Cliff Fletcher is the longest tenured, most decorated, and probably the most fondly remembered GM in Calgary (and Atlanta, I guess) Flames history. Under his reign, he brought the Stanley Cup, two Conference Championships, two Presidents’ Trophies, and three division titles.
He’s mostly known as “Trader Cliff,” due to his pull-the-trigger style that brought big players to strengthen Calgary for the playoffs. He wasn’t afraid to made any trade (including the only cross-sports trade in 1974, to my knowledge), but his drafting resume, both the good and the bad, is often forgotten. Through the draft, he built up a team capable of beating the Canadiens on Forum ice but also tore it down to a decade of forgetfulness. Let’s dive in.
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Laying the foundation
The appropriate point to start would be the 1980 draft, the first year of existence for the Calgary Flames. With four picks in the top 40, Fletcher nailed it with three of them, drafting Denis Cyr 13th overall, Kevin Lavallee 32nd, and Steve Konroyd 39th. The real crown jewel from the 1980 draft was Hakan Loob, the sixth round pick. He wouldn’t join the Flames for another two years, but he would be one of the core pieces when he did.
The Flames quickly added more in 1981. Al MacInnis was the first rounder, and Mike Vernon followed shortly after. In 1983, they added Dan Quinn, Perry Berezan, and Sergei Makarov. 1984 was truly the high water mark, in which the Flames drafted Gary Roberts (12th overall), Paul Ranheim (38th overall), Brett Hull (117th overall), Jiri Hrdina (159th overall), and Gary Suter (180th overall). This would be the core the Flames would use to become a powerful cup contender.
Adding – and moving – pieces
Correction: This would almost be the core the Flames would use to become a powerful cup contender. There’s a reason he’s called Trader Cliff.
All of those aforementioned guys became regular NHLers, but not always for the Flames.
Like a lot of draft assets, many of these guys became trade fodder for Fletcher. Cyr was flipped for the rights to Carey Wilson, Lavallee for Steve Bozek, and Konroyd for John Tonelli. Dale DeGray later became a fifth round pick. Dan Quinn became Mike Bullard, who was great for a year and a half. Perry Berezan went for Brian MacLellan and a 1989 fourth rounder (Robert Reichel).
Most famous is the Brett Hull trade. The promising forward was sent to St. Louis for Rob Ramage and Rick Wamsley, two pretty good yet short-lived Flames. Some would say this trade was necessary given the circumstances of the Flames being a cusp team needing some proven veterans to take them to the next level. Trade Cliff does as Trader Cliff was born to do, and Hull was no exception.
“The trade gives us a chance to run at the Stanley Cup,” Flame president and general manager Cliff Fletcher said. “We felt that at this stage of the season, and in the 16 years the Flames have been in the league, this is the most legitimate we’ve been as far as having an even chance with the other good teams in the league. We decided the calculated risk was worth it.”
Fletcher’s gamble was in moving Hull, son of Hall-of-Famer Bobby Hull. The 23-year-old right winger is third in rookie scoring with 26 goals and 24 assists in 52 games and has been pegged as a future 50-goal scorer.
“We were cognizant of the risk,” Fletcher said. “Hull is going to score a lot of goals in the NHL”
William Houston, The Globe and Mail. “Flames go for broke in acquiring Ramage, Wamsley”
To counter: c’mon. Brett Hull was just bursting out and hitting the scene when the Flames traded him away. He nearly immediately made them look like fools, and every goal he scored in the ’90s made them look stupider. One of Fletcher’s nasty habits was to send away young talent for older talent. He often won big: Cyr, Lavallee, Konroyd, Berezan didn’t last long outside of Calgary while their returns were valuable parts of the Flames. Other times, he lost big. Big enough for this to be considered one of the worst trades of all time.
Smart picks with mixed results
The early years of drafting under Fletcher were defined by making some very smart picks, regardless of whether or not they turned out.
One of his favourite places to find talent was across the pond, specifically behind the Iron Curtain. This was an area of mixed success for him. A fan of Czech players, Fletcher drafted nine of them during his time with the Flames. Six of them came from the 1983 and 1984 drafts.
Fletcher could’ve had a draft bonanza… if any of the Czechs were to come over. Guys like Jaroslav Benak, Petr Rosol, and Igor Liba were held in high respect in the Czech league. In terms of NHLe, Rosol and Liba were actually better than Jiri Hrdina. Now imagine if they (could) actually come over.
One of his most important picks from Europe was Sergei Makarov in 1983, who put up a 64.29 NHLe when he was drafted. Makarov couldn’t come over until the 1989-90 season, but proved he was a steal in the making. The sharpshooter represented the best of Fletcher’s drafting strategy in the early years.
