It wasn’t too long ago the Flames weren’t looking so great on defence. Not in regards to the quality of their play, specifically, but in regards to the future of the blueline. TJ Brodie was 24 years old last season, and… that was about it for guys in their mid-early 20s.
Of course, Calgary addressed this situation very recently. Not only did they draft both Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington in the second round to bolster their defence prospect base – which really wasn’t looking particularly great – but they acquired Dougie Hamilton at little cost to themselves.
But what if they’d done something a few years before that? In the 2012 NHL draft, the Flames traded down to the 21st overall pick and used it to select Mark Jankowski, a player still developing in college who may or may not turn out to be great. At 22nd overall, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Olli Maatta: now a 20-year-old who, despite a barrage of injury and health problems, is already almost at 100 NHL games, and has taken on a role in the top four of a perennial playoff team.
What if Maatta had gone 21st overall, rather than 22nd?
The forwards with Jankowski
When the Flames went with Mark Jankowski, they had very, very little centre depth in the organization. There was Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund, and… Olli Jokinen? Mike Cammalleri the winger? It was pretty disastrous, with only a small handful of prospects, including the just-selected Max Reinharts and Markus Granlunds.
The Flames needed centres. Badly. And although he was going to be at least a college degree away, they chose to go with a centre they were very, very high on.
Here’s the problem, though – and this isn’t something the 2012 drafting staff could have predicted at the time – the lack of centres was fixed, rather quickly, before Jankowski had barely finished half of his collegiate career.
The year after Jankowski, the Flames drafted Sean Monahan. Backlund established himself. Two years after Jankowski, the Flames drafted Sam Bennett.
Monahan and Bennett already look – and project – to be very, very good. Backlund has proven himself an exceptional defensive centre. Stajan is a veteran rock who is probably going to find himself pushed out sooner rather than later, and then there’s still Granlund, or Joe Colborne, or Josh Jooris, or Bill Arnold, or Paul Byron, or– It goes on a while, now.
Now, Jankowski doesn’t have next to no competition against which to compete. He has a lot. A lot that have already proven themselves NHLers. And at least two he’s rather unlikely to pass, probably placing him out of the top six, if he makes it that far.
This isn’t to discredit Jankowski, or say he’s never going to make it, or the pick went horribly wrong. It’s to say that when he was drafted, he had a much, much easier route than he does in the years since – years the team knew he wouldn’t be contending for a roster spot.
Jankowski still has potential, but among this revamped centre group, he’s going to need a hell of a lot more.
The defence with Maatta
One year after being drafted, Olli Maatta made the NHL full time. Not just that, but he made the top four – and certainly would have been in the Flames’ top four by the end of his first season at absolute latest, as a 19-year-old.
For a team that was lacking in young, quality defencemen, he would have put a huge dent in that conundrum. He would have firmly been a top four defenceman in his sophomore year – this past season – and although he’s already had his own unfortunate luck with health issues and injuries (health issues unavoidable; injuries, who’s to say the same thing happens if he’s on a different team? That’s getting really alternate universe, though), he would have greatly helped when available – especially when Mark Giordano went down.
At the same time, there’s a potential downside to this: do the Flames still trade for Dougie Hamilton if they already have Maatta? Maatta looks good, but Hamilton is a bigger, right-shooting defender who has already performed at a higher level in more difficult circumstances, while only being a year older.
You take Hamilton over Maatta, so the way things have worked out for the Flames isn’t so bad, after all.
Can you imagine?
Still, Maatta alone wouldn’t have fixed the defence. And if Hamilton was still available at the price at which the Flames got him – just three picks, without a single roster player involved – then you make that trade. Every time.
Giordano would be the oldest member of the top four, at nearly 32; rounding it out would be TJ Brodie (25), Hamilton (22), and Maatta (will be 21). That would be… incredibly set for the future on the blueline.
That isn’t the route Calgary went, though. Instead, they went after centres, an area that already looks incredibly impressive in year three of the rebuild. There’s Backlund (26), Monahan (soon to be 21), and Bennett (19): an established group down the middle for years to come. If Jankowski reaches the potential first seen in him in his draft year, then that group becomes all the more impressive.
That’s still an if, though. Jankowski may never make the NHL to begin with – and there were other players available in 2012 who already have.
We’ll see. But it’s fun to think about.