How The Flames Have Resurrected Their Drafting

The Stockton Heat made their American Hockey League debut on Oct. 10, 2015. The club, the latest incarnation of the Calgary Flames’ primary affiliate, beat the Rockford IceHogs by an impressive 7-0 score.

Even more impressive for the Heat was their lineup’s composition. The team dressed nine players who had been drafted by the Flames in recent years, along with another pair of players that had been recruited by the club as undrafted junior or college free agents (the club also had three draftees and two signees that didn’t dress). The move of the AHL team to California, with the accompanying increase in practice days, is the latest step in a series of moves that have completely revitalized their drafting and development system.

A look back at the recent drafting history of the Calgary Flames reveals two key things:

  1. They had awful, awful luck with first round selections for a long time.
  2. They had much better luck finding players in the later rounds.

From 2000 to 2009, the Flames drafted a player in the first round every year at the NHL Draft. Only three of them – 2001’s Chuck Kobasew, 2003’s Dion Phaneuf and 2007’s Mikael Backlund – became regulars with the team.

In the same time period (2000 to 2009), the Flames were able to find seven NHL regulars in the draft’s later rounds – after the “good” prospects had been taken: David Moss (2001, seventh round), Matt Lombardi (2002, third round), Curtis McElhinney (2002, sixth round), Brandon Prust (2004, third round), Adam Pardy (2004, sixth round), Lance Bouma (2008, third round) and T.J. Brodie (2008, fourth round).

Ignoring the 2015 Draft, as it’s far too soon to judge, the five most recent drafts (2010-2014) have bucked the first trend while continuing the second one.

  • For first round selections, the Flames have made six of them between 2010 and 2014 – they had no first in 2010 and three of them in 2013. Of the six: two of them (Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett) are with the NHL team, two of them (Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk) are with Stockton, one (Sven Baertchi) was traded for an asset, and another (Mark Jankowski) is in college and expected to turn pro in 2016-17.
  • Beyond the first round, the club has produced Micheal Ferland (2010, fifth round) and Johnny Gaudreau (2011, fourth round) as NHL regulars, while they’ve seen Markus Granlund (2011, second round), Tyler Wotherspoon (2011, second round) and Brett Kulak (2012, fourth round) spend time on the NHL roster. Kulak is currently with the Flames only due to injuries to T.J. Brodie and Ladislav Smid, but he’s looked strong on the third pairing.

The moves that have revamped Calgary’s drafting came in stages.

First, the arrival of Jay Feaster (and his assistant John Weisbrod) in the general manager’s office in late 2010 was followed by a organizational emphasis on “working the list.” Rather than trying to fill a particular niche or organizational void, as had been done in previous regimes, Feaster put head amateur scout Tod Button and his team into the field with the instructions that they were to produce a single drafting list and draft players based on their list order (with few deviations). The result was the team had to really clean up its internal definitions of their player criteria, which in turn clarified many other aspects of their scouting.

The result? Rather than a system of managers and scouts working off different understandings and definitions, there was clarity.

Both during Feaster’s tenure and that of his successor, Brad Treliving, three key personnel have played into the improved drafting.

  • The ascension of former player Craig Conroy through the hockey operations department; from special assistant to the general manager to assistant general manager. Originally in a rather undefined role, Conroy worked as a roving scout, occasional practice coach and seemed to really dig into the amateur scouting process at various times. With the unique perspective as a player who saw the game change (from the “dead puck era” to the speed-based “new NHL”), Conroy’s quite valuable as an evaluator.
  • The hiring of former Hockey Canada executive Brad Pascall also cannot be understated. Pascall formerly ran the national teams program for Hockey Canada, including playing a key role in Canada’s powerhouse World Under-18 and World Junior teams. He’s definitely familiar with the scouting and development of young players, and now that he also acts as manager of the AHL team, he knows what the club has and doesn’t have in its pipeline.
  • The emphasis of analytics league-wide over the past few years has placed a larger spotlight on Chris Snow, Calgary’s director of hockey analytics. Hired in 2011 by Feaster, Snow handles the team’s PUCKS system – a database system that marries player data with video and other feedback mechanisms to flesh out the scouting profile of each player and their tendencies. Often praised by team president of hockey operations Brian Burke publicly as “the best analytics guy in the league,” Snow’s work with the drafting process helps backstop the team’s in-person scouting and in-depth background interviews on each player.

For the first time in over a decade, the Flames have a drafting and development system that is producing players that can play in the NHL. The challenge for them going forward will be maintaining that momentum and providing places at the National Hockey League level for those talented young players to move into when they’ve outgrown playing in the AHL.

The introduction of the salary cap following the 2004-05 lockout completely changed the way that NHL rosters are built, putting a huge onus on drafting and development as a means of filling out the bottom-half of a team’s lineup with young, inexpensive players. The Flames struggled to catch up with this change, but the recent seasons have seen a remarkable turnaround in that respect. They’re nowhere near done yet, but they have come a long way from the way their system was in 2003-04 – when they shared a farm team with the Carolina Hurricanes and struggled to prepare young players for the rigors of the NHL.