2
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Flames draft history: Al Coates had bad luck, but was also just bad

Promoted early into the 1995-96 season, Al Coates was handed the reigns to the weakest Calgary Flames team arguably ever. Combined with a declining Canadian dollar and the lone superstar wanting out, Coates walked into one of the worst situations for a GM ever.

In the last installation of this series, we showed how Doug Risebrough was tasked with ripping down the franchise through the trade market, but also tasked with building it back up via the draft. He acquired many picks, and did nothing with them. So early into 1995, it became Coates’ job to expedite that process. With a lot of draft capital and some of the highest picks in Flames franchise history, he had a good shot at doing that.

But it didn’t work out. As the title suggests, there were two main reasons it didn’t.

The numbers

Players F D G NHLers Busts Overagers D + >2
40 25 11 4 8 (20%) 32 8 1

1996: One pretty good year

In 1996, Al Coates picked up four NHLers, which is a great start for a career.

But not a single other person thought that at the time.

So instead of Holden, the Flames ended up with his Regina Pats’ teammate Derek Morris, rated 85 by Central Scouting.

Now, it’s too early to know how either player will develop. Morris could turn into the next Gary Suter and if he does, it will go down in National Hockey League history as one of the shrewdest, most unconventional picks ever. The Flames sounded genuinely excited about Morris’s potential, but the majority of NHL observers believe it was the most off-the-wall choice in an wholly unpredictable draft.

One team didn’t even list Morris among its top 100 prospects.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Big-time gamble: Flames could’ve scored higher picks with shuffle.” June 23rd, 1996

Somehow, Morris was the best player the Flames picked. There was considerable hype behind hometown boy Josh Holden, but the Canucks snapped him up a pick before. Morris was the second best defenceman of that draft behind Zdeno Chara. Holden didn’t even last a full NHL season. The big gamble paid off. Although you could argue that Morris would likely have been around in the second round and that they could’ve selected a number of quality NHLers (Daniel Briere, Dainius Zubrus, and Marco Sturm come to mind), we’ll let Coates have this victory.

As for other successes, he picked up core depth player Steve Begin and Toni Lydman, two guys who enjoyed some longevity in the league. Ronald Petrovicky was also a fan favourite for a few years during the ’90s, but quickly faded out.

For the rest of the draft, there were some good picks and an odd one. Josef Straka and Dmitri Vlasenkov were European stars who never came over. Travis Brigley got a few cups of coffee over the eight years he spent in various organizations, always being too good for the AHL, but not good enough for the NHL. Ryan Wade chose to go to school instead of pursue a hockey career.

The odd one is Christian Lefebvre, defenceman for Granby of the QMJHL. The Flames certainly picked him for his 6’5″ stature and not his 5.92 draft year NHLe. Then he disappeared for a year. Seriously, there is no record of his 1996-97 season. Unsigned, he was surprisingly drafted again in 1998 by the Oilers after playing just eight QMJHL games. And then he disappeared again, never playing hockey past the QMJHL.

1997: The gutter ball

After extremely promising early returns from the 1996 draft, Coates and co. were full of confidence.

Walking into the 1997 draft, the Flames held eight picks in the top 100 mostly thanks to shrewd roster destruction from 1996-97 and before. One pick was still left over from the 1994 Al MacInnis trade, another from a 1995 Frank Musil trade. One pick came from trading Steve Chiasson, part of a package that included Hnat Domenichelli (this isn’t significant, it’s just fun to say/spell Hnat Domenichelli). A third rounder was compensation from the Coyotes for hiring Don Hay away from the Flames. The 100th overall pick, 20th in the fourth round, was acquired by selling Robert Svehla at an extremely sweet discount.

That’s an absolute bonanza. The Flames did indeed fire sale everyone to do it, but the potential harvest could have set up the franchise for years. Even if you haul away two NHLers, that should be enough talent to build around. If you get three, other teams should start cowering.

They got none.

We’re saving the big discussion for a little later, so let’s start with 32nd overall, Evan Lindsay: a WHL goalie (weakest CHL league at the time) who was hovering around average in his league. He became an ECHL backup. John Tripp was selected next, as a 20-year-old who had already been selected and unsigned by the Avs. When the Flames drafted him, his NHLe was 16.68 as a senior OHL player. He is arguably the most succesful player from the ’97 class for having played 47 games and scoring nine points.

The rest of the list is quite sad, mostly because Coates drafted some obvious duds. Dmitry Kokorev put up single digit points in Russia’s lower leagues. Derek Schutz was painfully average and only passed the 1 PPG mark in his fifth WHL season. Erik Andersson was a dominant player in the WCHA when he was drafted. He was also 26 years old and had already been drafted six years prior by the Kings. He played 12 NHL games. The only other pick worth mentioning is Ryan Ready, 100th overall. He was pretty okay, finishing top five in scoring for the Belleville Bulls three seasons in a row. He played seven NHL games, all coming nine years after he was drafted.

