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Flames Draft History: Doug Risebrough, one shining star, and a lot of fourth liners

Due to his placement along the timeline of the Flames, Doug Risebrough is often regarded as the GM solely responsible for the team declining from Stanley Cup contender to the Young Guns era. It may be a surprise to some that he was actually the most successful drafter for the Flames. In 1992 alone, all but five selections out of 12 saw at least 50 NHL games. That’s pretty good!

The problem? He drafted some players who mostly amounted to guys.

That’s pretty vague, so let me explain: systems that attempt to predict the success of a soon-to-be drafted prospect define success as x amount of games played. GP can occasionally be a misleading stat, as players can rack up x number of games due to coaching biases, attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole, being an AHL/NHL tweener, etcetera. Hitting x number of games may not totally be a marker of quality and could instead function as a signifier of accident and random chance. A goon is equally as successful, by these models, as the league’s best player.

The next trick is to try and guess how well a prospect will perform with regards to points and lineup placement. We see recent models taking stabs at that task with some success. Although they’re far from perfect, these models have attempted to move the idea of success from one flawed metric to a more concrete one. One that can accurately determine a prospect’s real quality and his likelihood of success.

For this piece, we’ll stick with that former definition of success, just to be positive. Doug Risebrough drafted a lot of “successful” guys, who went on to have “success” at the NHL level. He was very “successful” at drafting. By which we mean he was very bad at it.

The numbers

Players F D G NHLers Busts Overagers d + >2
57 36 18 3 16 (28.1%) 41 19 8

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Undoubtedly, Risebrough’s task was to keep the fire stoked (no pun intended). After a disappointing exit from the 1990 playoffs after a dominant regular season, the Flames still had the nucleus intact. They lost Hakan Loob, but immediately replaced him with Sergei Makarov and Theo Fleury. They had just won the Cup, and were already getting better. One bad playoff series be damned, this was a team on the rise.

So after Cliff Fletcher left, Risebrough ascended. He was the natural protege. Fletcher acquired him as a player, hired him as a coach, promoted him to assistant GM, and then handed him the reigns. From one success story to another.

Now the problem was that Risebrough probably did not have a single clue what he was actually doing. He was promoted to assistant GM in 1989-90, Fletcher’s final season in Calgary. Probably not enough time to truly learn the ways of GMing, especially when you’re also tasked with coaching the team you’re also learning how to run. GM at any level is a complex gig that can’t be learned immediately. It takes a lot of time and if you rush it, you’re in trouble.

Fletcher’s influence clearly dominated Risebrough’s behaviour as GM. Of course, we will never really know the thought patterns behind such moves, but we can see the echoes. Fletcher liked trading big players and trading often. Risebrough liked trading big players and trading often. Fletcher really liked drafting European players, Risebrough liked drafting European players. Fletcher really liked guys who played in one particular NCAA conference, etc.

But Risebrough learned one trick. Perhaps he believed too much in himself, but he liked players like him, and liked calling their names on draft day. If you don’t know what type of player Risebrough was, here is what Risebrough was famous for in Calgary before becoming GM:

Hopefully you see the dark road this is headed down.

Tearing down the wall

Risebrough was, proportionally, the most Euro-friendly Calgary Flames GM. He spent just under 50% of his total picks on European players. Breaking it down even further, he drafted nine Swedes, four Finns, six Russians, two Czechs, and one German player.

The political culture of the time definitely allowed Risebrough more draft table freedom than his mentor. Under Fletcher, the highest the Flames ever drafted a European player was in the second round of the 1990 draft (Vesa Viitakoski), and that was a surprise. Europeans were rarely selected before the fourth round of the draft.

Under Risebrough, that mentality changed. His first ever pick was a European, Niklas Sundblad from the SEL, 19th overall in the 1991 draft. He went for another Swede in the 1993 first round, selecting Jesper Mattson, also from the SEL. Of the 23 top 100 picks, Risebrough selected eight Europeans. For comparison, Fletcher selected nine in his 58 top 100 picks.

If you don’t fondly remember Mattsson or Sundblad, it’s because Risebrough missed a lot on his European picks. It wasn’t for a lack of trying…

Risebrough talked to Philadelphia Flyers about the sixth pick overall – with a view to drafting Sweden’s Peter Forsberg – but to move up 13 places in the first round would have cost the Flames a front-line player.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Hockey: Notebook”

… but the picks he did make were bad, for some odd reason.

Lars Normann, the Flames‘ Swedish scout, described Sundblad as “one of the toughest and meanest youngsters in Sweden. He is really aggressive. He goes right into everything. It doesn’t matter who stands in his way. He’s not scared of anything.”

