When Darryl Sutter was hired in the summer of 2003, the Flames had one of the weakest farm systems in the NHL. There was a lack of top-end talent, for sure, but even grinders, role players, bottom six forwards and fifth, sixth, and seventh defensemen were missing.
First round draft busts, trading away of picks, and little to no success in the later rounds were all to blame.
That first year, at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, a gift by the name of Dion Phaneuf dropped into Sutter's lap at the number nine spot in a draft that is quickly becoming legendary for both the number of stars and the quality of stars. Tim Ramholt also came from that draft, and is becoming a serviceable NHL defensmen—defense takes time.
In 2002, the Flames landed Eric Nystrom, a energy forward that spent the year with the big club for the first time, Matthew Lombardi (since traded), Curtis McElhinney, the current backup to Mikka Kiprusoff, and David Van Der Gulik, who is just now challenging for a roster spot.
Before that, in 2001, it was Chuck Kobasew (since traded), Andrei Taratukhin (currently playing in Russia), and David Moss, fresh off a 20-goal season and a new contract.
With the exception of Jarret Stoll, who didn't sign and re-entered the draft, the previous seasons were full of busts. The mere mention of players such as Brent Krahn, Oleg Saprykin, Rico Fata and Daniel Tkaczuk bring tears to the eyes of Flames faithful. No player drafted by the flames before 2001 is currently on the roster.
So when Sutter came in, it was a pretty bare farm system. None of the players drafted before Sutter can be considered star players, franchise players, even first line, top pairing or starting goaltender players. And for the first few Sutter years, with the exception of Phaneuf, that didn't change.
Kris Chucko, Brandon Prust, Dustin Boyd, Aki Seitsonen, and Adam Pardy are all 2004 guys, and while they may not be household names, they represent a new direction for the Flames. They all had the potential to be NHLers. Not stars or highlight reel guys, but they all had a shot.
Chucko, the first rounder of 2004 for the Flames, is still in the AHL. He was called a project then, and he still is. He is expected to either get some games with the big club as the first or second call-up, or get traded this season, as there is some potential for him to be a late bloomer.
Prust is a tough guy and is a regular in Phoenix, and Boyd and Party both played some great hockey for Calgary this season. Pardy may become the best player for the Flames of this group—he was recently named by The Hockey News as one of the 'Top 50 Free Agents' this season. A restricted free agent, meaning he will most likely be back.
With eight picks in the 2005 draft, and no second-round pick, the Flames stuck to the same formula. Pelech has had injury trouble but made his NHL debut this past season and could get duty as the seventh defenceman this year, Gord Baldwin has been playing well for the Quad City Flames, and JD Watt and Brett Sutter both can play. None will be stars, but three or four NHLers is possible.
2006 became about filling needs. '04 and '05 were all about just getting the player with the best shot of making the big dance, and now the Flames were starting to pick guys based on more than just making it.
The Flames picked Leland Irving, the current starter for the farm team and the 'heir apparent' to Kiprusoff. Goalies take years to develop, and Sutter has been content to leave him to get starters minutes in the A. Hopefully he can be the next starting goalie in Calgary.
John Armstrong and Juuso Puustinen could both be top nine forwards for the Flames, and Puustinen maybe even play a top six role with the team after scoring 33 points in 53 games in Finland.
The 2007 draft, with the Flames only holding five picks, could actually be the strongest draft class the Flames have ever had. Mikael Backlund came over from Sweden this season after having a great World Juniors and was a top player with Kelowna in the WHL, playing in the Memorial Cup.
He is the top prospect in the organisation, and is expected to be a top-six player next season with the big club. Following him are two defensemen that could be great in John Negrin and Keith Aulie. The two will try for a position with the top club, and if not will be two of the first call-ups. The fourth pick of the Flames was Mickey Renauld, the captain of the Windsor Spitfires that tragically died at the age of 19.
2008 saw the Flames grab a center that, combined with Backlund, have the potential to be a top one-two punch for the Flames. Greg Nemisz had a great run to the Memorial Cup Championship with the Spitfires and will try for a spot with the big club this season, but a year or two in the AHL could work wonders for this talented player.
Mitch Wahl from Spokane was taken in the second round. A little undersized at 5'11 and 170 lbs, he is a talented forward that could have a bright future.
There is Darryl Sutter's entire history at the draft with the Calgary Flames. The picture is quite a bit brighter now than it was when he took over.
What happens at this years draft is going to be interesting, because of what the team has in the system now.
Sutter's plan of just getting hold of as many NHL players through the draft was a modest success. There are young role players splattered throughout the Wranglers, Heat and Flames, and they are cheaper than signing a veteran. A few, such as Boyd and Pardy, have some potential to be better than third line, third pairing guys, and as such, Sutter achieved his goals.
Sutter then went forward with his second plan, to start drafting stars and by need at positions. First came the goalie, with Irving. Secondly, the defense with Pelech, Negrin, and Aulie, not to mention Phaneuf already being there. Third, the centres, with Backlund, Nemisz and Wahl.
Five of the past six teams to win the Stanley Cup have had good goaltending, great defence and two great centres, the formula it appears Sutter is working on. Tampa Bay had Richards and Lecavalier, Carolina had Staal and Brindamour, Detroit has Zetterburg and Datsyuk and Pittsburgh has Crosby and Malkin.
So now that the potential pieces are in place, what do the Flames do?
1) They can stay the course—draft players by position. Get some wingers, some pluggers, and work from there.
2)They can draft on need—the Flames will need players for those centres to get the pucks to. Goal scoring wingers would be great.
3)They can draft on talent—forget the position, take the most talented player on the board.
4) They can draft on insurance—sure the potential is there, but more centres and more defensemen would sure make the plan more foolproof
5)They can go back to square one—draft players that will play in the NHL. Homegrown pluggers keep the costs down.
The Flames need to pick the fifth option.
This seems counter-intuitive. Why go backwards when the system is stocked and talent is starting to flow again?
Because success comes at a cost—draft positioning. The better a team does, the worse they pick. By picking players that will make the show, and not much else, it gives the team options.
If a player becomes good or great, that is wonderful. If not, not much cost. But these players are what allow a team to make trades, either trading these young players or trading established, more expensive players for talent, and filling the holes with the young guns.
This gives the team the flexibility in a cap world to keep the core together, and be like Detroit or Pittsburgh—more than one-year wonders.
Drafting based on just talent is what killed the Flames for years. Talent doesn't mean they will be a surefire NHL player. When one talent busts, not a problem.
However, when two or three or four first rounders start to all fail, and a few picks are traded, can quickly cause a franchise to head downhill fast. By making sure that the players at least won't be busts, the team can keep chugging away, and be closer to the Cup than the Draft Lottery.
The Flames don't have many picks this year, and don't have a first rounder next season. A bust would kill two years of drafting. Using a baseball analogy, swinging for the fences might be a bad idea when only a single scores a run.