The Flames and Organizational Depth

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20:  25th overall pick, Greg Nemisz of the Calgary Flames poses with team personnel after being selected in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at Scotiabank Place on June 20, 2008 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)


TLP’s draft post and contributing to Hockey’s Future has made it mainfestly obvious to me just how shallow the Flames are at forward. Even with guys like Howse, Wahl, Nemisz and Backlund in the picture, Calgary lags well behind even the median NHL team in terms of skilled, viable youngsters up front. 

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That dearth of talent is is a big, black void staring Flames fans in the face this off-season. With zero choices inside the first two rounds, a lack of cap space and a club built mostly around expensive but depreciating assets up front, it’s likely a number of folks are looking around and wondering how the team has gotten to this point. 

I used a recent post by Scott Reynolds for a basis of this investigation. He recently looked at drafts between 1997 and 2005 to determine the rate at which teams were able to find effective players at various positions. We’ll focus on his findings at forward for the purposes of this article.

At left are the results. Reynolds chose his criteria to be any forward who has played a minimum of 200 NHL games and has scored a minimum of 0.5 points per game. Which makes the cut-off point an everday NHLer who can contribute about 40 points over the season. This excludes replacement level guys and goons, which strikes me as sensible.

As you can see, the talent goes quickly. By the time you reach the last third of the first round, your chances of grabbing a 40 point forward drop from 9 in 10 inside the top 3 to just 1 in 5. Things fall off a cliff after the top 60 and you’re basically into lottery ticket territory past 100.

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Glancing at this graph, the Flames issue becomes obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the clubs drafting record under Darryl Sutter. Since 2003, the Flames have had just 9 choices inside the top 60: Dion Phaneuf, Tim Ramholt, Kris Chucko, Matt Pelech, Leland Irving, Greg Nemisz, Mitch Wahl, Mikael Backlund and Tim Erixon. Only four of Calgary’s top 60 picks have been forwards (Chucko, Nemisz, Wahl and Backlund) and none of them have been higher than #24 (or, a 21% shot a 40 point forward).

To add some context to those numbers, I went through each draft since Sutter took over to determine how other teams were picking over that span:

 The chart shows the total number of picks by each team inside the top 60 since 2003, as well as the number of forwards taken with those picks. The data is arranged from most to least forwards chosen over that period. Also, the "% of forwards" column shows the rate at which each club used their top two round picks to choose forwards. Green and red squares mark the most and least in each category respectively. 

The Flames are tied for the least amount of forwards chosen with top 60 picks in the league since 2003. Only Tampa Bay has picked as few as Calgary (4) over that period. In addition, only the Red Wings have had fewer first and second round choices (8) than Calgary over the last seven drafts. As if that wasn’t enough, the Flames are also amongst the bottom end when it comes to investing top picks in forwards (44%) – only 5 teams lag below 50%, with the league mean up around 58%.

The cause of this dearth of top 60 picks is Darryl Sutter. The currency with which he’s plugged perceived holes in the roster since 2003 has been 2nd and 3rd round picks. Miikka Kiprusoff, Alex Tanguay, Rene Bourque, Olli Jokinen and Mike Cammalleri were all acquired via top 60 choices (more than one in the case of Tanguay). Sutter also spent a second rounder on dumping Wayne Primeau’s salary last summer. In addition, even when the Flames have been in a position to choose in the teens, Sutter has traded down in the first round to recoup later picks, without fail. Looking at Reynold’s chart above, it would probably make sense to try to move up rather than down in the first round, especially if the "prize" for moving down is another choice outside the top 60.

The strategy of moving draft picks for players is actually a savvy one, in isolation. Kipper and Bourque are clearly worth more than the picks that were used to acquire them. However, the consistency of this tendency throughout Sutter’s tenure, as well as the fact that many of his acquisitions were transient (Cammalleri, Tanguay, Jokinen) has had a cumulative effect on the Flames organizational depth over time. The guys on the big roster have either left or gotten more expensive and now there’s next to no one in the pipeline who can contribute at a meaningful level (on a cheap ELC). In fact, if 2 of the Flames 4 top 60 forward picks become 40 point forwards, the Flames will have technically beaten the odds. To put it another way, of the 248 forwards chosen inside the top 60 over the last 7 years, the Flames have picked just 4 of them. And while the Chucko pick remains risible to this day, I think the Flames scouts deserve commendations if they manage to garner more than one effective forward with the meagre stable of choices their boss has provided them with. Ironically, the team has done a relatively good job of finding forward talent in the third round under Sutter (Boyd, Prust, Howse), but the guys who have made the dance have been dealt away (Prust Boyd).

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Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be changing for Calgary any time soon. The Flames currently own just a single top 60 choice in the next two entry drafts – their first rounder of 2011. Unless Sutter inverts his habit of plugging roster holes by moving draft picks (and/or starts investing more top picks in forwards) the Flames will linger at the bottom of the league in this regard for awhile.