Fletcher drafted many high potential, high scoring players early on, and many of them paid off. We’ve already discussed the guys who did, so let’s discuss some guys who didn’t.
Bruce Eakin was the 10th round selection in 1981 who exploded in his D+1 year to finish third in the WHL. He continued to succeed in the Central Hockey League and the IHL, but could never stick around in the NHL. Marc Roy, the 1980 fourth rounder, was similarly busting up the QMJHL only to get stuck in neutral in the farm leagues. Mario Simioni and Todd Hooey went in the fourth and fifth rounds in 1981, but fell flat in the IHL (though Hooey was the seventh best scorer in 1986-87).
You can find about two or three of those guys in every Fletcher draft. He liked to draft high scoring, high potential guys. It’s unfortunate it didn’t work out as well as it should’ve, but it was a good precedent to set: draft high potential, receive high potential. That defined a lot of early Fletcher drafts, and the Flames had a healthy farm system for a long time.
… and breaking down
Let’s pick 1985 as the turning point for Trader Cliff. It’s a convenient number, being the halfway point of his Calgary Flames tenure. It also serves as a good benchmark. From 1980 to 1985, Fletcher drafted 22 NHLers, an average of 3.67 per draft. As mentioned before, eight of those guys were members of the 1989 team. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame.
After 1985, that number was down to two NHLers per draft. Two per draft is around mediocre when we’re talking drafting. The NHL draft is very generous when considering the size of an NHL roster and the number of draft picks allotted (even more generous during the 12 round era). If you keep your seven picks in today’s draft, you should at least get two. Why the drop off?
Starting out positive
Before we get to the bad, let’s start with the good. After 1985, the Flames drafted two of their most important players for the upcoming ’90s: Theoren Fleury and Robert Reichel. Both were dudes who were surprisingly never drafted in their first year of eligibility despite lofty totals. Fleury led the Moose Jaw Warriors for two years before being drafted. He was short and could never play in the NHL, so he had to wait until the eighth round of 1987 to hear his name called.
Too small indeed.
I want to talk a bit more about Reichel, someone thoroughly underappreciated in Flames history. Reichel posted a 56.44 draft year NHLe, and a 78.53 the following year. He played in a tough Czech league as an 18-year-old. The Flames nabbed him in the fourth round of the 1989 draft, and he made an immediate impact when brought over to the NHL. For all his good work, the Flames repaid him by entering into a bidding war with a German team (!) for his services. At age 39, he finished top three in scoring on his team in the Czech league. Once again, thoroughly underappreciated.
Back to the bad.
In ’85, the Flames made out like bandits. Joe Nieuwendyk was the best pick of the draft, in addition to the three other NHLers Flames picked (Roger Johansson, Tim Sweeney, and Stu Grimson, who all had varying degrees of, uh, “success”). But a disturbing trend arises starting this year.
During this year, Fletcher became addicted to ECAC. It sounds like a street drug, and affected Fletcher’s brain like one, but it is not. It is an NCAA hockey conference.
The ECAC is perhaps the weakest NCAA conference. It’s the place you go to find PHds, not hockey players. By today’s NHLe standards, they are a 0.23, a far cry from the 0.35 Big 10, the 0.37 Hockey East, and the 0.41 NCHC. Even adjusting for era, this number doesn’t rise much (it actually falls to 0.21 at some points in the ’80s). Brandon Bollig and David Jones were ECACers (?). It’s never been a major source for NHL talent, and the success stories are mostly bit players.
Regardless, Fletcher drafted from them a lot. In his tenure, he picked 18 players who were either playing or committed to an ECAC school. Only 10 have been drafted by the Flames since, six of them picked by his protege Doug Risebrough.
This was not a problem for Fletcher before 1985. Prior to, he had only picked five ECACers. In 1985 alone, he picked four. Besides Nieuwendyk, Kent Manderville, and Ted Drury (one of these guys stands out more than the others), none of the 18 picks made it to the NHL.
This obsession with the ECAC went to strange places. In 1987, the Flames drafted Bill Sedergren in the 10th round. He went to Union College, then part of the ECAC-W. Kevin Wortman, a player in the ECAC-E on the totally legitimate sounding American International College Yellow Jackets, was drafted in the eighth round of 1989 (he was also 20 years old when they drafted him). ECAC-W and ECAC-E were not divisions within the ECAC, they were separate affiliate conferences in Division III of the NCAA. Only a handful of Div II NCAA players have ever made the NHL. As far as I can tell, none have from Div III.
This was not because the ECAC had suddenly risen to prominence. In the years before and after 1985, ECACers remained late-round territory. There was never one as great as Nieuwendyk, with the closest probably being Joe Juneau.
