The draft is over and free agency season is rapidly approaching. We won’t be able to truly grade the new regime’s work in Philly for another 3-5 years, unfortunately, so all we’re left with right now is first impressions and gut reactions based on the info we have the factors you weight and covet. As much as we talk about prospect’s characters and builds and skills and results, the truth is each kid is or more or less a scratch lottery ticket – you buy a bunch now and only in 3+ years do you find out if you won anything.
For now, here is my knee-jerk reaction to Treliving’s first draft.
– I’ll start with Sam Bennett, because it doesn’t really matter what happens in the rest of the draft if Bennett turns out. There are all sorts of reasons to be excited about this kid: a June, 1996 birthday means he was one of the younger guys in the draft. He led his team in scoring by a 21-point margin despite only playing 57 games. Henri Ikonen, who came in second to Bennett, is two years older and an NHL draft pick.
Bennett also scored at the highest rate at even strength of any draft eligible player this year. His draft NHLe of 39.3 is right in line with most excellent-to-elite prospects.
These are sparkling results, which is likely why Bennett usually showed up higher than 4 on most mock draft and scouting lists. Corey Pronman ranked Bennett #2 behind Aaron Ekblad on his top-100 prospect list:
It’s hard to find a specific part of Bennett’s game that is weak; he’s
simply a fantastic all-around forward. He’s a really fast and energetic
skater who can play at a high pace and embrace a pressure style with
high amounts of effectiveness. However, Bennett’s best quality is his
hockey IQ. He sees the ice really well, and can dominate the puck in
terms of possession due to his hockey brain on top of his speed and puck
skills. Bennett has flashy elements to his game, while also being able
to generate chances through work ethic and instincts, and has an
impressive shot as well. Bennett battles well for pucks, with what one
NHL exec coins “superb natural balance” in terms of his center of
gravity in board confrontations. He also embraces the physical game, can
lay some quality hits and is a fine defensive forward.
Smart, fast, mean, deadly. The only thing Bennett needs to improve is strength, but that can be said of about 90% of the 17 year olds drafted each year. He instantly becomes a top-3 prospect in this organization.
– That said, Bennett should return to the OHL next season. Unlike Sean Monahan, who was one of the older guys of his draft class and already NHL-sized, Bennett has some growing and physical maturing to do before he’s ready to battle men in the NHL for 82-games a year. As a potential cornerstone player for his franchise, the last thing the exec team should want to do is rush him into the league and potentially spoil his development.
– To say nothing of starting the clock on his entry-level contract – keeping Bennett in Calgary next season means you trade a cheap year of 21 year old Bennett in 2017-18 (when the Flames might actually be competitive) for a cheap year of 18 year old Bennett in 2014-15 (when the Flames probably won’t be). It’s a no-brainer.
– It should go without saying for those who know me that I am currently ambivalent at best about the rest of the Flames draft. The first potential misstep, I think, was picking a goalie (Mason MacDonald) high in the second round.
I have nothing against the player in particular. He sounds like a decent prospect. But then, most goalies do when you pick them. The problem with puckstoppers is no one in the league has proven they can predict them with any sort of accuracy. Future starters and stars are liberally sprinkled throughout the draft every year. Goaltenders also have a much longer soaking period as prospects – to the degree that they often don’t become starters for the team that drafted them even if they work out.
Let’s put it this way: outside of MacDonald, the Flames have picked 15 goalies over the last 20 years in the entry draft. The most successful of them (not counting guys like Joni Ortio, Jon Gillies and Laurent Brossoit, who are still working to establish themselves), were Craig Anderson and Curtis McElhinney. Anderson was picked by the Flames in the 3rd round in 1999 and then re-entered the draft in 2001, where he was selected by Chicago. He didn’t become an established starter in the NHL until 2010, nearly a decade later. McElhinney has managed to hang around the league, but primarily as a back-up.
Three of those Flames goalie picks came in the first two rounds: Evan Lindsay, 32nd overall (1997), Brent Krahn, 9th overall (2000) and Leland Irving, 26th overall (2005). They played a grand total of 14 games for Calgary between all of them (13 for Irving, 1 for Krahn). Brent Krahn was the second goalie picked in the 2000 draft behind Rick Dipietro. The best goaltender of that draft class? Henrik Lundqvist, selected 205th.
Goalies are a crapshoot. A better than average goalie can be incredibly valuable, but reliably finding and developing one is exceptionally difficult.
– Here’s the other problem with goalies – they are the only NHL position that is “pass/fail”. In order to work his way up an org chart, a goalie has to be clearly better than the org’s other options in front of him.
