The more recent a draft, the better it tends to look. After all, it’s a lot easier to get excited about the raw potential of the picks your team of choice selects right after they make them, rather than hope they’re able to carry the potential that saw them get drafted through season after season, particularly when they don’t make the NHL.
Look at the 2015 NHL draft: five players were selected, and two have made their NHL debuts, while one is gone from the organization already. The Oliver Kylington hype has died off rather naturally, while the Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane hype seems to be thriving. Pavel Karnaukhov is an afterthought, more likely to join Riley Bruce in no longer being relevant.
Compare that to the 2016 NHL draft. The Flames had the benefit of way more picks in this one – including a sixth overall – but there is still more excitement for more prospects. Matthew Tkachuk has already made it. Tyler Parsons, one year after being drafted, seems to have already taken the top goalie prospect spot, ahead of 2013 third round pick Jon Gillies, who only just completed his first professional season. Dillon Dube is intriguing, but Adam Fox was downright electrifying in his freshman year. Linus Lindstrom is more difficult to follow, and Mitchell Mattson has a ways to go, but Eetu Tuulola and Matthew Phillips have remained in the spotlight, and Stepan Falkovsky drew a lot of attention with a 21-goal season.
Three of five 2015 picks look like they could still be high level, or at least NHLers. Three or four 2016 picks look like they could be high level, while the rest still look to have a decent shot at making the show. This number will decrease with time.
It decreases so much that eventually, prospects are found to simply not have what it takes, and they fall by the wayside. This happens more often than not. But it’s much harder to swallow when those prospects don’t get a chance.
Take Tyler Wotherspoon and Brett Kulak: two young defencemen called up throughout the seasons mostly to sit in the pressbox. Kulak has had it better than Wotherspoon, but watching young defencemen simply sit while guys like Corey Potter and Matt Bartkowski play in their stead is at best baffling, and at worst damaging.
The Flames had a relatively healthy forward group in 2015-16, but what was Mark Jankowski supposed to do with a 10-minute twirl? Worse yet, how was Hunter Shinkaruk supposed to perform in his seven-game call-up when he was plunked on the fourth line and averaging 10:35 a game?
And all of this is to say nothing about Rasmus Andersson being up on emergency recall, then regular recall, and only getting one game in out of all of that.
Is it a sign of the Flames’ prospects not being ready? Not being good enough, period? Or are they getting the short end of the stick?
The Flames have nine players, as things currently stand, who were either drafted by them or signed as an undrafted free agent. In other words, they didn’t have to pay to pick them up, and they graduated from the Flames’ farm team to make the NHL, or just made it right away. These are the unequivocally successful picks:
- Mark Giordano
- Mikael Backlund
- T.J. Brodie
- Lance Bouma
- Micheal Ferland
- Johnny Gaudreau
- Sean Monahan
- Sam Bennett
- Matthew Tkachuk
Included on that list are four first round picks, one third rounder, two fourth rounders, a fifth rounder, and an undrafted free agent: a decent mix, skewed towards first round picks, which have the highest likelihood of success. The Flames have been able to find some gems in later rounds, but not a ton.
The good news here is most of these homegrown players are core. Really, the only ones who are very clear steps below are Bouma and Ferland, and Ferland still has plenty of value – just not as much as the other seven guys. These nine rewarded the organization’s faith in them from the get-go.
Fallen by the wayside
Backlund was the only Flames pick from the 2007 NHL draft to make it to the show. After him, John Negrin and Keith Aulie played a combined 170 NHL games, 167 of them belonging to Aulie. It’s been years, and both players played in the AHL this past season.
The Flames found success in 2008 with Bouma and Brodie. Their only other pick to play any NHL games? Greg Nemisz, with 15 – and even then, he retired from playing professional hockey in 2015.