So why did Fletcher chase after ECACers? One theory could be that he was always chasing hopelessly after another Nieuwendyk, or even after another Hull or Suter. College players before 1985 had always been paying off immediate dividends for Fletcher, and he wanted to cash in on as many opportunities as possible. Another theory could be that he was just keeping up with the times and moving away from CHL-based drafting, though why the ECAC is never understood.
Downhill from here on out
There was also some bad vibrations following the Flames after that year. Their first round pick in 1986, George Pelawa, died in a car crash just months after the draft. Tom Quinlan, their fourth round pick that same year left to go play baseball. Until 1990, they didn’t have a first round pick pan out (more on that at the end). There’s much more in between.
Post-1985, Fletcher fell into some old habits that weren’t ECAC related. A drafting quirk from the start of the NHL Amateur Draft to the 1980s was selecting overaged players early. A no-no in modern drafting, picking an overager back then was seen as the shrewd move. Eighteen year olds were generally unpredictable. Waiting until they were 19 (sometimes later – Brett Hull was a 20-year-old in the BCJHL when he was drafted), and therefore more tested, was the norm.
After a while, that habit disappeared. More often than not, players who were good at age 18 were usually good at age 19. Letting impact players slide to later rounds because of age bias was too risky, and soon first time eligibles were selected earlier.
In 1981, all Flames picks were first time eligibiles, and the Flames reaped some handsome rewards. That didn’t last long. After that year, Fletcher began picking overagers at a higher rate. In ’82, three of his 13 picks were overagers. In ’83, five of 14. In ’84, seven of 12. It was mostly 50/50 until 1988, when he drafted only three first time eligibles. 1988 was the only year Fletcher did not walk away with a single NHLer. Funny how that works.
Just being plain bad
Even when Fletcher wasn’t looking at low level NCAA prospects or d+x players, he (or his scouting team) seems to have lost his eye for talent.
Let’s look back at that 1986 draft. The first round pick, Bryan Deasley, was one of the older prospects and put up middling numbers with the Michigan Wolverines. Stephane Matteau, the second round pick, put up pretty good numbers with the Hull Olympiques. Matteau lead Deasley by just about eight NHLe points, 24.23 to 16.57. Deasley would last play for the AHL Halifax Citadels in 1992-93. The year after, Matteau would win the Cup with the Rangers.
Of course, NHLe wasn’t invented back then, and there was no tool to inform scouting staff the differences between scoring in different leagues. Instead, they had to go on gut feeling. It didn’t really work out.
Prior to 1985, a lot of players Fletcher drafted were sensible selections by NHLe standards, as previously discussed. Afterwards, those numbers started dipping, and so did his success. Guys like Todd Harkins (42nd overall, 1988. D+1 with a 12.35 NHLe), Etienne Belzile (41st overall, 1990. 3.37 NHLe), and Glen Mears (62nd overall, 12.45 NHLe) are just some examples of important picks that they absolutely whiffed on.
To be fair, Fletcher did draft some guys with good numbers that didn’t turn out. Corey Lyons (63rd overall, 1989) was much in the same vein as Bruce Eakin up above. Vesa Viitakoski (32nd overall, 1990) was a decorated player in Finland but only scored six points in 25 games with the Flames over three years. Tomas Forslund (85th overall, 1988) was exactly like Viitakoski, but Swedish.
The problem was that Fletcher didn’t focus as much on these guys as he did in the past. Junior scoring can never guarantee that someone will make/miss the league, but the higher you go, the higher your chance of success. Fletcher stopped drafting according to the numbers and started drafting according to league bias.
The ultimate sin
But unlike Jason Muzzatti, Calgary’s first choice in 1988, Kidd is considered as close as you can get to a sure thing.
General manager Cliff Fletcher called him “the best goaler that’s been available in the draft since Grant Fuhr. He has unlimited potential.”
“I never thought he would get past No. 8. When he moved past eight, we started to get little twinges.”
To get Kidd, the Flames traded three draft choices to New Jersey Devils and received two back. They surrendered Nos. 20, 24 and 29 to the Devils and received Nos. 11 and 32 in return.
Essentially, the deal cost the Flames the second-rounder they received from Detroit Red Wings in the Brad McCrimmon trade.
Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “A new Kidd’s on the block”
To end off, let’s talk about Trevor Kidd. The final first round pick of the Fletcher era, Trevor Kidd was supposed to be the next best thing that would keep the Flames burning into the 1990s. They traded up to get him. The pick they sent back was the one the Devils used to draft Martin Brodeur. I’m too sad to write an actual ending.
On this ominous note, we lead you into the draft dealings of protege Doug Risebrough, in a future article coming to you soon.