Why Jakob Pelletier could factor into the Flames’ plans next season: ‘He’s a special player’

At his first NHL training camp, Jakob Pelletier wanted to show the Flames the kind of player he was.

Hey didn’t.

After making it through the first round of cuts — that mostly included players heading back to major junior hockey — Pelletier was assigned to the Stockton Heat; 10 days, and a few preseason games, after Calgary’s main NHL camp had opened among a second-round of cuts that included fellow top prospects in Dustin Wolf and Adam Ruzicka.

Pelletier admitted he was a bit “stressed” during camp, and did not play his game. Not the way he would have liked to watch with the Flames front office and coaching staff.

“I would have loved to stay a little bit longer, but I don’t think I showcased what I’m capable of,” Pelletier told The Athletic Wednesday afternoon. “That kind of fueled me to show the organization that they didn’t pick the wrong guy at 26 overall in 2019.”

He’s spent the last nine months doing just that.

Pelletier has excelled in his first year as a pro, scoring 27 goals — second among rookies — and 62 points — which ranked third — in 66 games; He finished 17th leaguewide in both points and goals as a 20-year-old. He’s been a central figure and top-line player on one of the best teams in the league and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team last month.

He took a tough week in September and turned it into a standout rookie campaign that could see him pushing for a roster spot the next time he steps onto the ice at an NHL training camp. If the fall rolls around and the Flames are looking for a skilled winger to play in the top-nine — for whatever reason — Pelletier might be the guy.

“He’s had a tremendous rookie season,” said Stockton coach Mitch Love. “I think it’s a great first step for him.”

After he was assigned to Stockton, Pelletier said Flames coach Darryl Sutter gave him some advice: Go play, develop and adapt to the pro level in the American League.

Others in Pelletier’s camp told him to just play the game as he did in junior, the game that had the Flames select him in the first round three years ago.

“I think I was kind of stressed again the first game,” Pelletier said. “You dream of playing pro hockey, and it wasn’t the big league, but still pro hockey. I was just excited for the new chapter of my life.”

Once the first game was under his belt, Pelletier said he felt more comfortable on the ice at the AHL level. It showed almost right away.

After being held off the scoresheet in his debut, Pelletier scored four points in his next two games, including two game-winning goals. By the end of the season, he set a franchise record for points by a rookie.

Pelletier’s offensive production should not come as a surprise.

Every step of the way, he has been one of the most productive players in junior hockey in his age group, particularly in his final season with Val-d’Or where he led his team in scoring in the regular season and playoffs. His season total of 66 points in 43 games paced for more than 100 points over a full season. For his efforts, Pelletier was named a finalist for QMJHL MVP and a First-Team All-Star.

He’s also shown he can be productive on the world stage — most notably at the 2020-21 World Junior Championship where he emerged as one of Canada’s most complete players and finished tied for fourth in team scoring.

Putting up big numbers in junior hockey or the AHL doesn’t always mean a prospect’s game will translate to the next level. There are plenty of productive players who don’t make the jump. But it’s not just the offensive numbers that make people in the organization optimistic about Pelletier’s game.

He’s a smaller player in stature — listed at 5-foot-9, 160-pounds — but doesn’t necessarily fit a typical small player mold. He’s excellent at getting to the net front, he’ll win puck battles in the corners and is an active forechecker in all three zones.

Of course, Pelletier has offensive talent — good hands, a nice shot, excellent vision and passing ability — as highlighted by his stat line. But smaller details — and high hockey IQ — are key in Pelletier’s game too. He tracks pucks well. Has excellent awareness on the ice, of opponents and where his teammates are going to be in the offensive zone. He has the ability to break up plays with an active stick. He can strip the puck off opposing players. He can drive play with the puck on his stick, or he can float to open space. There are many ways Pelletier has been able to make an impact this season, and that makes him a valuable asset for the Flames.

“He’s a very special player,” teammate Justin Kirkland said. “He’s kind of like an energizer bunny for us, just never gets tired. Obviously, the stats speak for themselves in terms of offense. He’s very crafty at finding different ways to score, finding in quiet ice, and for a younger guy who’s maybe not as big in stature, he’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas.”

Pelletier plays in all situations for the heat, including the power play, penalty kill and crucial moments when protecting a lead or pushing for a game-winner. This season, he scored two short-handed goals and eight game-winning goals. In the playoffs, through seven games, he’s third on the team with three goals, and six points through the first seven games of what the team hopes will continue to be a long playoff run.

Stockton is set to begin the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Wolves on Friday night.

“He gives it his all each and every shift he’s out there,” Wolf said on a Zoom call from Chicago on Wednesday. “He’s done a tremendous job over the whole entire season, especially in the playoffs and when it comes down to big moments, he can bury some critical goals (for us).”

When asked to describe his game, Pelletier said he’s “small” but “gritty,” someone who can create offense for his team, but also be effective in the defensive zone too. It’s that style and his habits, he says, that has helped him transition from junior to the pro level smoothly. So has the desire to prove people wrong.

At various points in his career, Pelletier has been called too small. Not quick enough or quite good enough for his size to translate to the NHL level. He’s heard it all.

“I’m not a big guy, so a lot of people have doubted me,” he said. And that’s what boosts me; to prove people wrong.

