splitting a weekend set against the San Jose Barracuda, collecting two points Friday before falling in Sunday’s rematch at the Saddledome, the Wranglers now own a 34-24-8 record. With six regular-season dates remaining, they’re scrapping for home-ice advantage in what will be a best-of-three opening-round showdown.

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What’s especially encouraging is when you scan the roster, so many of their key cogs are between the ages of 20 and 23.

Their most dangerous offensive threat, especially over the last while, has been Adam Klapka, an imposing presence with intriguing potential.

Jakob Pelletier is back with the farm club, determined to rediscover his confidence and ensure that injuries don’t spoil his entire season, while Cole Schwindt is being molded as a shutdown-type centre and William Stromgren has shown flashes of high-end skill as he’s adjusted to the smaller sheet. (Stromgren, a 20-year-old Swede, scored a jaw-dropper of a shootout goal on a recent roadie to Colorado.)

The Wranglers’ blue-line features four up-and-comers who could, sooner than later, be pushing for NHL jobs — Artem Grushnikov, Yan Kuznetsov, Jeremie Poirier and Ilya Solovyov. Joni Jurmo, freshly signed to an entry-level contract, is now trying to muscle into the rotation on the back-end.

Coronato and Wolf, who both scored invites to the 2024 AHL All-Star Classic, are also eligible to return to the minors for the post-season push.

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Calgary Flames vs. Montreal Canadiens
Calgary Flames goaltender Dustin Wolf blocks a shot from Montreal Canadiens forward Cole Caufield at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Saturday, March 16, 2024. Photo by Leah Hennel /Getty Images

‘We want to create a winning environment’

Does Calder Cup playoff experience make a difference? Can it be a springboard to future success?

The Flames believe so.

They’ll point to guys like Pospisil — he scored a goal and racked up five more hits in Saturday’s 4-2 slump-buster against the Los Angeles Kings — and Zary as proof of it. Those rookie standouts, between them, have totalled 33 spring spins at the AHL level.

“I think it’s made the transition easier for them, quite honestly, playing in meaningful games and playing in high-pressure games, like you see in the playoffs,” Pascall said. “To make the jump from the American League to the NHL is a big one, but to have that confidence level that, ‘Hey, I’ve played in front of big crowds and in tight games … ’ I mean, that’s what the NHL is. I think that’s what it’s shown to me — it’s shown that the transition for those guys is just a little bit easier from the experience they went through with the Wranglers.

“We want to create a winning environment, create a successful environment. The first step in that is to make the playoffs, and we’re really excited about that. And then really, it’s up to the group to see where they go from there.”

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