In other words, a Doug Risebrough style of player.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Flames’ top pick tough Swede.” 1991

Of Mattson, Risebrough said: “He plays involved. He plays in traffic. He’s got the guts to go into the scary areas. He’s an offensive, sparky kind of a guy, with a quick release and goalscoring ability. We’re looking at him to do for us what Hakan Loob did.”

That’s a tall order.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Flames revisit Swede spot.” 1993

And surprisingly, they didn’t turn out. The highest numbers Sundblad ever put up were penalty minutes and neither him nor Mattsson could ever crack the deep, deep rosters of the ’90s Flames.

Now to be fair, he did have his successes. German Titov, Jonas Hoglund, and Robert Svehla were all pretty good NHLers.

Unfortunately, Risebrough never saw his Europeans blossom in the NHL. Svehla was traded for loose change, becoming a valuable piece for the Florida Panthers. Hoglund waited four years before coming overseas, just after Risebrough left the Flames. Titov played under Risebrough’s watch for one and a half seasons before the boss left.

And let’s throw some asterisks on his successes. Risebrough got a good player in Titov because he picked Titov nine years after he was draft eligible. He wasn’t so much taking a bet on a promising prospect as much as he was laying claim to an already good player. Same deal with Svehla; 23 when he was picked, nearly a point-per-game in the Czech league as a defender. Of course, draft rules were different back then and you were allowed to do this, but it’s still not pure.

OK Computer

Perhaps a bit of a departure, but here’s a story too good to pass up.

One of the all time greatest NHL (expansion) draft stories is the Ottawa Senators and their embarrassing start to their franchise. During the expansion draft, the Sens accidentally selected two ineligible players. It was alleged that the mistakes were made because all of their data was on a laptop, but someone forgot to bring the charger. Oops.

In the 1994 draft, the Flames and Risebrough also turned to the computer for help during the draft. Lord knows they needed it.

The system was called the ATS: Athletic Tracking System. Developed by a University of Alberta professor (I attempted to contact him, but no response), the system took unnamed data inputs and reranked players. In the article (“Flames look to beat odds with computer” by Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald, June 29th, 1994), it boasts that the system boosted Joe Nieuwendyk from his #63 ranking on Central Scouting to #14, and boosted Brett Hull from 104th to 26th. Not perfect, but not too shabby.

The Flames were so impressed with the system that they allowed two of the developers to sit with them at the draft table. Although they didn’t have full control, they were included along with the Flames’ own list and the Central Scouting list.

Who really knows what list they trusted most, but for whatever reason, their first round pick was Chris Dingman, a guy who scored 0.09 PPG in the NHL.

The Flames made Dingman their first choice in Tuesday night’s National Hockey League entry draft, 19th overall. Their decision came down to one of two heavyweights — Dingman, a Brandon Wheat Kings’ left winger, or centre Chris Wells of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

They opted for Dingman because he had more upside offensively.

Physically, Dingman — a six-foot-four, 231-pounder, looks an awful lot like Brett Lindros. He plays a similar style, too — banging and crashing into opponents, driving for the front of the net.

This is a commodity the Flames need, now and in the years to come.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Dingman beefs up Flames.” June 29th, 1994

(To be fair, Dingman did appear to have some offensive upside based on his junior numbers. However, he also liked hurting people too, and he was NHL level at only one of those things.)

The most successful pick was arguably Chris Clark:

Of Clark, Glen Giovanucci — the team’s New England scout — says: “He plays a similar style to Cam Neely. He’s a very tough power forward.

“This is the kind of guy you want to take to war with Vancouver. He is that kind of guy — a lot of hockey sense, good hands for a big guy.

“He needs to get quicker, but he’s a young kid going to a high tempo college program — Clarkson. He’ll break your hand off when you shake.”

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Flames gamble in draft’s lottery.” June 29th, 1994

The 1994 draft was a disaster; it can only be described as a major strategic failure. Risebrough and the Flames would pick often, pick quality, and try to seamlessly transition from one era of Flames greatness into another. That did not work. He took some major gambles and failed.

The Devils gave up two extra picks to move up six places in the third round, a high price to pay. Mark down the name Sheldon Souray of Elk Point, Alta. He’s the player the Devils were so intent on getting.

As for the Flames, Risebrough was able to draft the player he wanted anyway — right winger Chris Clark, who played for the same Springfield, Conn. Junior B team that sent Bill Guerin and Scott Lachance to the NHL.

The two players they added with the Devils’ picks were Ryan Duthie of Spokane and Ni[ls] Ekman of Sweden.