That’s not true of skaters – if a Sean Monahan doesn’t become a 40-goal scorer, he can still be of value to the team as a two-way checking center, or high end penalty killer. If Sam Bennett can’t seem to handle the strength of NHL centers when he makes it to the show, the coach can try shifting him to wing, etc.
There are a myriad number of roles and niches skaters can fill and still be valuable. For goalie, it’s either quality starter or just good enough to be a back-up. That’s it. And back-ups can be had every off-season for next to nothing.
– Which brings me to my final point about goalies – all but the best of them are lousy assets from a trade/market perspective. There are usually more capable goaltenders than they are starting jobs in the NHL. There is a huge middle class of puck stoppers who can be acquired and signed relatively easily. Replacement level guys can be had on waivers or as free agents all the time. So unless that guy you pick ends up being a better than average starter in 3-5 years, there’s a good chance he a.) won’t make the team anyways or b.) won’t be worth much as a trade chip.
– We discussed Hunter Smith at length yesterday in the comments, so I’ll only say he looks like a very big gamble (literally and figuratively). He’s old for this draft class, doesn’t have a history of putting up points (his 40 last year were by far a career high in junior) and his NHLe of 15 means his chances of being a 0.5 point-per-game in the show (ie; about 40 points per year) are about 29% if he makes the NHL at all.
Ever since the Bruins picked Milan Lucic in the second round back in 2006, other NHL teams have been trying to pull off the same trick. At some point I guess someone will manage to find that power forward/enforcer hybrid they so covet, but for now Lucic is a unicorn.
My guess is the Flames are hoping for a Lucic-like homerun here. It’s possible because, well, Lucic exists, but it’s far more likely they picked a replacement level tough guy or, at best, Brian Boyle instead. Again, assuming Smith makes it to the show at all.
That said, if Hunter Smith is indeed the next Lucic, high fives all around.
– Related: Brian Boyle is available as a UFA this summer.
– Which brings us to Brandon Bollig. I think he’s probably an upgrade on the club’s current tough guys, though it’s hard to say to what degree he was floated by playing on an elite team like Chicago. I’d prefer it if the Flames didn’t use assets (beyond 7th rounders and career fringe players) to acquire tough guys, but this does seem like an effort to up the functional toughness quotient of the club, which I previously identified as a need moving forward.
As such, I will reserve judgement until Bollig plays some games in a Flames jersey.
– Related: Brad Treliving was on the radio yesterday and he said the team kind of expects Bollig to be more than a 4th line fighter. And while he may be better than 4-minutes per night Kevin Westgarth, that strikes me as a pretty tall order for a guy who will soon be 28 and has never scored more than 14 points in ANY pro league (last year’s total was his career best in both the NHL and AHL).
Bollig indeed averaged about 10 mins per game last season, but that was the least of any regular skater on the Blackhawks – the only other guys within spitting distance were Bickell (11:21) and Ben Smith (12:44). The year before, Bollig was a team lowest 8 minutes per night in 25 games.
– If you’re wondering how Bollig could play so much (relative to most tough guys), my guess is it is an artifact of playing on the Hawks, who would have a lot less “panic time” minutes in any given season than most clubs. Chicago won 47 games last year and finished with a +47 goal differential. That means there’s a cushion there to play the bottom-end because you’re leading a lot more games by 2+ goals. The Flames, in contrast, played the most one-goal games in the league in 2013-14, many of them while trying to come from behind. That’s one of the big reasons McGrattan and Westgarth saw so much of the bench.
– I guess the best thing you can say about Bollig is he wasn’t sheltered at all by Quenneville last year. In fact, he had one of the lowest zone start ratios (offensive zone draws/defensive zone draws) in the league. If you have to skate a tough guy, it’s sensible not to waste offensive zone draws on them because they aren’t a threat to score, but a lot of coaches are reluctant to start the big guys in the d-zone because they are usually defensive liabilities (McGrattan and WestGarth were both given the high ground by Hartley, for example). If this means more o-zone starts for guys like Backlund, Monahan and Gaudreau (fingers crossed), then that’s a positive.
– There isn’t much to say about the rest of the Flames draft. Hickey sounds a bit like a TJ Brodie type defender, but he was selected out of the AJHL and is heading to college next year. We’re probably 5 years away from knowing if he’ll be a pro or not. The guys selected in the 100s are by definition near hopeless long-shots, so we can only assume we’ll never see them skate a game for the Flames and then pray it turns out otherwise.
– Here’s what can be said about the Flames draft: the only guy they picked who has real offensive upside is Sam Bennett. Everyone else projects to be some form of middle-rotation role player (or a goalie) at best. Unless Smith becomes Lucic, of course. Offense is very expensive and difficult to acquire via trade or free agency, which is why it’s preferable to draft it.
– Next up…free agent frenzy!