  • I’m still stewing over the Kotalik and Staois trades, so far be it from me to defend Mr. Milskey, but to my eye this makes it look like he’s been doing the right thing at the draft.

    If a 2nd round pick is only a 1-in-10 shot of a decent NHL player, then landing a Kipper or Bourque for a 2nd rounder is a no brainer. Even the transient acquisitions seem like a good return on investment… we basically got Cammalleri for Tanguay, so that was essentially 3 seasons of 1st-line-left-wingers for 2 2nd rounders (and Jordan Leopold). I would make all those trades again any day. Maybe it leaves you thin on prospects, but if other teams are consistently willing to give you a good player for a 13% lottery ticket on a mediocre player, then you don’t need to worry about depth, you just make another purchase each year. Plus if it’s only about a 5% drop going from a 2nd round to 3rd round pick, then using your over-valued 2nd rounders in trades and loading up on under-valued 3rd rounders seems to be the right way to go.

    The problem on the first rounders (ignoring Jokinen for a moment) hasn’t been trading down, it’s that we’re never picking very high up to begin with. It’s not like Sutter has been trading #10 picks for #25s, it’s typically been dropping down only a few spots. That’s trading a 20% chance for a 18% + another 8% chance, roughly speaking. Again, I’d have to say those trades are no brainers, especially since he seems to only make then when he can get the guy he wants in the first round anyway.

    To me the real problem isn’t his strategy of trading picks, it’s been (a) losing the 1st for Jokinen, (b) signing Primeau and having to give up a 2nd to fix it, and (c) we never draft in the top 5, let alone the top 15.

    If you ask me, based on this, Sutter should be given a blank cheque on draft day… he just needs to have his keys taken away for the trade deadline. The last 2 deadlines have left the team in ruins. I can forgive him for 1, but I could castrate him for 2.

    PS. Correct me if I’m wrong, but while he hasn’t drafted a lot of forwards and we’re known to have pathetic forward prospect depth, he has drafted lots of defencemen and we are considered to have good defence prospect depth, no?

  • To me the real problem isn’t his strategy of trading picks, it’s been (a) losing the 1st for Jokinen, (b) signing Primeau and having to give up a 2nd to fix it, and (c) we never draft in the top 5, let alone the top 15.

    As I said, I think it’s a savvy move to parlay picks into players – to a degree. The problem is Sutter has plundered the Flames draft stock to such a degree that the club has been unable to be self-sustaining when it comes to player development. That’s basically death – or at least a sure path to mediocrity – in this cap environment. One or two homegrown prospects outperforming their ELC are worth their weight in gold.

    As for the top 15, the Flames have been in position to draft around 17 on numerous occasions. I wish he’d tried to move up on a couple of those occasions, rather than always trading down.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but while he hasn’t drafted a lot of forwards and we’re known to have pathetic forward prospect depth, he has drafted lots of defencemen and we are considered to have good defence prospect depth, no?

    Well, the defensive depth is “better”. I don’t know if it’s “good” per se. There’s no homeruns amongst the Flames defensive prospects either. I’m hopeful for a number of them (Brodie and Erixon in particular) but we won’t know for years whether any of these guys are top 4 NHL defenders. I’d say only Erixon has an outside chance to be a top 2 guy as well.

  • This was actually a good read. Very much enjoyed it.

    I dont know. Im looking at these numbers, and I see you basically want to be in the top 10 for a chance to draft an NHLer. If you aren’t in the top 10, I don’t see what the bother is when it comes to trading picks.

    Maybe I see it a bit different, but to me, this club has money. We can afford to bring in high end talent, and if we already have it on the team, we can afford to pay to keep it. What I don’t like is that we don’t seem to be able to draft depth, we have to pay for that too, and that kills in the cap era.

    So I am not looking for a 40 point NHLer, although it would be nice. From the picks he uses on the forwards, we need at least a replacement level player. I think the slight on Sutter is that there have not been too many plugs make it to the big team.

    On paper, you have your top 6 all locked up (stajan, langkow, jarome, kotalik, bourque, hagman) and you also got GlenX. As much as we make fun of Sutter, all these guys can (or could at one point, and who knows, maybe they will again) score.

    So it’s the bottom 5 spots that need filling up. You have Moss and Dawes on the roster, so it is really 3 spots. Backlund, a draft pick, should take one of those spots, and it would be really cool on the cap if Sutter could fill the other two with cheap kids.

    To me, that is the rub. If we have to go out and spend a million dollars on a Nystrom or a Conroy, or 1.5-2 on a Higgins, just to fill out the roster, then to me, that is the indictment on the drafting.

    Of course, nobody goes out to draft a scrub, but when you only got 3rds and 4ths to work with, you at least better be able to draft replacement level players. We will see.

    • The Flames have a single third rounder (64th) and the rest are 4th or below (103, 108, 133, 163, 193).

      We may also keep the 74th pick, depending on whether it goes to EDM or not for the Staios trade (it can be this year or next year).