“Flames gamble in draft’s lottery”

Risebrough probably knew that the 1993-94 team was probably the last legitimate shot he had at a Stanley Cup, and that the playoff chances were dwindling. In the 1994 draft, he unloaded Mike Vernon (and later Al MacInnis) and loaded up on picks. It didn’t work.

The one draft which Risebrough approached as absolutely consequential was a failure. He loaded up on picks and data and still couldn’t make the right decisions. Shame.

Some more guys Doug Risebrough drafted

The story of Risebrough at the draft table is incredibly dull. He drafted a bunch of yawners and was rewarded with a bunch of yawners. Here’s the more, uh, successful guys we haven’t mentioned yet:

Sandy McCarthy – 52nd overall, 1991

Risebrough’s first ever successful draft pick, McCarthy was a guy who loved punching faces. He honed and perfected this trade under a dapper Franco-Ontarian named Bob Hartley, who was his assistant and head coach for a couple of years with the Laval Titan. Time is a flat circle, yadda yadda.

Corey Stillman – sixth overall, 1992

The next Doug Gilmour? Or the new Brian Bradley? Ultimately, that`s what the Calgary Flames’ No. 1 draft choice may turn into.

The Flames chose Windsor Spitfire centre Cory Stillman with their first choice, sixth overall, in the 1992 entry draft.

Stillman was considered the best playmaker in the draft, meaning the Flames drafted him to fill a need.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Flames draft Gilmour clone.” June 21st, 1992

Here, sadly enough, is Risebrough’s best pick ever. After a completely tragic 1991-92 season, in which Risebrough had to excuse himself from head coaching (a sign of things to come), the Flames wound up with the sixth overall pick, their first ever in the top 10.

Stillman spent the early part of his career dragging along the Flames to whatever they could consider success. He struggled, was criticized, but stuck through it all until he was unceremoniously shipped out at the 2001 trade deadline. He would later find success on other teams, which seems to be a story with these ’90s Flames. We don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Jamie Allison – 44th overall, 1993

As a young Flames fan, the only thing I remember about Jamie Allison was watching him get spun around in the NHL ’99 intro:

Good stuff.

Denis Gauthier – 20th overall, 1995

The latest Calgary Flames‘ hope comes from a family of wrestlers. His mother promotes the World Wrestling Federation in Quebec.

By all acounts [sic] he is tough as nails.

He is Denis Gauthier Jr. of Montreal. He is six-foot-one, weighs 190 pounds, and plays for the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

He once goaded Alexandre Daigle, now a budding National Hockey League star, into retaliating with his stick during a QMJHL game, and the resulting attack knocked out Gauthier for four weeks with a concussion.

Mike Board, Calgary Herald. “Tough as nails: first pick Gauthier figure to fire up Flames on defence.” July 9th, 1995

The Quebecois defenceman is the one exception to all of the rules of Risebrough’s drafting. He was a first round pick lauded for his grit and toughness, things Risebrough liked spending first round picks on.

Except Gauthier was pretty good. He would probably never last in today’s NHL, but in the era that rewarded defensive defencemen, Gauthier was a stud. Somehow, all of Risebrough’s bad instincts -namely, the one where he would go for a big, hulking dude in the first round if there wasn’t an obvious choice – paid off one last time for him. He was fired in November of 1995.

Final thoughts

For the majority of his career, Risebrough was a victim to the times. A dropping Canadian dollar forced him to fire sale pretty much everyone he could at cut rate prices just to keep the team in the black.

He was also a victim to his own decisions. Gilmour trade aside (that’s a big one), he drafted pretty much a lot of crap based on the idea of toughness. The one really successful pick he had was due in part to drafting in the highest spot in team history at that point, and he walked away with a pretty good player. Otherwise, all he knew was goons. He could draft a hell of a fourth liner, but nothing that could’ve saved a team rapidly going belly up.

  • Just.Visiting

    I think it would add to the article if there were some additional context offered about who was on the board at the time of the top pick and some of the later round steals. It’s difficult to believe that we were so unlucky for so long.

    1991: On the board at our first pick (19): McAmmond, Palffy, Staios, Ozolinsh, Osgood.

    1992: On the board at our first pick (6): Gonchar, Straka. Late-Aucoin, Yelle.

    1993: On the board at our first pick (18): Saku Koivu, Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, McCabe. Late: Prospal, Daze, Satan, Darcy Tucker, Todd Marchant, Brunette, Grier.

    1994: On the board at our first pick (19): Warrener, Theodore, Elias. Late: Modin, Sourary, Chris Drury, Alfredsson, Steve Sullivan, Zednik, Holmstrom.

    1995: On the board at our first pick (20): Gauthier looks pretty reasonable. Late: Kapanen, Marc Savard, Kiprusoff.