Just a year and a half after retiring from playing hockey, Craig Conroy remains just as visible as he was as a player. The former Flames captain retired in February 2011 and joined the management side of the business as assistant to then-interim general manager Jay Feaster. Now he’s part of a hockey operations brain-trust that includes assistant general manager John Weisbrod and a handful of others who influence decision-making when it comes to key events such as the trade deadline and the NHL Draft.
A few weeks removed from the 2012 edition of the draft, Conroy reflected on the draft weekend experience and the development of some of Calgary’s prospects with FlamesNation’s Ryan Pike at Flames development camp.
Ryan Pike: Having been at the draft table for both years, how different was the Flames’ draft approach this year from the year before?
Craig Conroy: I think it actually was fairly similar. The one difference was last year we thought there was probably nine guys that could play in the NHL within a couple years, and so this year we didn’t have quite the same amount [projected that way]… When we got to our pick, like last year with Sven, so we went right after it, but the one thing Jay [Feaster] talked about what he wanted to do was get a draft pick back, a second rounder, so he might want to move down. Mark [Jankowski] was high on our list, but when we got to the point we thought Mark would probably, if we drop down we’d still be able to get him. And just like they kind of planned out – Tod Button, John [Weisbrod] and Jay – this is what they wanted to do, and it’s weird how things just work out.
It worked out perfectly and they were able to get Patrick Sieloff with the second round pick. So it really was a big thing for us to get that second round pick back and also be able to move down and still be able to get the guy we really coveted after. There were probably six guys that we thought were gonna be gone early, and then there was a list of guys, and what our need was a big centerman with skill and vision, and Mark really fit that bill. It worked out good for us.
RP: There were a lot of “surprises” in the first round this year, but there was also a lot of variation in how a lot of the scouting services projected the top-end of the draft. Do people put too much stock in scouting lists when looking at the draft?
CC: And that’s the one thing, even this year they were saying how much different the top ten were going to be. Nobody could really foresee the top ten. Usually they say ‘hey, we kind of know the order, how it’s going to go in the first five, and then from there it could be all over the map.’ But that’s the one thing about this year.
The one thing we’re talking about is we’re not going to look at Redline or Central Scouting and really make any decisions off that. We’re going to put our list together the way we see it and what the criteria we have with hockey sense, character, skill and skating and all those things. We’re just going to go with our list and we have a guy that works with us that kind of he goes by the numbers.
It comes from the scouts and they mix and match and they really go through it. It’s amazing how much of a process it is to go through just one guy. I remember spending 45, 50 minutes on every guy. I’m thinking ‘this is crazy,’ but they want to make sure they get their list right and Jay says ‘we’re just going to work the list, we’re not going to go off it.’ As we tick everyone off when it comes to our pick, whoever’s on the list, we take. We’re not going to make changes at the table. John made a couple little, minor adjustments at the table this year, but overall we went right off the list again.
RP: Given that the Flames have been criticized in the past for not having a lot of prospects in the cupboard, do you get excited at development camp to see how the cupboards are being re-stocked in recent years?
CC: For sure, and you see the steps they make from year-to-year. And that’s the one thing: you always want guys to take the next step, but you want them to do well. I mean, you’re pulling for them. You draft them for a reason: you want them to play in the NHL one day. And yeah, like a guy like Johnny Gaudreau, a small guy that people are writing off when we draft him – like ‘who is this guy, this small guy’ – but he’s got that special intangible. When you watch him, you can’t take your eyes off him. He does so many good things; his vision, passing, and he’s got a great shot for a small guy. It’s deceiving how quick it is. He had two goals the other day in the scrimmage – one was on the penalty shot, the other was kind of down the wing, top-corner. It’s great.
The one thing, everyone’s with Mark Jankowski, if you really come out and watch Mark, he’s a big guy with skill. He’s raw talent, but he’s got a lot of the things you’re looking for in a player. He’s a good passer, he makes people around him better, he’s got the reach, the height, and eventually he’s going to fill out. He’s skinny right now, but so were a lot of 17-year-old kids. He’s going to work and get better and he’s got a great attitude, and that’s all you can have.
RP: There was a lot of emphasis on character and hockey sense in this year’s Flames draft class. How do you really evaluate that and is it important because you can’t coach it into guys, like you can with skating or strength or conditioning?
CC: Character, you’re always watching. For me, the team’s really losing big-time or they’re on the road playing a hard team, how does the guy [react] – does his game elevate or does he kind of ‘oh, the game’s over, we’re down 5-1,’ he looks like he shuts it down. And there’s some guys that no matter if they’re winning by five or losing by five, it doesn’t matter. They play the same way, hard to the end of the whistle, they’re driving the net, they’re doing everything.
Those are the little character things that you can see, because sometimes it’s hard to get a feel of actual character. When you’re not with guys all the time, you don’t know what they do off the ice, you can only see the little things in-game that makes you think ‘this is what sets this guy apart’ and how much does he enjoy playing. Is he yelling at the other guys on the bench? That is a big thing we’re looking for. It has changed a little bit, but you still need to be able to skate, you still need to have skill and all the other stuff, but character’s a big part of it and sometimes it’s hard to find.