  • @ Dome – cheap depth is definitely nice, but it’s not a big cap saver. Conroy at $1M over replacement player X @ 600k doesn’t do much for you. Of course, things get really ugly if you pay Staios 2.7M to play on the third pairing, but…

    Anyways, teams that pay market value for their difference makers are almost guaranteed to be mediocre in a cap environment. The Flames had a grand total of one guy greatly outperform his cap hit last year (Giordano). Maybe two if you add Dawes. The best recent teams have all had top level established talent AND some mix of kids hitting it out of the park for cheap. ANA had Penner, Getzlaf and Perry. PIT had Crosby and Malkin. This year, CHI had Kane and Toews (and Brouwer, Bolland, Keith) on friendly deals. Even DET has had guys like Franzen, Filpulla and Hudler.

    In addition, acquiring talent via trade and signing (as Sutter has done) gets really expensive – it costs either cap space, assets (other players and picks) or some combination therein. over time, that method will eventually cause you to hit the invisible ceiling – you only have so much cap space and other stuff to trade away. That’s why the Flames seem to be stuck in the middle part of the Western Conference – many of their moves are lateral or at least costly enough to restrict true growth. Sutter has had a lot of pretty good forwards move through town during his stay. Just never all at once.

  • @ Kent – so if I understand you correctly, your saying his draft pick trades have been all fine and good, but in order to go from middle-of-the-pack to cup-contender, you need some heavy hitters out playing their contracts… and you get those through the draft… and you can’t get enough of them if you continually keep trading away top 60 picks?

    If so, I agree… partially. Kipper, Bourque, GlenX, Giordano, etc were all outplaying their contracts at first, and were acquired outside the draft. Sutter did a good job finding those bargains elsewhere, so it can be done. To me, the issue is getting a critical mass of those contract-outperformers, and that has to come at the top end of the draft: Toews and Kane, Crosby and Malkin, etc… with rare exceptions (e.g. Perry and Getzlaf), teams have acquired groups of outperformers by having picks in the top 5 several years in a row, not just the top 60.

    Without changing the “win-now” mentality, we won’t be getting those high end picks, so for now I think Sutter’s draft-pick strategy makes good sense, even if it does leave you stuck in the middle. Thanks to his Jokinen, Kotalik and Staois trades though, we might not be stuck there much longer.

  • @Greg – I think it’s sensible strategy when properly applied with a modicum of moderation and restraint ie; with some recognition that later is eventually going to matter as much as now. Matt said it best in March I think:

    What I always liked about Darryl is his belief — by action if not by grunt — that you can improve on the fly. Iginla never had to suffer the indignity of a teardown & rebuild during his prime years, and I still think the Phaneuf trade was a good one in isolation.

    But right around exactly on 2009 Trade Deadline, he crossed the Line. The one between “Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and “Trade every young, moderately paid player I have, and also draft picks, including our #1 for the 1st time, in a desperate attempt to maybe possibly be slightly better for the stretch and playoffs”.

  • dustin642

    Well that was depressing!

    So, of our 9 choices in the top 60 since 2003, only 1 has become (at this time) a legitimate NHLer, and that 1 is now the Captain of the Maple Leafs?! I wonder what Darryl’s fear with bringing up players through his organization is? That truly seems like the biggest problem moving forward, all our true NHLers that are our drafted property get moved before they get too comfortable here. Lombardi, Prust, Phaneuf, Boyd, C-Mac, Kobasew. Whats left? Nystrom and Moss? And I would not be suprised to find both of them wearing different jerseys by next seasons start. With the exception of Kobasew and Phaneuf all of those guys were traded @ the deadline and we have nothing really positive to show from it. Not even a Playoff run past 7 games.
    Since our Cup run in 04, the following teams have been to the cup: Calgary, Tampa, Edmonton, Carolina, Anaheim, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Since the 03/04 season all or most (exception Detroit) of those teams have missed the playoffs, changed GM’s, changed captains, gone through extensive re-builds. All except us. And for the most part, all of those teams have either built or been building via the draft. All again except us.

  • dustin642

    Excellent article Kent. Very thought provoking and informative.

    as an aside can we make Mr. Milskey his new official unofficial nickname? I like that better then Daz or the Jolly Rancher.

  • Canucks Suck


    Totally agree, that’s very well said. In hindsight, Sutter clearly crossed that line at the 2009 trade deadline, although that could be justified as an attempt to get a shot at the cup before our window of opportunity closed. Heck, if not for all the injury problems, it may have even paid off.

    What’s troubling is that he kept crossing the line long after the window was clearly slammed shut and the future meant more than now. 3rd rounder for Staois aside, adding $3M in salary via the Phaneuf trade (projected) with no future asset and blowing another $6M of cap space at the deadline is probably worse than giving away a 1st round pick.

    If we had the same team right now as last Christmas, I’d probably think things will be fine. 2 third round picks, $9M in cap space, and Phaneuf still available for trade. Instead Sutter will need an absolute miracle to right the ship now.

    Oy vey! I hope that doesn’t mean he’ll get even more desperate/aggressive/stupid trying to “fix” things next deadline!