Just to salt the wound, here is a full list of players he could’ve picked in that top 100: Paul Mara, Sergei Samsonov, Marian Hossa, Dan Cleary, Scott Hannan, Brenden Morrow, Kristian Huselius, Henrik Tallinder, Maxim Afinogenov, Joe Corvo, Adam Mair.

Coates picked a lot of low potential players with his bag full of draft picks, and the result should not have been that surprising. However, there was one player that was an absolute sure thing. Here is a list of the top fifteen 1997 eligible forwards by NHLe, and their success level in the NHL ( > 0.5 PPG = elite, 0.5 > 0.3 = average, 0.3 > 0 = poor, <100 GP = bust)

Name NHLe Success
Joe Thornton 45.78 Elite
Patrick Marleau 36.09 Elite
Sergei Samsonov 34.51 Elite
Daniel Tkaczuk 33.21 Bust
Marian Hossa 32.58 Elite
Peter Sarno 27.84 Bust
Dan Cleary 27.68 Average
Michael Holmqvist 26.91 Poor
Tyler Rennette 25.76 Bust
Brendan Morrow 25.41 Elite
Stefan Cherneski 24.89 Bust
Jason Ward 24.43 Poor
Yuri Butsayev 24.37 Bust
Chad Hinz 23.92 Bust
Mathieu Benoit 23.65 Bust

Data from TheProjectionProject says that, in the modern era, a forward with an NHLe of 33 has a 65% chance of becoming an NHL regular. Of the success stories, 62% became elite or first line players by their terminology. Of the five in the 1997 draft with >30 NHLe, three have 1,000 points, one has over 500, and the other is the Flames’ draft pick that year. Daniel Tkaczuk was the only player in this draft with an NHLe higher than 30 to bust.

With four regulars already nursing head injuries, can it get any worse for the Flames?

Preposterously enough, yes it can.

Centre Daniel Tkaczuk didn’t practise with the team Wednesday.

Why, you ask?

Well, he landed hard on his face Tuesday night, an ugly abrasion on his right cheek is proof of that, and he started to exhibit symptoms of you-know-what on Wednesday morning.

That puts the total number of Flames who have suffered head injuries this season at 10.

Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Herald. “Concussions: Another pair of Flames sidelined with noggin-ringin’ symptoms.” January 25th, 2001

(This description seems to be underselling it. According to a few fan sources I’ve read, it was less “landing hard” and more “Shane Doan pretty much kicked him in the head with a skate.” Still some debate on whether or not it was intentional, and still some debate on whether it was his knee or his skate.)

That was Tkaczuk’s last game in the NHL. After a promising 19 games where he scored 11 points, he was quite clearly never the same again. Another concussion right before the AHL playoffs sealed his fate.

Coates made poor picks throughout the rest of the 1997 draft, but he should’ve absolutely hit it out of the park with Tkaczuk. If they had to do it again, they would probably still draft Tkaczuk. The kid was incredibly skilled and would probably have been remembered in the same way as those above him if he never got that one concussion.

1998: All Betts are off

With the stench of the 1997 draft class not yet pungent enough to warn the Flames of their horrible drafting, they proceeded into 1998, unaware of what bad vibrations had followed them.

The case for taking Tkaczuk was quite solid. Once again, let’s look at the 15 best NHLe forwards from 1998.

Player NHLe Success
Ramzi Abid 42.33 Bust
Vincent Lecavlier 42.27 Elite
Mike Ribeiro 39.78 Elite
David Legwand 39.4 Elite
Brad Richards 36.06 Elite
Alex Tanguay 35.53 Elite
Justin Papineau 31.53 Bust
Nik Antropov 28.93 Elite
Simon Gagne 27.76 Elite
Norm Milley 26.43 Bust
Rico Fata 26.29 Poor
Jonathan Cheechoo 26.29 Elite
Mathieu Chouinard 26.02 Bust
Mark Bell 24.15 Average
Randy Copley 23.48 Bust

The benefit of the NHLe stat is that it can cut a lot of the noise out of overzealous scouting. Rico Fata was not a stretch pick by the Flames; he was also widely regarded like Tkaczuk. The only problem being that Tkaczuk had a case.

Like Wayne Grezky, Rico Fata broke into the Ontario Hockey League as a precocious 15-year-old. Like Gretzky, Fata played for Sault Ste. Marie.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “Feisty Fata a Flame favourite: top pick blessed with speed, scoring touch and an attitude.” June 28th, 1998

(I wonder if he ever thought this comparison might bite him in the ass one day.)