Probably the Flames’ most prolific 2009 pick to actually play for them was Joni Ortio, who managed to get 37 starts through his NHL career. Tim Erixon, who demanded a trade to the Rangers, hasn’t played an NHL game since 2015, so that’s unfortunate for him. Roman Horak, who the Flames got back in the trade, actually did make the Flames pretty much right away, but only got in one full season with them; he’s spent the past three seasons playing for Chekhov Vityaz in the KHL, putting up modest numbers.
Max Reinhart was the Flames’ first pick in 2010, and after 23 NHL games, he’s now off in Germany. That’s about it, aside from two meaningless end of seasons games from John Ramage and Bill Arnold. Patrick Holland got five in, but for Montreal after he was part of a package traded for Mike Cammalleri and Karri Ramo.
So from these draft years – the final Sutter years – it probably wasn’t a case of Flames prospects not being good enough as much as it was abysmal drafting. A number of them, such as Nemisz, Ryan Howse, and Arnold are done playing professionally already; Aulie had the most successful career, and he hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015.
Still hope yet
The 2011 draft was a great one for the Flames, and not just because they picked up Gaudreau. All five picks they made have gone on to play in the NHL, even if they aren’t all for the Flames. Sven Baertschi was both given a chance and the short end of the stick; he played a fair bit alongside Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, but a slump saw him demoted and that, combined with new management openly talking about disliking him to the press, spelled the end. Markus Granlund got more than his fair shot, though, while Laurent Brossoit was brushed aside in a trade all too quickly, Ortio essentially being chosen over him.
Wotherspoon still remains, sputtering in and out of the NHL while inferior veterans played ahead of him. He has the most legitimate case to complain about how the pursuit of his NHL career has gone; however, he’s also gotten substantial AHL time, so it’s not as though he’s been totally wasting away. It’s probably now or never though.
The 2012 draft is just now starting to graduate. Mark Jankowski has one professional year in him, and is looking to be a favourite to be a prospect to make the NHL this season, depending on spot availability. Kulak is right up there with him, only the Flames are out of excuses to not play him, unless he ends up in Vegas: there are too many spots open on defence and he’s spent too much time lingering around the NHL to not get a real chance. Jon Gillies is kind of up there too, but since he both lost a year to injury and is a goalie, there’s still a bit of time there yet.
The 2013 draft, outside of the Flames’ three first round picks, is looking to be a lot less successful. At this point, the only ones worth keeping an eye on are Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk. Poirier has played a couple of NHL games, but outside of a solid rookie pro season, he hasn’t really made much of a case for himself. Klimchuk has just one good professional year under him, as well.
They weren’t drafted by the Flames, but Hunter Shinkaruk and Curtis Lazar, fellow 2013 first round picks, have shots, too – and Shinkaruk’s numbers are starting to indicate he’s approaching that now or never barrier. He’ll require waivers to be sent down this upcoming season. The same goes for Lazar.
Are prospects really not getting a chance?
Yes and no, really. You can make the argument a few are getting shafted, and if Kulak isn’t playing in the NHL this upcoming season, it’s probably fair to be angrier than normal.
But historically – or at least through recent history? Not many Flames prospects have been given a chance, but not many have been deserving of one, either. The Flames still have to fill out their roster for 2017-18, but right now they’ve got 17 probable spots filled, and just over half of them are from players they themselves drafted and developed. That’s a pretty good track record, and that number could indeed go up.
Recent perceptions from Feaster drafts onwards have made it appear as though the Flames aren’t trying to graduate their guys. The drafts seem to have gotten better from 2011 on, which places further pressure on giving prospects who actually look deserving of a shot, well, a shot. Horak may have had a premature dismissal. Baertschi was on too short a leash, but Granlund had sufficient time to make his case. Wotherspoon looks like he’s been done wrong, but the book is still out on him, and he’s already been passed by in Kulak.
This could just be a case of the Flames taking the appropriate amount of time with their prospects, though. This upcoming season – and just how many prospects get the chance to play in the NHL – will go a long way towards seeing if that’s the case, or if there really is a problem.