The Calgary Flames are known for being a lousy drafting organization. For good reason – they haven’t internally picked and developed a star quality forward since Cory Stillman in 1992 and even he isn’t exactly a hall-of-famer. Their best draft pick in the last decade is Dion Phanuef by a considerable margin. Behind him, the second best pick in terms of games played over that period is…third liner Brandon Prust.
It’s been a long, sad march through mediocrity at the draft table for Calgary. The Jesper Mattsson’s and Rico Fata’s of the world have outnumbered the Phaneuf’s and Stillman’s 10-1. The reason Darryl Sutter was so manic and determined in his attempts to trade the future for the present during his time in office was because the franchise failed so utterly to surround marquee players like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff with high-end, homegrown talent.
It wasn’t always this way. If you peel back the veil of time and peer into the now distant past, you’ll discover the Flames were once a juggernaut built almost exclusively through savvy drafting. Nowhere are those rapidly fading successes more pronounced than in the 1984 NHL entry draft.
Roberts and Hull and Suter! Oh My!
Although they had added guys like Dan Quinn, Mike Vernon, Hakan Loob and Al MacInnis through a number of earlier drafts, the Flames were still well back of the Smythe Division leading Edmonton Oilers when the summer of 1984 rolled around. That past season, the Oil had lead the league with a ridiculous 57-18-5 record before cruising to a Stanley Cup victory over the New York Islanders. The Flames were second in the Division that year, but only because the Smythe was fairly awful – their 34-32-14 record was miles away from their provincial rivals.
The ’84 entry draft would help turn the tables down the road. In the first round, Calgary took OHLer Gary Roberts 12th overall. A tough left winger who scored 27 goals and 57 points in 48 games, Robert’s output was pretty pedestrian for a first round pick that year. Of course, he broke out the following season collecting 106 points in just 59 games and was a full time NHLer by the 1987-88 season*.
*(fun fact – Roberts managed 200+ PIM in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. He as more or less considered a grinder before popping 39 goals in 88-89)
In the third round, Calgary picked St. Louis native Paul Ranhiem out of the Minnesota high school system. Ranheim spent four years in the US college hockey playing for the University of Wisconsin before making the Flames in 1989-90.
By current Flames standards, that would be a bumper crop for any one draft. The Flames still had a hall-of-famer, a pivotal first pairing defender and capable third line checker on the radar though.
In the sixth round, Calgary took a chance on cocky son of the Golden Jet, one Brett Hull. Hull scored a ridiculous 105 goals and 188 points in just 57 games (read that again) for the BCHL Penticton Knights during his draft year. He would go on to compete for Minnesota Duluth the next year where he would manage 38 goals and 60 points as a freshman.
Of course, Hull wouldn’t get much of chance to make an impact on the Flames organization after being shipped out of town as a rookie in 1987-88 for Rob Ramage and Rick Wamsley. Nevertheless, Hull in the 6th round probably stands as one of the best value choices in league history given his incredible career.
Next up, the Flames went overseas to pick Jiri Hrdina out of Prague in the Czech Republic. Hrdina was 26 years old at the time, so more or less a fully formed pro player already. He made the Flames full time in 1988-89 and provided the club with about three seasons of yeoman’s work before being moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Finally, in the ninth round, Calgary chose defender Gary Suter out of the Univesity of Wisconsin. After a completely average season offensively speaking in 1983-84, Suter would break out as a sophomore in college, garnering 12 goals and 51 points in just 39 games. He made the Flames out of camp the very next season, landed on a pairing with Al MacInnis and scored 18 goals and 68 points en route to a Calder Trophy. He would wind up spending 8 seasons with the Flames in total, scoring 60+ points in six of them, including a 91 point career best in 1987-88.
All told, five of the Flames 12 picks that summer were future NHLers and four of them would become high impact players for many, many years. Altogether, Suter, Hull, Ranheim, Roberts and Hrdina totaled an eye-popping 4,901 career games and 3,636 career points. Four of those players played significant roles on the Flames 1989 cup championship team (Ranheim, Hrdina, Roberts, Suter), while Hull was traded for Rob Ramage, who was also a key piece of the puzzle that year.
The Flames had a number of notable entry drafts in the early-to-mid ’80’s, but 1984 stands out as the best of the bunch. Calgary hasn’t picked a single player of the same quality as Roberts, Suter or Hull in at least a decade, but in ’84 they got all of them – and more – in one fell swoop.