Sunday, June 26, 2016

Gold Star: Eight Takeaways From an Excellent Draft Weekend for the Calgary Flames

You know how when you get to the till at the grocery store and the cashier asks you, "Did you find everything you were looking for?"


For sure.

Damn right!

That's the type of response you'd surely get from Calgary general manager Brad Treliving after a productive and impactful couple of days for his management and scouting team at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo.

Eight Draft Weekend Takeaways

1. Emphasis on Skill and Hockey IQ

While he was GM of the Flames from 2003 to 2010, Darryl Sutter drafted a total of 54 skaters. Only five of those players were shorter than 6-foot-0. That's right, five in eight years. It was as if the height and weight columns were confused for the goals and assists columns.

My goodness how times have changed.

This weekend, half of the eight skaters drafted by Treliving are 5-foot-11 or shorter:
  • 1-6 - LW Matthew Tkachuk, OHL, 6-1, 202 lbs | 57 gm, 30-77-107
  • 2-54 - G Tyler Parsons, OHL, 6-1, 185 lbs | 49 gm, 2.33 GAA, .921 SV% 
  • 2-56 - C Dillon Dube, WHL, 5-10, 183 lbs | 65 gm, 26-40-66 
  • 3-66 - D Adam Fox, USA NTDP, 5-10, 181 lbs | 25 gm, 5-17-22 
  • 4-96 - C Linus Lindstrom, Swe Jr, 5-11, 165 lbs | 40 gm, 14-30-44 
  • 5-126 - C Mitchell Mattson, HS/USHL, 6-4, 191 lbs | 46 gm, 19-29-48 
  • 6-156 - RW Eetu Tuulola, Finland, 6-2, 227 lbs | 39 gm, 9-6-15 
  • 6-166 - C Matthew Phillips, WHL, 5-7, 150 lbs | 72 gm, 37-39-76 
  • 7-186 - D Stepan Falkovsky, OHL, 6-7, 224 lbs | 58 gm, 9-23-32

While it's one thing to see sub six-footers at forward, it's even more rare to find them on the blue-line. Right-shooting defenceman Adam Fox from the U.S. National Team development program, Calgary's third rounder taken at No. 66 -- TJ Brodie's original jersey number -- is just 5-foot-10.

If you're hoping to see him crush guys as they cross the blue-line with their head down, ala Scott Stevens, you might be disappointed. But if you want to watch someone resembling Brian Rafalski use his speed at both ends of the ice, you're in luck. Fox led all defencemen with nine points (1 goal, 8 assists) at the U18 World Championships.

"There are smaller guys in the NHL now that are breaking that mould," said Fox by telephone from the draft floor. "Guys like Tyson Barrie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Duncan Keith are all smaller defencemen. For me, my hockey sense, hockey IQ and just my playmaking abilities definitely help me make up for any lack of size."

While they play different positions, the New York-raised Fox says nearby New Jersey resident Johnny Gaudreau is also an inspiration.

"I look at him as a guy that was able to produce at every level when people still questioned his size. Then came a point where he he did it at the highest level and people finally started to look away from his size and just realize he's a great player and he's able to produce," said Fox.

"He never let me anyone get to him, he just kept working hard and it worked out for him. That's definitely something I can look up to to see how hard he worked to prove people wrong."

As for hockey IQ, that was another buzzword on the weekend because most Flames picks were touted as packing that all-important ability to think the game at high speed. It is an attribute that can distinguish guys that make it from guys that don't.

"Growing up around the game, I was fortunate enough to obviously have my Dad," said first rounder Matthew Tkachuk, whose Dad Keith retired when he was 13. "I think huge credit for my hockey IQ comes from always being around the rink and watching hockey."

Tkachuk was voted second in his conference for 'Smartest Player' in the OHL annual coaches poll last year. It's a notable accomplishment when you consider who is doing the voting. The coaches know these players better than anybody else. Interestingly, past winners or runners up in that same category have included Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett.

2. A Necessary Re-Stock of the Cupboards

After selecting only five players a year ago and not picking once in the top 50, General Manager Brad Treliving and Co. came to Buffalo armed with twice as many draft picks this year. And somewhat surprisingly, they also returned with 10 players.

Mind you, not all 10 players were drafted.

Unlike a year ago, there were no bundle-together-two-picks-and-trade-up scenarios that played out so beyond the Elliott trade, it was a straight-forward day of grabbing the mic and making the pick. For the scouts, who spent countless hours the past year evaluating prospects, it makes for a very rewarding day (unlike a year ago when the Flames traded away its first three draft picks for Dougie Hamilton, which was a great deal for Calgary but was still a punch to the gut for the scouting staff.)

Nine players selected is the most since 2004 when Calgary drafted 10 players in what back then was a nine-round draft.

