If you follow TSN’s draft coverage religiously, you’ve probably noticed the one key thing about analyst Craig Button.
The Director of Scouting (their title) seems to go wildly off the board compared to some of the other analysts. Of course, no lists are 100% similar, but it occasionally seems like Button is trying his hardest to make sure of that. You can browse through his draft lists and raise your eyebrows. Sometimes, he’s right, such as when he picked Travis Sanheim to go high. Sometimes he’s absolutely wrong, such as when he thought the Flames should draft Zack Phillips at #13.
But that’s just what he says on TSN. He’s allowed to have his opinion. It would be tragic if he was actually in a GM’s seat with some of his more outlandish projecti-
Oh he was?
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2000: Home, sweet home and the status quo
The 2000 NHL draft was the first and only draft hosted in Calgary. Usually, the draft is a happy event. All of the hockey world is in your town for two days of excitement. But this one was hosted under some very dramatic circumstances:
Calgary Flames officials believe the team will achieve its season-ticket goal by Friday’s deadline.
On Saturday, sales hit 13,143 — up from the 13,022 that had been sold by Friday. The team needs to reach its goal of 14,000 tickets by Friday in order for the club to remain in the city.
The Flames believe bringing the NHL draft to Calgary may have brought on a spike in ticket sales.
Wendy-Anne Thompson, Calgary Herald. “Flames nearing ticket goal.” June 25th, 2000
(Link to a video, for some multimedia content.)
It was so drastic that Flyers GM Bobby Clarke actually chipped in and bought a pair of season tickets (he donated them to a charity). Part of the NHL coming to Calgary for the 2000 draft, as explained, was to generate interest and hype in a team that had stunk for the past five years and had no hope going forward.
Our hero, Craig Button, was here to save the franchise. He was a new face for a new look team, the guy who would turn it all around after many failed previously. He would be the guy who did things differently.
Except he couldn’t just quite do that yet. There was the odd caveat of Button not actually able to do any of the drafting himself. Having just been scooped from the Dallas Stars, an agreement was made where Button couldn’t be at the draft table. Instead, he was camped out in a luxury box with a cellphone.
Button’s enforced absence at the Flames‘ table necessitated a cell-phone circuit from chief scout Ian McKenzie to a luxury box when decisions were needed. Naturally, discrepancies emerged between McKenzie’s and Button’s version of events.
McKenzie, for instance, said the club had deals with four teams to trade second-round picks for a late first rounder should the right player emerge. Button was far less categoric.
And McKenzie could only play Kreskin, guessing at what his new boss was looking for in the draft. Sort of like buying a house without letting your wife see it first. The long-time Flames scout was asked how he thought he did leading his first draft.
“I don’t know,” he smiled at the media. “How do you think I did?”
Bruce Dowbiggin, Calgary Herald. “Wait and see on Flames’ selections: NHL entry draft, rounds four through nine.” June 25th, 2000
So his first draft was really run by his scouts, who (as the article implies) didn’t really know what their new boss wanted in young prospects. Who knows who was really calling the shots, but as far as picks are concerned, they didn’t stray far from the Flames’ norm over their entire history.
The club attempted to please the hometown crowd by selecting Central Scouting’s #1 goalie and Hitmen favourite Brent Krahn ninth overall. This move was extremely risky (in the words of Rangers legend Glen Sather, “Only 40 per cent of all first-round choices play for you. And the percentage of first-round goalies is even less”), but given that the Islanders went for Rick DiPietro at #1, the Flames didn’t feel silly. They went for another Hitman in round 5, picking up Wade Davis.
Krahn was the benefactor of the strongest Hitmen team ever. In addition to his rookie status, he shot up the rankings. When a lot of the talent moved on, he dropped back down to human form. Perhaps a bit predictable, but still a fair pick at the time.
“I had a plan. I wanted us to get bigger,” said Ian McKenzie, Calgary’s senior scout who directed the Flames entry draft activities. “I want us to get back where we were when we were winning.”
During the first three rounds of the draft Saturday, Calgary acquired six-foot-four, 200-pound goalie Brent Krahn. Crash that net if you dare.
Then they grabbed six-foot-five defenceman Kurtis Foster and tough, six-foot winger Jarret Stoll.
Larry Tucker, Calgary Herald. “Big is beautiful: Flames’ newest prospects add beef to depth chart” June 27th, 2000
And if you’ve been following along with the series, you’ll know that past Flames GMs (as well as future) chased this non-existent gritty winner who would bring the Flames back to their winning ways. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That maxim would hold incredibly true for the rest of the 2000 draft. The Flames returned to home in seeking their prospects.
“There’s a philosophy here,” admitted senior scout Ian McKenzie. “If (the prospects) are equal, or near equal, the Montreal Canadians will always lean toward a Quebecer. They’ve been doing it for years.
“We’re a Western team, owned by Western people, and we have Western fans. I’m going to give the same edge to the Western Hockey League — cut and dried. They’re the kind of guys who should be the nucleus of this team.”
Kimberly Todd, Calgary Herald “Calgary scouts gamble Micki’s so fine: Blazers blueliner a ninth-round pick” June 26th, 2000
Up to that point in history, the Flames had drafted 39 WHLers, and 13 of them had turned out to be regular NHLers. You had guys like Theo Fleury, Mike Vernon, and Derek Morris, but also a whole lot of guys like Mark Lamb, Kevan Guy, Brian Glynn, etc. It wasn’t exactly fertile ground. Of the five selected in the 2000 draft, only two were successful. Stoll was an occasionally useful centre and Travis Moen was a permanent fourth line grinder. Neither of them ever played for the Flames, either.