The entire NHL had some odd opinions about players in the ’98 class (Ribeiro, Richards, and Cheechoo were all second rounders), but none as odd as Fata. He was a pretty good, yet not elite, OHLer. He was fourth in scoring on his own team that year, and wasn’t even close to touching the top 20 in league scoring. David Legwand, third overall, scored 105 points that year in fewer games than it took for Fata to score 76. There was a huge gap between Fata and other success stories from this draft.

About the only down moment came when the Central Scouting Bureau’s synopsis of Fata’s hockey strengths and weaknesses was flashed on the Jumbotron at Marine Midland Arena. Just around the time Fata was shaking hands with the Flames‘ brass, the message board flashed: `Has limited hockey sense.’

The timing of the announcement upset Polano, who railed against the anonymous scouts that were dissing his pick, more than it did Fata.

“They obviously don’t know the player very well,” spat Polano. “People have their opinions on their players. We have no idea why that showed up or who was responsible.”

Oddly enough, in Fata’s first junior season, the scouting reports praised his hockey sense.

So which is it?

“It kind of bewilders me,” said Fata, “when you can have a 40-goal, 80-point season and they say you’ve got limited hockey sense. There must be somebody out there that thinks that, so you’ve just got to prove that person wrong and change their opinion.”

ibid

As for the rest of the Flames’ 1998 draft class, the best they got was Blair Betts and some more bad luck. Brent Gauvreau really stands out to me, if only because of his last name. His production was slightly better than Betts’, and was swooped up by the Coyotes when he failed to sign. He became a career ECHLer.

1999: Who cares anymore

With the team remaining in neutral, Coates had to stake his claim on the 1999 draft. He did not do fabulously well, but it’s arguable whether or not that it was his fault.

1999 was a pretty bad draft class, and there’s plenty of evidence:

  • Forever a Flame Jamie Lundmark was a top 10 pick.
  • So were Kris Beech and Taylor Pyatt.
  • Patrik Stefan was first overall.,
  • Pavel Brendl was fourth. The Herald put him on the front page before they talked about the Flames’ draft picks. Even the newspaper had given up on Coates by this point.
  • Scott Kelman, 15th overall, was described as a potential top 10 pick by the Herald. Five years removed from the draft, he was on the fringes of the AHL.

Oleg Saprykin, the Flames’ first round pick, was the fifth best forward prospect in that first round by NHLe. Like I said, pretty bad draft class.

For some reason, this caused Coates to go off the rails. For most of his time at the helm, Coates stuck to drafting players who were first time eligibles, drafting only six overagers. In 1999, he drafted five overagers. Three of them were forwards who couldn’t break past the 12 NHLe mark. One of them, Dmitri Kirlienko, was a 20-year-old Russian who hadn’t hit 10 NHLe. It’s like he wasn’t even trying.

Well, he actually was trying. There was an odd rationale for these off the board picks:

For 1999, the Calgary Flames draft-day strategy involved a significant departure from the previous five years, in which they selected a Canadian-born player with their No. 1 choice. Of the 10 players they chose Saturday, their first six included two Russians (Oleg Saprykin, Roman Rozakov) and four Americans (Dan Cavanaugh, Craig Andersson, Matt Doman and Jesse Cook).

Part of their philosophy involves — for lack of a better term — signability. Two of the six — Saprykin, a Seattle Thunderbirds’ centre; and Andersson, a Guelph Storm goaltender — play major junior and thus, need to be signed to NHL contracts within two years, or else they go back in the draft.

The other four, however, can stay on their reserve list indefinitely. The Americans can play up to four years of college hockey before they turn pro; the Europeans can stay home until they’re ready for prime time.

Ultimately, the strategy lessens the chances of losing someone they can’t get under contract because of the soaring cost of paying entry-level players.

Eric Duhatschek, Calgary Herald. “NHL draft lives up to hype.” June 28th, 1999

You read that right: the Flames actively avoided drafting players with high potential because they didn’t want to pay them.

And that really backfired when it came time to sign Craig Anderson, who went right back into the draft and is still playing (at a good level!) today. Lesson is that it doesn’t always pay to be cheap.

Final thoughts

Al Coates sent four Flames prospects to the 1999 World Juniors. Of those four, the most successful player that he drafted was Blair Betts (Robyn Regehr wasn’t drafted by the Flames, of course).

Coates’ drafting strategy was mostly par for the course by modern standards. He valued production, regardless of size and league, and tried to stick to the conventional thinking. However, he had some very, very bad lapses and impulse picks that wound up costing the team big in the long run.

When the luck was bad, it was bad. When Al Coates was bad, he was bad. Sometimes these compounded, and it made things even worse. Vive la Young Guns.