Friday, March 07, 2014

Homegrown Talent: Most Flames Draft Picks We've Seen in Years

It's still the honeymoon period, I suppose, but the first flat-out, all-in, fully-admitted rebuild year for the Calgary Flames continues to be a resounding success. It makes you wonder what all the fuss has been about up the highway the past several years.

Flames Fans have enjoyed the team's surprising on-ice success -- more victories and much closer games than anyone was expecting. Calgary is currently on an 8-4-0 hot streak.

The city has embraced the club's tireless work ethic under veteran head coach Bob Hartley, which with only a few exceptions, has produced games that are more entertaining to watch than what we've seen around these parts for years.

The excitement has really ramped up in the last 10 days as the club has started slowly unwrapping some of its brightest prospects and putting them on display at the Pengrowth Saddledome for their NHL debuts.

Eight is Great

On Friday night against the New York Islanders, thanks to the call-up Thursday night of Tyler Wotherspoon from the Abbotsford Heat (AHL), the Flames will have eight of their own draft picks in the line-up for the first time in over five years.

This group is comprised of five draft picks selected while Darryl Sutter was at the helm, and three selected by Jay Feaster, who took over general manager duties after that.

From youngest to oldest, here are the eight players along with age today, where they were drafted and by whom:

  • C Sean Monahan - 19 (1st round of 2013, 6th overall – Feaster)
  • D Tyler Wotherspoon - 20 (2nd round of 2011, 57th overall – Feaster)
  • C Markus Granlund - 20 (2nd round of 2011, 45th overall – Feaster)
  • C Max Reinhart - 22 (3rd round of 2010, 64th overall – Sutter)
  • G Joni Ortio - 22 (6th round of 2009, 171st overall – Sutter)
  • D TJ Brodie - 23 (4th round of 2008, 114th overall – Sutter)
  • LW Lance Bouma - 23 (3rd round of 2008, 78th overall – Sutter)
  • C Mikael Backlund - 24 (1st round of 2007, 24th overall – Sutter)

While injuries to the likes of veterans Curtis Glencross, David Jones and Dennis Wideman have opened the door for some of them, it can also be argued that these eight players are here on merit also and fully deserving of the chance they’re getting. In particular, recent call-ups Reinhart, Granlund, Wotherspoon and Ortio have all had excellent seasons with the Heat – the latter three all doing so as AHL rookies, which is not easy.

In this respect, how different is this year's team from a year ago? Calgary’s line-up exactly a year ago featured just two of its own draft picks. Backlund would have been a third but he was injured at the time.

  • March 6, 2013 vs San Jose – Brodie and Sven Baertschi
  • March 8, 2013 at Anaheim – Brodie and Steve Begin

Rewinding the Clock to 2008-09

The last time the Flames had eight of their own draft picks in uniform was March 3, 2009, a 6-3 victory in Ottawa. However, one of the eight that night was back-up goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who didn’t play.

The last time the Flames actually “played” eight of their own draft picks in a game was two nights earlier. On March 1 at the Saddledeome against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Flames deployed the same line-up but what made the difference was McElhinney got in the game also.  He didn’t start, mind you, but three Tampa Bay goals on Miikka Kiprusoff in less than four minutes to the end the second period that turned a 4-2 Flames lead into a 5-4 deficit, was what prompted a goaltending change at the intermission. For the third, coach Mike Keenan inserted McElhinney and while the spark worked initially, Iginla tying the game 14 seconds into the period, the Lightning eventually won 8-6.

Here are the eight Flames drafted players that played both of those nights along with their age at the time, when they were drafted and by whom. Three were Sutter draft picks and five were chosen by Craig Button, who was the general manager prior to that.

  • C Dustin Boyd - 22 (3rd round of 2004, 98th overall – Sutter)
  • D Dion Phaneuf - 23 (1st round of 2003, 9th overall – Sutter)
  • D Adam Pardy - 24 (6th round of 2004, 173rd overall – Sutter)
  • G Curtis McElhinney -  25 (6th round of 2002, 176th overall – Button) 
  • RW David Van Der Gulik - 25 (7th round of 2002, 206th overall – Button)
  • C Matthew Lombardi - 26 (3rd round of 2002, 90th overall – Button)
  • LW Eric Nystrom - 26 (1st round of 2002, 10th overall – Button)
  • RW David Moss - 27 (7th round of 2001, 220nd overall - Button)

Last Time for Nine Flames Draft Picks 

From the same time period, the last time Calgary had nine of its own draft picks in uniform was Feb. 27, 2009.  That game -- a 4-1 home-ice win over Minnesota, was immediately prior to the other two and came with the same group of eight mentioned above along with one more addition:

  • LW Brandon Prust - 24 (3rd round of 2004, 70th overall – Sutter)

However, while that was an occurrence of nine draft picks in the Flames line-up, only eight played as once again, McElhinney was the back-up and did not see any action.

Gone in Three Years: How the Band Broke Up

So, what happened after that previous one week stretch in which as many as Flames nine draft picks were in uniform?

To start, on March 4, Sutter traded Prust and Lombardi and a first round pick in 2009 or 2010 (ended up being 2010) to the Phoenix Coyotes for Olli Jokinen and a third round pick in 2009.

During the next season, three more were shipped out of town: Boyd was traded to Nashville, Phaneuf was dealt to Toronto and McElhinney was sent to Anaheim.

The remaining four all left as unrestricted free agents. Nystrom and Van Der Gulik departed in the summer of 2010 on Sutter’s watch. Feaster was at the helm when Pardy left in 2011 and Moss exited in 2012.

Comparing Then and Now

It's easy to get caught up in the moment and the excitement of the current batch of home grown Flames talent. Knowing that three years after the last group played together, all nine players were gone from the organization, it’s also easy to conclude that the current group carries with it much, much more optimism.

But is that fair to say?  Upon, closer look, absolutely that’s fair.  Here are three reasons why you should be legitimately more excited about the current batch of Calgary youngsters.

  1. Youngest Players Are Younger - In that last group, the youngest at the time was Boyd at 22 years and 7 months. Of the current group, Monahan, Wotherspoon, Granlund and Reinhart are all younger than that.
  2. Oldest Players are Younger – Backlund, at 24 years and 11 months, is the oldest of the current group. That group in 2009 had five players older than Backlund and two more – Prust and Pardy, who were just a handful of days younger than Backlund is now. This means unrestricted free agency is a long way away so this group can form part of the nucleus of this team for a long time.
  3. More Star Power – The current group has four players picked in the top two rounds where that group in 2009 had just two players that were selected in rounds one or two.

Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

When some of the veterans return from injury, some of these players will be returned to Abbotsford so this may be the highwater mark for this year in terms of homegrown draft picks in the line-up.  However, this is the direction the organization is moving and is a trend you can expect to see continued again in 2014-15.

By the time the Flames are playoff relevant again, it's very possible that the number of home grown draft picks they'll have is not seven, eight, or nine but could be as many as a dozen or so. And, having watched those players develop over the years through junior hockey or college, then the AHL, and then finally the NHL, it will be an awfully rewarding experience for Calgary hockey fans.

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