2000 was a pretty standard fare Flames draft. Big and gritty, and mostly CHLers (more WHLers than anyone else, of course). And it didn’t really pay off.
2001 and 2002: I’m the captain now
On that basis, and given the overall weirdness of Button not actually being able to draft, perhaps we can safely write off the 2000 draft. After that year, things got unconventional for the Flames.
After 2000, Button really let the team know who was in control. Perhaps him being at the draft table changed everything. In the remaining two drafts under his watch, he drafted from the CHL just twice, and only once from the WHL. He drafted from Russia six times, which is the same number of times Cliff Fletcher did in 10 years of drafting. In typical Button fashion, they were rather off the board picks:
Also sporting Flames silks Saturday were centre Andrei Taratukhin (41st overall) and netminder Andrei Medvedev (56th overall).
“They both didn’t expect to be drafted in the second round,” said the Russian players through an interpreter. “So they want to express their gratitude to the Calgary Flames. They will do the best they can to crack the lineup in the near future.”
Medvedev, listed at 211 pounds, comes with question marks. Considered by some insiders to be the best netminder available, he is rather, well, chubby.
According to The Hockey News: “The portly Russian goaltender has a serious weight problem . . . He’s the Gump Worsley of Russia.”
One European scout stated: “He is a balloon. He has a round face and I worry about him. My Russian scout said stay away from him, unless he’s available in the sixth round. His character is bad.”
Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Herald. “Flames pick already a winner: Kobasew set up winning goal in U.S. college gold medal game.” June 24th, 2001
(We’ll let you describe for yourself whether Medvedev’s nickname was accurate.)
Another favourite of Button’s (and you can still see this today) was his affinity for college and college-bound players. He used eight of the 23 picks in 2001 and 2002 on such players. And to be fair, he was fairly accurate with those picks. Although not always on the higher side of the talent spectrum, four of the eight NHLers he drafted were drafted from the NCAA ranks. Arguably, the best he drafted was either David Moss (0.36 PPG) or Curtis McElhinney (okay backup).
His other approach to the draft involved picking often. He acquired four picks before the 2001 draft, and added three at the draft (including one he traded away earlier in the year for Jordan Leopold). For the 2002 draft, he picked up three before the draft started and added three on draft day. Of course, picking more often increases your chances of grabbing a good player, either by simply having more chances than other teams or by sheer luck.
“That’s a checkmark,” said Button, who’d been in the market for a reliable backup for Roman Turek. “We’re just trying to get players for the future. That’s what the draft is for — to build your stockpile of future prospects. We did that.”
Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Herald “Flames add quantity and, maybe, quality.” June 24th, 2002
That headline should indicate to you how this plan worked out.
So what went wrong?
Unfortunately, only five of the 23 players drafted those two years went on to have NHL success. There’s a couple of reasons for this.
Not helping Button was that 2001 and 2002 were exceptionally weak drafts. Eric Nystrom and Chuck Kobasew were both safely projected to go in the first round (Nystrom was 13th on Central Scouting. Kobasew was a bit of a stretch, 20th on CS). Looking at other picks from those drafts, there were still a lot of duds picked after the Flames did. It’s not as if Button made an obvious wrong decision as much as he just made a smart one that didn’t work out.
But of course, fault also lies in the guy picking players. Button also picked a lot of guys who were probably never going to work out. Brian McConnell, 2002 second rounder, was an accessory part on a pretty good Boston University team. Tomi Maki struggled in Finland’s top U20 league, and Ville Hamalainen was still playing in them when he was about to turn 21.
This was related to his tendency to stockpile late round picks rather than higher picks. His predecessor, Al Coates, once held eight draft picks in the top 100 of the 1997 draft. Button had nine total top 100 picks during his career in Calgary. He traded down as often as possible, turning early third rounders into late third rounders plus an extra fifth. In weak drafts, you’re really only hurting yourself in the long run.
“Craig proposes it to us and says, ‘Look, who do we want? This is what we can do. If you guys feel comfortable, we can do that,'” said Mike Sands, the team’s director of amateur scouting. “It’s an opportunity to get prospects. Especially in this draft where there are a lot of ifs, it’s worth taking a chance on a little bit of a quantity.”
As for his Russians? Well, there was a lot of success there, just none of it here. Andrei Taratukhin saw some success in the Russian Superleague before coming to the AHL and putting up 60 points in 80 games. Then he went right back to Russia. Igor Shastin was another KHL success story, but the furthest west he made it was to Switzerland. Yuri Trubachev and “Balloon” Medvedev both helped Russia to two consecutive WJC gold medals. The latter didn’t last long in hockey, eventually quitting the sport in 2005.
Button’s drafting tenure was accentuated by the promise of change and doing things differently. His role here was mostly to try and clean up the messes of the previous two GMs, and he attempted to do that through the trade market, where he acquired some of the pieces for the magical Cup run. He also hired Darryl Sutter as a coach, which provided the Flames with quality, stable coaching for the first time in a long time. To that extent, he did his job.
As for the actual drafting results, he whiffed. He’s like Doug Risebrough in this sense: drafting well, but also drafting poorly. He did change the status quo and opened up the prospect pool to guys the Flames rarely looked at in past years, but also was hampered by weak drafts and weak drafting position. He didn’t have the leverage to draft a top player, but also didn’t have enough good players to justify picking often.