It is incredibly rare that a hockey executive’s tenure with a club becomes embodied in a single player. However, for the Calgary Flames, the tenure of former general manager Jay Feaster is encompassed in one individual: Providence College senior Mark Jankowski. Four years and four seasons after his initial selection, the 2012 first round selection is finally on the verge of turning pro.
THE FEASTER FAMINE
Feaster was hired as the Flames assistant general manager in July 2010 and it soon became obvious to outsiders that the former Tampa Bay Lightning executive was the heir apparent to then-GM Darryl Sutter’s job. After the Flames got off to a rough start in 2010-11, the Flames asked Sutter to step aside and Feaster moved into the big chair, seeking to modernize the hockey club with a credo of “intellectual honesty.” Instead, Feaster played the part of the famed emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burned; under his tenure, the bottom finally fell out on the Flames aging core and the team finally began a rebuild.
Instead of a legacy of “intellectual honesty,” Feaster’s time in Calgary has been defined by several head-scratching moves:
- Trading for the rights of Dennis Wideman and signing him to a long-term, big-money contract, one of several big cap-hit deals that he signed that didn’t really pan out. Wideman’s deal is particularly bad given that he was (and is) a power-play specialist with questionable defensive abilities in his own end. $5.25 million per season for a guy that needs sheltered minutes is a bit much.
- Signing Colorado Avalanche holdout Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet while he was playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, not realizing that the newly-signed NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement clearly stated that O’Reilly would have had to go through waivers to play for the Flames. Luckily for the Flames the Avalanche matched the offer sheet, as otherwise the Flames would have lost a pair of top-60 draft picks…and the player.
- Trading Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester to kick-off Calgary’s rebuild, but receiving rather underwhelming returns. Iginla netted a late first round pick and a pair of obscure college prospects. Bouwmeester fetched an obscure European goalie, a minor-league defenseman and a late first round pick. To contrast, Kris Russell recently landed the Flames high-scoring WHL prospect Brett Pollock, a solid young NHL defenseman in Jyrki Jokipakka, and a conditional second round pick (which could be converted into a late first if Dallas has playoff success). Trade markets obviously differ from year to year, but one of those returns is significantly better than the other two.
- The final move of Feaster’s time as general manager sent a sixth round pick to Dallas for minor-leaguer Lane MacDermid, who reportedly was losing his patience with professional hockey and retired just three months later.
Due to his status as a former first round selection of the Flames, Jankowski has become an enduring monument to Feaster. The Flames came into the 2012 NHL Draft without a second round selection, as they had traded it the year prior to rid themselves of Ales Kotalik’s awful contract. When it came to their pick at 14th overall in the first round, the Flames traded down to 21st overall and recouped a second round pick for their troubles. Then they selected Jankowski at 21st overall, rather than the highly-touted Olli Maatta. Then both Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod went out before the media to defend the pick – both at the draft and in the following weeks – touting Jankowki as someone that would be recognized as the best player in that draft in 10 years and comparing him to Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk.
Through no fault of his own, a then-17-year-old kid became forever linked to that statement and the baggage it carried with it. Before he had played a single game of college hockey fans and pundits were immediately comparing him to Maatta, taken immediately after him. The more Feaster and the hockey operations staff tried to defend the move, the worse fan sentiment got. Before he had even gotten out of the gate, Jankowski was labelled as a bust.
THE JANKOWSKI ASCENSION
Following his initial selection, Jankowski’s first exposure to Flames fans was at summer development camp – where he came in as a lanky 6’3″, 170-pound 17-year-old from a Quebec prep school. Based on message board chatter, fans came away impressed with his skating and stick-handling, but were much more dazzled by mid-round 2011 selection Johnny Gaudreau.
After his selection, Jankowski headed to Providence College and got to work under head coach Nate Leaman. Under Leaman, Jankowski has developed a reputation as a responsible 200-foot centerman, a strong face-off player, and a quietly underrated offensive force. Since his freshman year total of 18 points, Jankowski has gradually worked his way up the Friars’ scoring list and led the club in scoring as a senior.
- 2012-13: 7 goals, 11 assists in 34 games, 5th in team scoring
- 2013-14: 13 goals, 12 assists in 39 games, 3rd in team scoring
- 2014-15: 8 goals, 19 assists in 37 games, 6th in team scoring
- 2015-16: 15 goals, 25 assists in 36 games, 1st in team scoring
Moreover, Jankowski has also spent considerable time in the gym, beefing up his lanky body. While he’s not nearly a Zdeno Chara-esque statuesque figure, he’s put on nearly 30 pounds since being drafted and has become accustomed to using his frame to protect the puck. Arguably his crowning moment as a college player thus far was at the 2015 NCAA Championship tournament, where his stellar two-way play earned him tournament all-star recognition as his team won the national championship.
In the time it’s taken Jankowski to complete four seasons in the NCAA, roughly 70 players taken in the 2012 Draft have played at least one NHL game. He’s the highest-drafted player from that that has yet to play an NHL game. If he’s going to end up as the best player in his draft class when 2022 rolls around, he has his work cut out for him. At the very least, though, he’s developed into a pretty good college player.
The challenge will be for him to translate what made him a good amateur – his skating, size and on-ice intelligence – while toiling in a league where he won’t usually be the biggest guy on the ice.
There’s no guarantee that Jankowski will opt to sign with the Flames when his college career ends in the near future, but all indications from both Jankowski’s camp and the NHL club indicate mutual interest. If he does join them officially, he’ll join a young crew of Flames forwards 23-and-under that includes Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan, Micheal Ferland, Emile Poirier, Brett Pollock, Hunter Shinkaruk, Morgan Klimchuk and Andrew Mangiapane.
Jankowski boasts several things that make him a very interesting prospect – a big frame, good skating, defensive and offensive awareness – and he’s added confidence and a pretty strong record of collegiate success to that mix. To Flames fans, he represents a tantalizing, relatively unknown player – message boards have taken to “What if he doesn’t sign?!” hysterics after his strong senior season. To Calgary’s new general manager Brad Treliving, he represents the purest form of found money – if he signs he’s an asset and if he doesn’t the team gains a compensatory draft pick. If he can continue to progress and morphs into a strong pro hockey player, perhaps the player that stands as the most frustrating component of Feaster’s legacy can eventually turn into a positive memory from his time in Calgary.