“It’s been a great season so far,” he added. “But I think I can still step up my playoff game.”

That desire to continue to get better is something that stands out almost immediately when speaking to Pelletier. There is always something to improve. There is always something he can do to help his team more. That much was apparent when the Flames drafted him in 2019.

“When you take a guy, (you have to make sure), ‘Does he have the juice to make sure he’s going to do everything he can?’” GM Brad Treliving said on Day 1 of the 2019 Draft. “If he needs to work on his skating, if he needs to get stronger, is he going to have the DNA to make sure he’s putting the work in? This kid, he’s going to make it or die trying.”

It holds true today.

“He just wants to get better and I think anytime you put work into your craft and you want to get better you find results,” Love said Wednesday. “If you asked him, he’d say he has a lot of work to do in his game to eventually hopefully play in the National Hockey League for the Flames.

“He’s making a good case for it in his first year of hockey with the organization.”

Could Pelletier make the Flames out of training camp next season?

It’s difficult to answer this early into the offseason with so many open questions about the 2022-23 Flames. Not to mention, Pelletier is still playing his rookie year with potentially more to show as the heat get deeper into the playoffs.

The final 20 games in the AHL are tough because teams are jostling for position in the standings. Getting into the playoffs, and closer to a Calder Cup Final, only ups the ante. These are critical development moments. They’re important for evaluation too, as stretches like this will help better inform the organization as to whether Pelletier could be ready for the NHL.

There’s also the Flames depth chart — and the big offseason decisions to come — that we need to consider.

A few months ago, colleague Scott Wheeler said Pelletier, a left winger, is “going to fit in nicely in Calgary as a versatile top-nine guy.”

In the playoffs, the Flames left wing features Johnny Gaudreau, Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube.

Will one of those players be out the door this summer, thus creating a hole in the top nine? Could Dube slide to the center position and open up a third-line spot on the wing for Pelletier to snatch?

It’s unfair to expect Pelletier to beat out Mangiapane in training camp. Or to think he’d benefit from playing on the fourth line; that would more likely stunt his development. So, really, without a glaring hole in the top nine, it’s hard to see him making the jump out of camp. But, that’s not to say he can’t steal a spot, play his offside, or have someone else swap over if he’s good enough to force the team’s hand.

“I’m never going to sit here and pigeonhole a player in terms of where they’re going to end up and the timeline,” Love said when asked if Pelletier could be in Calgary next year. “But I could tell you that he’s a young man that’s going to push the envelope to have people make decisions on him.”

Given the Flames’ cap crunch, it would benefit the team to have someone like Pelletier, still on his entry-level contract, make the jump to becoming an NHL contributor. The organization already has eyes on that.

“In order for your team to get better because of salary cap and because of development and because of schedule for younger players, you need one or two or three guys to push to make teams,” Sutter said at a season-ending media availability on wednesday “If you look at this past season, a boy like (Oliver) Kylington, who came in and made the team. He did it the way you’re supposed to do it. Instead of being given a job, he came and earned his job. That’s what those guys are doing in Stockton now.”

On Wednesday afternoon, three members of the Stockton Heat had a similar story to share.

It doesn’t matter where you are in Stockton Arena — the Heat’s current home base before moving to Calgary in 2022-23 — if you’re in the building, “you will hear Jakob Pelletier talking somewhere,” Kirkland laughed.

“If you’re around our room, you know when he’s coming,” Wolf said. “He’s a ball of energy…I think that’s just the way he lives his life and the way he plays his game.”

People will tell you about Pelletier’s business-like approach to the game, but also his positive attitude and ability to keep things light off the ice.

“He’s always talking, he’s always having fun, he’s always smiling,” Kirkland said. “The people of Calgary, whenever he ends up being there, they’re going to love him.”

He’s only 20 years old with 72 pro games under his belt, but it’s clear that Pelletier fits in just fine with his Stockton teammates, some up to 11 years his senior. It helps that there are several young prospects on the team in his situation too, like his roommate Connor Zary (20), Wolf (21), or “older” players like Glenn Gawdin or Matthew Phillips – his roommate on road trips — to take Pelletier under their wing.

“It’s been great to have them,” he said.

But, mostly, it’s Pelletier’s personality that helped him transition — on and off the ice — to pro hockey.

“As good as a player he is on the ice, he’s an even better person off of it,” Kirkland said. “He’s been a big part of our team off the ice.”

This is the same player who was a captain in the QMJHL. The leader who went viral for hugging his teammates after losing to Team USA in the gold medal game at the World Juniors and had been called the “sunshine” in Canada’s dressing room. The person who reached out to Flames’ assistant general manager Chris Snow — who was diagnosed with ALS in 2019 — to check in with Snow and his family via FaceTime.

“What kind of team guy he is and what kind of glue guy he is, even as a young player, is pretty impressive to watch,” Love said in a previous interview with The Athletic. “And it’s all natural. This is him to a T. This is what he is for any hockey team I’ve been a part of and what I hear from the teams that he played for in Quebec.”

“We’re all very happy to see him have the success that he has because he’s an incredible person,” Kirkland said. “People in Calgary will get to know him soon enough and I think he’ll be a fan favorite for a long time.”

(Top photo: Devin Manky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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