Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

Riley Bruce and the challenge of late round picks

Way, way back in the day, my first writing job in hockey was doing prospect stuff for the old Calgary Flames program, BLAZE. As part of some story I was working on about the organization’s prospects, I vividly recall a long phone chat I had with then-assistant general manager John Weisbrod. We were discussing drafting and he had a very simple thought about late round selections: late in the draft every player will have some kind of deficiency, it’s just a matter of finding deficiencies that your organization can live with when you’re choosing players that late.

For a few reasons, the concept of deficiencies came to mind when the Flames opted not to sign 2015 seventh round selection Riley Bruce on Thursday. (Bruce will re-enter the draft at the end of June.)

A look back

For the sake of comparison, here are the sixth and seventh round selections made by the Flames over the past six drafts.

  • 2011 sixth rounder on Laurent Brossoit, then the backup for the Edmonton Oil Kings
  • 2012 sixth rounder on Coda Gordon, a good (if one-dimensional) scorer for the Swift Current Broncos
  • 2012 seventh rounder on Matthew DeBlouw, a good (if undersized) USHL center tabbed for the college ranks
  • 2013 sixth rounder on Tim Harrison, a second-year eligible player with size and decent numbers in high school hockey
  • 2013 seventh rounder on Rushan Rafikov, a talented Russian defender who might not come over to North America
  • 2013 seventh rounder on John Gilmour, a second-year eligible defender with good numbers in college
  • 2014 sixth rounder on Adam Ollas Mattsson, a Swedish defender who might not play long-term in North America
  • 2014 seventh rounder on Austin Carroll, a second-year eligible forward with good numbers in the WHL
  • 2015 sixth rounder on Andrew Mangiapane, a second-year eligible tiny forward with great offensive numbers in the OHL
  • 2015 seventh rounder on Riley Bruce, a very tall defender with almost non-existent offensive numbers in the OHL
  • 2016 sixth rounder on Eetu Tuulola, a Finnish forward who might not play long-term in North America
  • 2016 sixth rounder on Matthew Phillips, a small forward with great offensive numbers in the WHL
  • 2016 seventh rounder on Stepan Falkovsky, a second-year eligible defender with good numbers in the OHL

Of these 13 late round selections, the Flames ended up signing three of them (Brossoit, Carroll, and Mangiapane) – and it’s looking like a solid bet that Ollas Mattsson, Tuulola, Phillips and Falkovsky will eventually sign. The hope with late round picks is that some of them turn into assets like Adam Pardy, Adam Cracknell, Curtis McElhinney or David Moss did, while the absolute dream scenario is stumbling upon a Theoren Fleury or Sergei Makarov late in the draft.

While it’s basically a crap-shoot deep in the draft, there are ways to work the system to provide better odds.

Deficiencies you can live with

Both historically and recently, the Flames have trended towards a few basic types of players late in the draft:

  1. “Smalls”: Physically small players that have an exceptional ability that makes them attractive enough to overcome their stature eventually. Mangiapane and Phillips are good fits here because they’re not huge, but they score a ton. A case can be made for DeBlouw, who was great at faceoffs and positioning but lacked a ton of size and offensive flair.
  2. “Olds”: Players going through the draft for the second or third time who may not have high development ceilings anymore, but are a lot closer to being what they’re going to be at the pro level. Drafting these guys takes a bit of guess-work out of their developmental path, as well as provides some inexpensive depth for the minor pro system. Good examples of this type are Harrison, Gilmour, Carroll and Falkovsky.
  3. “Euros”: Players drafted from a European league. Europeans carry a couple of risks, in that (a) sometimes it’s difficult to project how an individual’s playing style will translate to North American ice and (b) sometimes Europeans really like playing at home and don’t want to uproot their lives to play minor-pro hockey in North America. Good examples of this type include Rafikov, Ollas Mattsson and Tuulola.
  4. “Green Goalies”: Goaltenders that haven’t played a ton yet at the level they’re at, making it hard to assess them against their peer group or extrapolate how they’ll develop. Brossoit fits this mold, as do guys from further back like Curtis McElhinney and the great Andrei Trefilov.

A quick skim of these groups and the drafting list above reveals that it’s not really clear how Gordon or Bruce fit with the Flames’ usual drafting and development strategy regarding late round picks:

  • Gordon was a good offensive player in the Dub that didn’t really offer much else beyond scoring goals. The hope was probably that he could develop his defensive game and become a more rounded player. He didn’t.
  • Bruce was a really tall, lanky kid who didn’t skate amazingly well. The hope was probably that he could simultaneously fill out and improve his skating to the point where he could become an asset at the pro level. He didn’t.

In other words, deficiencies that seem to be the ones that teams can live with should be the ones that aren’t related to on-ice performance. When phrases describing a prospective player are things like, “He’s good but he hasn’t played much,” or, “He’s amazing but he’s pretty small and European,” you can probably feel okay taking the player late because the deficiencies aren’t gaping holes. When you’re hoping that a player learns to back-check or learns to skate so they can become an asset, you’re probably in trouble.

A look ahead

Right now, the Flames have possession of their own sixth and seventh round selections in the 2017 NHL Draft. Based on how the past few drafts have been conducted by Brad Treliving and his scouting staff, it’s probably a safe bet that we can expect them to stick to their usual late round player types – especially given how Bruce didn’t work out. Expect them to draft small players, European players and players in their second or third draft in the later rounds, particularly since the reserve list is presently chock full of goaltenders.

  • Lucky 13

    I watched Phillips quite a bit the last few years playing for the Royals.
    One thing that I was impressed with (being really small) is that he knows how to use his positioning well and is a gifted scorer. He’s not afraid to go into the dirty areas of the ice to make a play.

    I really hope he can translate this into the AHL/ NHL when his time comes.

  • The GREAT WW

    You could easily have included “bigs” as one of the “basic types” you describe here.
    A lot are oversized.
    From that perspective the Bruce pick fits in perfectly….


  • DKramer

    Success in the last two rounds is not very common but these last few years the sixth and seventh rounders Calgary has taken get me pretty excited! Whether they work out or not is another story but I’m at least optimistic!

    • freethe flames

      It’s this kind of optimism that makes me think if the Flames had to give up their first rounder for immediate help at RW(under 25) then I would do it. However I cringe at the idea of not having a pick in the first 3 rounds if that were to happen. All the later round guys we are optimistic about are like 2-3 years away from being in the NHL. If BT can land a RW who is significantly better than Lazar/Chiasson/Versteeg as part of a package involving our first rounder then this team could move forward. But he also has to address the goalie situation as well. Both these could be addressed prior to the expansion draft. The other need of adding a #4 defender will have to occur after the expansion draft.

  • smatic10

    Falkovsky looks legit, at least offensively. After watching his highlights on youtube, he skates smoothly for his size, has a rocket shot, and has soft hands. I hope he gets decent minutes in the A next year.

    • freethe flames

      I could see him being a third pairing defender who gets PP time in the AHL next year. He is guy who needs time to develop but could be a real sleeper.

  • canadian1967

    You actually pointed out how the Flames got lucky drafting a 25 year old Makarov in the seventh round, when he was arguably a top 3 player in the world?