The Flames are the only NHL team to not graduate a single draft pick since 2018
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould1 year ago
It’s been a while since the Calgary Flames drafted a player who went on to play National Hockey League games in any organization.
The club selected just five players in 2017. Two of them are currently in the NHL, while the other three are no longer Flames prospects (or affiliated with any team in the league, for that matter).
Adam Ruzicka (a 2017 fourth-rounder) is with the Flames, although he’s been a healthy scratch for all but one game this season. Meanwhile, 2017 first-round pick Juuso Valimaki is playing some legitimately excellent hockey in an increased NHL role… with the Arizona Coyotes.
Valimaki needed a change of scenery after a difficult, injury-plagued tenure in Calgary. In Arizona, he’s far away from the media spotlight and on a team that aspires to finish high in the draft lottery, not the playoffs.
While he’s finding some success in Arizona, Valimaki likely wouldn’t have been a realistic solution to fix the problems this Flames team is facing. You can debate whether he’d be better than Connor Mackey as a fill-in, but there are bigger fish to fry. He has his fresh start — good for him.
But, on that topic, the Flames could use an infusion of youth. They’ve lost three consecutive games, the last two in back-breaking fashion, and have inexplicably been deploying Milan Lucic on the second line during that time.
Lucic, at this point in his career, is a role player. He’s making far too much money but he’s also on an expiring contract. By no means should he be a player who dresses for every single game.
Against the Nashville Predators on Thursday night, Lucic played more at five-on-five than every Flames forward not named Huberdeau, Kadri, and Lindholm. The Flames used him like a top-six forward, which he very much is not.
It’s been 68 games since Lucic last scored a goal with his hockey stick. He tallied one with his skate against the New Jersey Devils last March, but that’s it.
Lucic is still an effective forechecker and fine as someone who gets 7-8 minutes per game, but there’s no reason for him to be playing more than the likes of Blake Coleman, Mikael Backlund, and Andrew Mangiapane. Frankly, it just doesn’t make any sense, nor does it do his game any justice.
Right now, the Flames have a couple of glaring holes in their forward group. There are also legitimate questions to be asked about both Jonathan Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm, who have struggled, but they’ve earned the right to play their way out of this funk.
Huberdeau, Lindholm, Kadri, Backlund, Coleman, Mangiapane, Tyler Toffoli, and Dillon Dube make eight top-nine forwards. If Lucic being on the second line proves anything, it’s that Calgary sorely lacks another forward who can play a skilled, up-tempo game.
It’s beyond overdue for the Flames to try one of their forward prospects in a top-nine role. The Flames are the only team in the entire league that has yet to give any of their draft picks since 2018 a single NHL game.
They’re the only one. All of the most recent Stanley Cup winners have given opportunities to at least some of their drafted players from the last five years. So has every single other contending team.
Draft picks since 2018 with at least one NHL game played (table scrolls left to right)
|Anaheim – 9||Arizona – 9||Boston – 1||Buffalo – 6||Calgary – 0||Carolina – 4||Chicago – 8||Colorado – 7|
|Columbus – 7||Dallas – 4||Detroit – 6||Edmonton – 4||Florida – 5||L.A. – 8||Minnesota – 5||Montreal – 10|
|Nashville – 1||New Jersey – 9||NYI – 2||NYR – 8||Ottawa – 11||Philadelphia – 4||Pittsburgh – 4||San Jose – 8|
|Seattle – 2||St. Louis – 3||Tampa Bay – 4||Toronto – 6||Vancouver – 3||Vegas – 4||Washington – 6||Winnipeg – 5|
You can say all you want about the Flames’ prospects having subpar training camp showings. For one, that’s not exclusively true — both Connor Zary and Matthew Phillips looked great in camp. So did undrafted free agent signing Adam Klapka.
But also, let’s not pretend that the camp groups weren’t pretty much settled from the start. If you draft Jakob Pelletier with the mindset that he could someday be a fit on a line with Mikael Backlund, why not give him a look there? Even for one pre-season game?
It’s also not that the Flames haven’t made any good draft picks. Pelletier, who is one of only five players drafted in the 2019 first round without a single NHL appearance thus far, exploded onto the scene in 2021–22 with 27 goals and 62 points in 66 AHL games.
Zary is off to a terrific start this year after a tough first full professional season. Phillips misses the 2018 cutoff, but he’s arguably the best U25 player in the entire AHL (and has been downright elite at that level for years, without any significant NHL opportunity).
The Stockton Heat made it to the fourth round of the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs and pushed the eventual champion Chicago Wolves to six games. They were a wagon with quality young players at the controls. Before the Flames take a weedwhacker to their asset base for another external acquisition, they’d be remiss not to finally put one of their top prospects to the test.
It’s not just the top-10 picks from those drafts making significant impacts. Carolina has Seth Jarvis. Matt Boldy is looking better in Minnesota than anyone could’ve imagined. Alex Newhook already has a Stanley Cup ring.
During the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter spoke to reporters about his team’s young players. He mentioned the team having four young defencemen in the lineup, with players like Chris Tanev acting as a “security blanket.”
But when Sutter made that comment, the four young defencemen to which he was referring (Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, Nikita Zadorov, and Oliver Kylington) had already combined for 1,468 NHL regular season games.
The only player with fewer than 200 career games played who has dressed for the Flames this season is defenceman Connor Mackey, who, at 26 years old, is actually older than Hanifin, Andersson, and Kylington.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest the typical NHL skater comes close to reaching their peak at around age 22, with a gradual decline beginning around 25–26. Right now, the Flames’ youngest regular player is 24. With an average age of 28.65, they’re one of the oldest teams in the NHL.
None of this is to say the Flames are a bad team. If anything, they’re likely much better than their 5–4–0 record suggests. Nor is any of it to say that Sutter is bad at his job, which he clearly isn’t — the opposite is true. He’s an incredible coach.
But they need to try something different. As much as Nazem Kadri has thrived, the majority of the Flames’ other forwards have found much less success to start the year. Having Lucic on the second line and Brett Ritchie (who has otherwise been quite good) on the power play is not the answer.
The Calgary Wranglers are here for a reason. They aren’t off to a fantastic start, but that’s mostly due to their goaltending being unusually mediocre. The Flames’ brass (and coaching staff) has been keeping a close eye on the AHL club this year — and there have been plenty of standouts.
Ultimately, you draft players with the hope that they can join your team someday. Right now, the Flames have absolutely nothing to lose by giving one of their top prospects the opportunity to step up.
It’s just what every other team does.
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