Flames: Draft History and Trends

By Lawrence Bailey

The name Sutter is synonymous with grit, defense, leadership and strength. One of hockey’s best-known families has a lunch-pail, hard-working, small-town Alberta attitude when it comes to life—and hockey. Never has this attitude been more important to Flames fans than now, on the verge of the 2003 Entry Draft in Nashville, Tennessee, Darryl Sutter’s first as General Manager of Calgary’s NHL team.

However, a GM does not a team make and most teams have a tendency to follow a drafting philosophy that overrides the inklings of individual GMs. There may be minor variations as management changes, but teams get an identity, they develop a philosophy and it guides them year in and year out. The Philadelphia Flyers have been a big, mean, intense team, from Clarke to Hextall to Roenick. The Montreal Canadiens have always been most successful when they were a high-flying, hyper-skilled squad, from Rocket Richard to Guy Lafleur to Saku Koivu. Even in Calgary, through highs and lows, through thick and thin, a prevailing philosophy has dominated.

The Flames are a chippy, gritty, hard-working team. From Peplinski to Roberts to Iginla, even the Flames most skilled players have had a mean streak, a chip on their shoulder and a work ethic that puts most of us to shame. Why else are players like Reichel, Bure and Savard auxiliaries in the history of the Calgary Flames?

This guiding philosophy has been evident in trades, in hirings (Sutter fits the bill perfectly) and at the draft table. A look at the Flames first round drafting habits since 1995 shows a heavy bias towards size and the perception of two-way play, sometimes at the expense of skill. While 1995’s selection of Denis Gauthier and 1996’s Derek Morris pick are the exceptions that prove the rule (1995 was a fairly weak draft year and Morris was a skilled offensive defenseman), most selections since that time have been in line with the big, two-way, hard working paradigm.

1997 is a painful year for Flames fans to look back on, as Daniel Tkaczuk was taken 6th overall, ahead of blossoming NHL stars like Sergei Samsonov (8th overall to Boston) and Marian Hossa (12th overall to Ottawa). At the time, there was much made about a division in the Flames camp, with some vehemently promoting Samsonov, seen as a risky pick due to his size and a perceived attitude problem that had him playing in the IHL, and the seemingly safe pick in Tkaczuk. The Flames brain trust chose to go with the safer, bigger Canadian—a decision they would love to take back if given the chance.

1998 saw the trend continue as an “emerging power forward” from the OHL was selected, one Rico Fata. Taken ahead of seemingly riskier, skill players like Alex Tanguay, Simon Gagne and Scott Gomez, Fata is seen by many as one of the bigger mistakes the organization has ever made at the draft table.

While the selection of Oleg Saprykin in 1999 is seen as a bit of a departure from the trend, he was coming off a 100+ penalty minute season with the Seattle Thunderbirds and projected to be a power forward with a very respectable 6’1” frame. Again, seen as the “safer” pick at the time, Saprykin’s biggest selling points for the Flames were his size and his willingness to get his nose dirty.

With the draft in Calgary in 2000, many have suggested that the Flames decision to take then Calgary Hitmen netminder Brent Krahn was as much about public relations as it was about stocking the stable. Regardless of whether this may have influenced the decision, Krahn still shows the promise of a starting, perhaps even a star, goaltender. Still, by passing over skill players like Alexei Smirnov, Marcel Hossa and Alexander Frolov, the Flames reinforced the perception that they are wary of taking straight skill players in the first round.

In 2001 however, the trend was broken, if only for one year. With gritty wingers R.J. Umberger and Colby Armstrong still on the board, many expecting Craig Button to call one of their names. When he opted for the smaller, skill winger Chuck Kobasew, it caught many off guard. However, this selection looks to bode incredibly well for the Flames future as their line up is peppered with hard working players who are often hard pressed to bulge the twine.

2002 in Toronto saw a return to form as gritty power forward Eric Nystrom was selected with the 10th overall pick. Taken ahead of skill players such as Steve Eminger, Alexander Semin and Jakub Klepis, the jury is still out on how it will all turn out but Nystrom is a selection in line with the prevailing mentality of the Flames brass. Perhaps the bigger story of the 2002 draft is the loss of 2000 second Round pick Jarret Stoll (who re-entered due to an inability to come to terms on a contract) to provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers. Stoll had a solid season with Hamilton of the AHL, his first as a professional, and is the kind of hard working, two way, heart and soul player the Flames imagined.

Which brings us to 2003. With a trio of tenders with legitimate starting potential in the stable (Krahn along with Levante Szuper and Andrei Medvedev) and the paucity of quality goaltenders outside of consensus top three pick Marc-Andre Fleury, don’t expect the Flames to use any of their three top-50 picks between the pipes. Examining some of Darryl Sutter’s comments in the lead up to the June 21 draft, a few more conclusions can be drawn. Sutter has mentioned a need for greater size and organizational depth on defense—not surprising considering his philosophy about the game of hockey—so speculation is rampant that this year a big, bruising defenseman will be selected with the ninth overall pick. The name being bandied about more than most is Red Deer Rebel defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Compared by some to Scott Stevens and a product of Darryl Sutter’s brother Brent’s team in Red Deer, Phaneuf does make a lot of sense to go to Calgary.

However, there is a pair of other players who fit the Flames historical drafting profile. The first, Calgary Hitmen C Ryan Getzlaf, wouldn’t be a surprise at all. The Flames are familiar with him since the Hitmen play in the same rink. At 6’3”, 190 lbs. he fits the bill for a big forward. Couple that with the fact that a number of solid defensive prospects are available from the late first to early third rounds (and the Flames have two picks in that range, 39th and 45th overall) and Getzlaf could well be pulling a Flaming “C” over his head on Saturday.

The second player fitting the Flames profile, though possibly a bit of a reach at ninth is Moncton Wildcats RW Steve Bernier. At 6’3”, 230 lbs., Bernier is a beast—a beast with a scorer’s touch. A perfect fit for the tradition of Flames picks.

In the end, only time will tell, we’ll all just have to tune in and see. For all we know, the small, skill forward—and son of a former Flame—Robert Nilsson may be in the Flames future.