Many believe that more than any other factor from scouting expertise, to analytics, to top secret algorithms, the easiest path to a good draft is to simply have more draft picks than anyone else. With the draft being such a crapshoot anyway -- defence develop so late, goaltenders develop even later, the more bullets you have in the chamber, that's what increases the odds that when you pull the trigger, you're going to hit a bullseye.

3. A Dose of Piss & Vinegar

Photo via The Canadian Press
Admittedly, I never saw it coming.

Not in December, not in February, not in April, certainly not in May after the Memorial Cup, not even Friday afternoon. Yet, despite being a top-five lock on nearly every experts' draft rankings, an unexpected decision by the Columbus Blue Jackets at pick No. 3 set off a chain reaction of contingency plans that stunningly resulted in Tkachuk falling into the Flames lap at No. 6.

Plays with an edge, has some bite, plays nasty, these are the terms you hear with Tkachuk and are the ingredients the Flames have been desperately seeking for a very long time. Sure enough, it comes to them in the form of a top-six winger that can also score. Talk about a double dip.

In talking to Tkachuk briefly by phone on Friday, he talked about his style of play.

"Playing aggressive is my style. Always in the middle of the action, trying to piss off the other team," he said. "Playing on that edge helps me be more effective on the ice."

You knew right away this was going to be a Brian Burke-endorsed selection and the president of hockey operations was not shy on Saturday confirming exactly that.

Normally a left-winger although he did play some right-wing this season and told me he liked coming in off his off-wing, it remains to be seen where he slots in down the road but given his ability to work so well with crafty Mitch Marner this past season, playing the right side on the top line with Johnny Gaudreau seems like a great fit.

That said, similarly alluring is the idea of Tkachuk on the left side of a line centred by Sam Bennett. Those two intense guys playing together could be a handful for the opposition.

4. Penticton Primer

Now that we know the names, their stats, have read the scouting reports on their strengths and weaknesses, it's time to see the Flames 2016 draft class up close and in person.

Development camp in early July is one opportunity although with the focus there on skill development, it's more of an exercise in getting to know these young men better off the ice.

More so what I'm looking forward to is the annual Young Stars Classic rookie tournament in September and a first chance to see these guys in actual game action and with a Flames logo on their chest. I figure at least five of them should be part of the charter of rookies that fly to Penticton on Sept. 15 -- Tkachuk, Parsons, Dube, Phillips and Falkovsky.

Fox (Harvard) will both be in school as he begins his freshman NCAA season. I'm not sure the availability for Mattson, who will play in USHL next season before heading to North Dakota to play college hockey starting in 2017-18. As for Lidstrom and Tuulola, their status is not yet clear but if they play next year in Europe, they won't be there either. But we'll see. What I would expect though is for all nine to be at development camp that begins July 4.

Is it too early to contemplate line combinations for mid-September? Of course it is. It's way too early. But that's never stopped me before. Time to get out a napkin and a pen and do some scribbling.

Tkachuk - Jankowski - Mangiapane
Shinkaruk - Karnaukhov - Poirier
Klimchuk - Phillips - Pribyl
Pollock - Dube - Carroll

Adding intrigue to this annual Flames-Jets-Oilers-Canucks get-together in the Okanagan will be a Memorial Cup champions reunion with Canucks first rounder Olli Juolevi hooking up with his pals Tkachuk and Parsons.

Also, Jesse Puljujarvi dropping to Edmonton at No. 4 adds an extra layer of intrigue to the rookies that the Oilers will take to Penticton.

If you missed it amongst the draft hoopla as it was released on Friday, here is the Flames schedule with the times listed in MT. All games played at the beautiful South Okanagan Events Centre. Tickets go on sale July 8.
  • September 16 vs Wpg, 5 pm
  • September 17 vs Edm, 8:30 pm
  • September 19 vs Van, 4:30 pm

I'll be on the ground in Penticton to cover this event for a third straight year and look forward to keeping you connected.

5. The Legend of Pick 166

It was spooky when the diminutive but talented Andrew Mangiapane was drafted last year with pick No. 166 in the sixth round, the same number that Theoren Fleury was selected at in 1987. What made it eerie, of course, is the similarities in their stature and in their skills. You're familiar with Fleury's prolific NHL career. Meanwhile, Mangiapane -- expected to turn pro this fall -- was fantastic again last season and looks like an absolute steal at that part in the draft.

Well, can lightning strike potentially three times at No. 166? Sure enough, Calgary picked at No. 166 again this year -- special thanks to Connor Bleakley's re-entry into the draft -- and they used that pick to take a flyer on highly-skilled Calgary kid Matthew Phillips, who a young man that assistant general manager Craig Conroy absolutely raves about.

Phillips, who played his bantam and midget hockey for the Buffaloes, is coming off a terrific rookie season with Victoria in the WHL in which he led all rookies with 76 points. Heck, that was even one point better than eighth overall pick Alex Nylander, the OHL's rookie scoring leader. (Although Nylander did play 15 fewer games.)

