Outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NHL Entry Draft is the most exciting time of the year on the hockey calendar. In the lead up to the traditional June draft, barstool debates break out across the country on the pros and cons of a team selecting this player and not that one. As many fans would tell it, the future of their team rides not on trades or free agent signings, but primarily on the draft choices club management makes.
That may be true for many franchises, but the reality for the Calgary Flames over most of their history is that they’ve never had much success building through the draft. The statistics show that the vast majority of players Calgary and other NHL franchises draft never even make it to the NHL. That’s to be expected, but what sets the Flames apart from other teams is that of their picks that do make it, not many seem to pan out the way anybody had hoped and even more of them fade away or get traded away.
What’s more, outside of the very top picks, draft position is a very unreliable predictor of who is going to succeed as a Flame. Many a high draft pick has floundered with Calgary while low picks became franchise legends.
The Calgary Flames’ Draft Experience by the Numbers
Calgary’s middling success as a drafting team is evident by looking at the 167 players the Flames selected over the 20-year period from 1997-2017. Players selected in the 2017 Draft and later can’t fairly be considered in this debate because they haven’t yet had a fair chance to make the Flames’ roster.
Only 72 of the 167 players chosen (43%) managed to play in an NHL game, but just 32, or about one in five, ever played more than 100 games in the league. This is below the figure for the NHL as a whole, where about 28% of players drafted manage to play at least 100 games. Of the 32, only 20 of them suited up in the Flaming C for 100 games. Keep in mind that 100 games is just a little more than one season in the league.
Of the 167 draftees, the number that made a significant impact in Calgary by playing more than 300 games in the Saddledome sporting a Flames’ sweater, stands at just nine (5%). Five of those nine players were Calgary first-round picks — Dion Phaneuf (ninth overall), Mikael Backlund (24th overall), Sean Monahan (sixth overall), Sam Bennett (fourth overall) and Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall).
What is telling is that the latter four are on the roster for the 2021-22 season. This is both testimony to how poorly the team’s first-round draft picks worked out prior to the 2007 Draft when Backlund was selected and a hopeful sign that team management is doing a better job of developing and retaining recent first-round picks. Almost half the starting roster for the 2021-22 season features Flames draft picks.
The Impact of the Draft on the Flames
Calgary’s first-round picks are not long-lived in the league. Phaneuf is one of the few players the Flames drafted in the first round who played more than 1,000 games in the NHL. His appearances in 1,048 games over the course of his career puts him alongside Flames first-round picks Al MacInnis (1,416 games) and Gary Roberts (1,224 games).
Conventional wisdom is that the higher the round in which a player is chosen, the more long-lived their career is likely to be. In Calgary, experience suggests the opposite where Flames’ draft picks with careers spanning more than 1,000 games in the NHL and who distinguished themselves as top-tier players were mostly low picks.
On the list are Brett Hull (sixth-round pick), Gary Sutter (ninth-round pick), Theo Fleury (eighth-round pick), Derek Morris (13th-round pick) and Joe Nieuwendyk (second-round pick). None of this says much for Calgary’s scouting reports.
The Flames may be able to take some consolation given that the entry draft, while still key to building a team, is becoming less critical. A 2018 study of NHL players showed that 20% were undrafted.
In Calgary team captain Mark Giordano, as well as newly acquired defenseman Chris Tanev were both undrafted. Other undrafted Calgary impact players include Hockey Hall of Fame member Joe Mullen who played during five seasons in Calgary beginning in the mid-’80s, Joel Otto who played 11 seasons in Calgary and helped lead the team to a Stanley Cup in 1989 and Jamie Macoun, also a member of that Cup-winning team.
There are a lot of reasons why many of the Flames’ first-round picks since 1997 did not make the impact on the team that was expected. Some such as Daniel Tkaczuk, the Flames’ top pick in the 1997 Draft, were never able to make the tough transition to the NHL. Others were plagued with injuries.
In other cases, poor chemistry with the team or disciplinary problems resulted in either the player requesting a trade or being happily shipped out of town with a sigh of relief by team management. To be fair, none of this is unique to the Flames. Making a successful first-round draft pick is at best a crap shoot.
Goaltender Draft Picks Are Really Tough
When it comes to drafting goalies, the only luck the Flames have had is the bad variety. Perhaps the biggest draft bust in Calgary’s history was goaltender Brent Krahn. After a highly successful junior career with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, the Flames chose him in the first round of the 2000 Draft, just the second goalie selected that year after Rick DiPietro — another drafting disaster.
Krahn played just one game in the NHL and it wasn’t even for the Flames! He toiled mostly in the American Hockey League, was plagued by injuries and retired in 2011. What made Krahn such a bitter pill to swallow was that the Flames could have chosen goalie Ilya Bryzgalov or Justin Williams.
Related: Top Three All Time Flames Goalies
The biggest lesson in the sad saga of Brent Krahn is that the true cost of a first-round draft pick gone wrong is the other players a team passes over. Many teams including the Flames are often left lamenting what might have been.
Ironically it was Bryzgalov who almost single-handedly eliminated the Flames in their Quarter Final series with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2006 — the year Miikka Kiprusoff, drafted 116th overall, won the Vezina Trophy. By 2006, Krahn was a distant memory for the Flames.
Calgary Flames Need to Draft Better
The Flames have never been noted as a strong drafting team. They have had far more luck building the team through trades (Jarome Iginla), free agency signings (Chris Tanev and Jakob Markstrom from the Vancouver Canucks), and old-fashioned player development.
Still, whether they are good at it or not, the draft is a vital building tool that teams can’t ignore. If the right picks are made, it can be the least expensive way to build a team over the long run. For teams whose window on a Stanley Cup win is closing, draft picks and prospects are a way to buy players who can help the team win now. What’s more, without draft picks, there is very little to develop.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney