Jay Feaster has only been at the wheel for two summers, so it’s currently impossible to really judge his regime’s work in this area (although there are some good early returns). Sutter, on the other hand, took over in 2003 and was the guiding hand through eight Flames drafts all the way up until 2010. That span of time featured a lot of trades, not a lot of second rounders and 59 picks by the organization in total.
The collection of players yielded from Sutter’s efforts was, uh, underwhelming to say the least. However, there were a few diamonds (or, at least, nuggets of copper) unearthed over that period.
1.) Dion Phanuef
No brainer. Dion Phanuef was taken with the Flames highest pick in over a decade (9th overall) in 2003, a draft which stands as probably one of the best of all time. The Edmonton native ticked all the right "Darryl Sutter" boxes – Western Canadian, big, mean, WHL developed and well known to the family thanks to playing under brother Brent in Red Deer. There was really no other choice for Darryl when Phanuef was left on the board at nine. When Dion took the stage, it was the first (and last) time I saw Sutter smile broadly and hug someone.
Aside from an incredible rookie campaign that suggested multiple Norris trophies were in his future, Phanuef’s tenure in Calgary was uneven. As the years progressed, the various weaknesses in Phaneuf’s game (poor defensive reads, apparent ability to unendingly annoy teammates) gew in prominence as his offense tailed off. Things came to a head when the Flames were losing in 2009 and Phaneuf was struggling on the first defense pairing, despite a hefty $6M+/year contract.
We all know what happened next: the trade that brought us Matt Stajan and three piles of used laundry. Phanuef has stabilized his game in Toronto, becoming a capable first pairing defender, although the promise he showed in the early years has all but melted away. Dion is not going to turn into the next Lidstrom or, ahem, Shea Weber (who, incidentally, was chosen in the second round by Nashville that same year), but he’s certainly an above average defenseman.
All that said, Phaneuf is far and away the Flames best post-lock draft choice in the last 10 years. He was a calder trophy finalist, has already appeared in 552 NHL games and is a legitimate top pairing defender.
2.) Mikael Backlund
This will likely be a bit of a contentious choice, but the truth is the pickings get awful slim awful quick. Backlund has struggled to establish himself as the offensive centerman the team hoped he’d become when he was selected 24th overall in 2007. That said, at just 23 years old his overall game has already progressed beyond what most prospects – particular Calgary Flames prospects – manage.
If Backlund can bear down a bit more often in scoring positions and get a few more bounces, he will solidify his role on the team as a capable, two-way centerman who can play and contribute in just about any situation. Good news for the Flames is his lackluster offensive totals have kept his price down.
3.) Brandon Prust
A checker and pugilist in junior, Sutter was on record as being a big fan of Prust as the 2004 third rounder was working his way up through the Flames development system. He liked him so much, Sutter signed Prust to a one-way NHL contract after his ELC expired (despite the fact Prust had only appeared in 10 NHL games up to that point, all as a fourth-line support player). And then he traded Prust. Twice. Both times in swaps involving Olli Jokinen (Darryl went a bit cuckoo by the end).
Brandon was mostly cast in the fighter role in Calgary, but since leaving he’s become a fighter/checker/penalty killer of decent quality. Prust held his own against other third and forth liners in New York despite some tough circumstances and was still willing to drop the gloves now and then.
Prust is never going to win any scoring races, but he’s a decent middle-tier ruffian. His 279 games played thus far are second only to Dion Phaneuf on this list.
4.) TJ Brodie
One of Sutter’s first departures away from the archetypal "big, mean, tough" defender in the draft was Ontario’s TJ Brodie, picked in the 4th round in 2008 out of the OHL. Slight and mobile, Brodie was the opposite of failed choices like Matt Pelech and Gord Baldwin. He exploded for the Saginaw Spirit in the season after he was drafted, scoring 12 goals and 50 points in just 63 games, while becoming one of the club’s top pairing defenders.
He carried that big jump forward into the Flames training camp in 2010, at first dominating the rookie camp before scoring at a near point-per-game pace in the pre-season. His outburst caused the Flames to sit Cory Sarich to start the year and give the kid a cup of coffee as a 20-year old before ultimately sending him down to the farm to ripen.
Brodie made the jump for good last season, however, and despite still having some hiccups in his game, looks like he will develop into a quality NHL defender. His mobility and poise with the puck are valuable assets on the back-end and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him patrolling the blueline on the first or second pairing in a year or two.
5.) Adam Pardy
Like Brodie, Adam Pardy was picked closer to the middle of the draft (6th round in 2004), but his journey to the NHL was a lot longer and more complicated. Pardy was picked as an over-ager (20 years old) by the Flames out of the QMJHL and he would spend his first pro season bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. He was already 23 by the time he finally made the AHL as a regular and he spent two seasons there working his way up the Flames minor league depth chart.
Pardy surprised more than a few people by making the Flames out of camp in 2008-09 and he’s been in the big league ever since.
At 24/25 years old, Pardy basically jumped into the NHL fully formed, so there wasn’t a lot of progression left to his career arc. He began life in the bigs as meat and potatoes third pairing defender who could at least keep his head above water and that’s what he remains to this day (whenever he’s healthy that is).
6.) Dustin Boyd
Yup. We’re already out of regular NHLers. Dusin Boyd was one of my personal favorites back when he was a prospect/tweener with the club – he showed flashes of skill that would hint at something more if he could "just get over the hump" so to speak. One game in every ten, Boyd would make an eye-popping play or just dominate a shift or two.
But it never stuck. By the end of his time in Calgary, Boyd was still consistently struggling to outplay other third and fourth liners and Sutter decided to cut bait with the kid at the trade deadline by sending him to Nashville. Boyd failed to make it work with both the Predators and Canadiens and now plies his trade overseas.
That step Mikael Backlund took last year – where he was able to hold his own against top six NHLers and not get completely outshot and outchanced? – Boyd never got to that level. It’s too bad, because the kid had some tools.
7.) Tim Erixon
Here’s where things get speculative. Former first rounder Tim Erixon has yet to make the NHL, but by all accounts he’s a top level prospect (if also a bit of a jerk). Erixon was an established pro in the Swedish Elite League as a teenager and he put together a quality campaign in the AHL last season. He was unanimously picked as Calgary’s top prospect before all the trade/ELC signing shenanigans and will likely make the Blue Jackets (ha!) out of camp whenever hockey starts up again.
It remains to be seen how good Erixon will actually be in the NHL, but he’s probably a good bet to be a regular.
8.) Max Reinhart
I was very skeptical of the Reinhart pick in the third round back in 2010, but the kids performance in the WHL since that point has helped ease my doubts. By all accounts, he’s a high-end thinker of the game who has no obvious flaws, aside from needing to get a bit bigger and stronger to compete at the pro level.
Max probably won’t be a big scorer as a professional, but his progression seems to suggest he could be a decent two-way, third line type guy down the road. If that happens, he’ll rocket up this list in the future. If not, he’ll fall right off.
9.) Leland Irving
Tabbed as the "goalie of the future" when he was chosen 26th overall in 2006, things haven’t gone quite the way the team or Irving planned since then. His contract negotiations this past summer were drawn and out and contentious because it seems neither he nor the team really knows where Irving stands in the pecking order these days.
With four pro seasons of just okay results in the AHL under his belt and a few decent performances in the NHL, Irving has yet to really make the case that he’s ready to be a capable NHL back-up, let alone starter. When play resumes, he’ll likely get the chance to prove himself as Kipper’s stand-in, but will have to take a big step forward to cnvince the club he’s more than a replacement level puck stopper.
10.) Lance Bouma
Big, mean, fast and not afraid to mix it up, Bouma is on track to be the Flames next "Brandon Prust". A third rounder in 2008, Bouma was the Vancouver Giants captain and has been a favorite of the organization since he turned pro thanks to his mix of toughness, speed and tenacity. Unfortunately, Bouma doesn’t have much offense to speak of, so his ceiling is limited.
Bouma is still very green with just 43 NHL games under his belt and he still hasn’t really established himself as an NHL regular at this point. That said, he is likely to at least develop into a grinding 4th line and could yet become a Prust/Moen type checker who can start more often in his own end or check the other team’s best players without getting killed.
Honourable mentions: Greg Nemisz, Keith Aulie, Joni Ortio, Brett Sutter, Bill Arnold and Michael Ferland
Obviously this isn’t the most impressive list and the lack of any true, game breaking talents is a big reason why the club is battling to just remain amongst the West’s middle class these days. Ironically, only five of the 10 names above are still part of the Flames organization (Backlund, Brodie, Bouma, Iriving and Reinhart) and only two of those five are regular NHLers at this point (Backlund and Brodie).
As mentioned, Feaster and company have had some good early returns with guys like Gaureau, Baertschi and Granlund, so the Flames might actually be nearing the edge of this seemingly endless draft and develop desert they’ve been wandering for the better part of two decades.
Of course, we will have to wait several years to see if the new group has truly turned the corner or not.