Small guys that can motor and create offence. Fleury defied the odds to do it in his era, but he had the stocky build needed back in the heyday of clutch and grab. But in this era of the new, fast-skating NHL, Gaudreau is proof that size is no longer the factor it used to be. Mangiapane will be an interesting study this season. What kind of impact can he have in the AHL? His future certainly looks bright.

Phillips, listed by the NHL as 5-6, 140 lbs but given an extra inch and 10 extra pounds by the Flames, is perhaps the most intriguing of them all. Whether he's 5-6 or 5-7, 140 or 150, it's still not even close to the specs you would ever expect for an NHL drafted player.

Whether or not Phillips ever makes it to the NHL, he's still going to be an electric player to watch at the various levels he plays along the way.

6. 'Murica

One of the more unusual aspects of this year's draft is only two of the nine picks are Canadian. That's the lowest ratio of home-grown talent for the Flames since the 2001 draft with Craig Button at the helm when Calgary picked 11 times and only selected two Canadian kids.

In particular, there were four Americans with the states of New York, Arizona, Minnesota and Michigan all represented. Add in a Finn, a Swede and a Belarusian and that's seven. The other two are both local content -- Phillips from Calgary as mentioned and Dube, who has played the past two seasons in Kelowna, is a resident of Cochrane.

7. Bagged Their No. 1 Goalie

It was the team's most glaring need, has been a non-stop discussion topic around the city for over a year and you could just tell listening to Treliving and Conroy heading into the weekend that securing a No. 1 goalie was their No. 1 priority by far. Assistant coach search, that would have to wait. Re-signing Gaudreau and Monahan, on the back burner for now.

This was the opportunity to get a goalie because if trade picks were going to be involved -- and that was expected, it couldn't be next week, the deal had to be consummated this weekend.

Sure enough, they made it happen after first shedding a few bars off the cell phone battery life of every GM that potentially had a goalie to peddle.

As I wrote Saturday morning, pulling the trigger on Blues goaltender Brian Elliott ended up being the ideal transaction.

What we're still not sure of is will it be Elliott and Ortio? Or will it be Ortio and someone else. Among the other back-ups that could be possibilities are NYI's JF Berube, Minnesota's Darcy Kuemper, Nashville's Carter Hutton. Like with Elliott, it could again come down to weighing the acquisition cost.

James Reimer, as a UFA, could be a possibility too if he can't find a satisfactory long-term deal out there, something which is a possibility given there are no No. 1 jobs available. I don't see Calgary being interested in signing Reimer long term but on a one-year show-me deal, so he can take another run at free agency a year from now, that could work.

Regardless, Elliott is the man and Treliving and Burke, as heard in conversations with Sportsnet960's Pat Steinberg, both spoke very highly about their new acquisition.

8. Stockpiling Goaltenders

In many ways, it was like the draft two years ago when the Flames took Mason McDonald as the first goalie off the board. This time it was Tyler Parsons as the second goalie to go when Calgary used its pick at No. 54 to grab the Memorial Cup champion and teammate of Tkachuk.

Considering the Flames depth in net outside the NHL level, it was surprising to see the Flames take a goalie in that second round and by all reports, that wasn't their plan. However, when Calgary got to pick 54 and he was still there and they had him ranked significantly higher, the GM just couldn't let him slip by.

Given the struggles in net last year and the ongoing saga it's been trying to trade for a goalie, you can understand why that position might be a sensitive one at the moment. To breakdown where everyone will be next year, here's my best guess:
  • NHL - Elliott and TBD (possibly Ortio)
  • AHL - Jon Gillies and David Rittich
  • ECHL - Mason McDonald
  • WHL - Nick Schneider
  • OHL - Tyler Parsons

As discussed with Treliving in this piece earlier in the week, McDonald is the one in question as he could also return to the QMJHL for an overage season. However, as he said at the time he expects McDonald to turn pro this fall and the drafting of Parsons may cement that.

You want to stagger when your goalies are coming out of junior so you have spots for them all on your AHL and ECHL affiliates. By bumping McDonald up to the next level this season, that will provide more options and better versatility next summer when it comes time to decide what to do with Schneider and Parsons.

Final Word

From Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon, it really was an intense 24 hours of action. While the optics from my vantage point are that Calgary came away one of the big winners of the weekend, the reality is you won't know for sure for several years.

But it was fun and entertaining and at it's root, isn't that what hockey is supposed to be all about.

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  1. Great read, Darren! Most exciting pick for me is Phillips, I'm moving to Victoria for a year in September and will be attending a ton of Royal games now.

    1. He is certainly an intriguing pick. I mean he's small. Like really small. But I have no doubt he will entertain in the WHL and in the AHL in a couple years when he gets ther and getting an electric player like that in round 6 is a worthwhile gamble if you ask me. Enjoy the island!