Way back at the start of my hockey writing career, I remember being out somewhere with a colleague, covering the Calgary Flames when a fan approached us and asked a question about a high-ranked prospect for the next year's draft. I started to give my standard reply – "Don't really know much because I haven't seen him play" – but my opposite number jumped in and gave a quick rundown of his strengths, weaknesses, size, upside etc. etc.
It was a concise synopsis and afterward, I asked him: When did you watch him play? It turns out he hadn't. He'd been doing his homework for the draft and basically just recited the known scouting report on the player. That's generally a fact of life about covering the NHL – and it was really true in the early days, before satellite TV, and cable sports networks. Occasionally, you'd catch a junior game live, a couple more on TV and eventually, when TSN got hold of the rights, you'd see the cream of the crop during the world juniors.
But mostly you rely on the word of scouts and other professionals when it comes to evaluating Generation Next.
It's why I'm always so reluctant to immediately pass judgment on trades that involve futures, such as the one the Flames completed this week, where they received a first-round choice, which will probably fall somewhere between No. 24 and No. 30 in the 2013 entry draft, plus two complete unknowns from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the trade for Jarome Iginla.
My first reaction was visceral and the same as just about everybody else's: It wasn't much of a return for the face of the franchise – and you could make the case that it wasn't even as much as what the Dallas Stars got from Pittsburgh for Brenden Morrow.
Iginla, at this stage of his career arc, is still a far more desirable commodity than Morrow and yet at least the player that went to Dallas, defenceman Joe Morrow, is someone I'd heard of. Morrow had more of that known pedigree – he was a first-rounder, 23rd overall, in the 2011 entry draft and someone who, although he might be having an up-and-down time of it in his first professional season, was likely going to play at some point in the NHL. Calgary's return – the 63rd player overall in 2009 Ben Hanowski and the 140th player overall in 2010, Kenneth Agostino – look as if they are far longer shots to make a contribution in the pros.
But long experience tells me there are perils to rushing to judgment on these sorts of deals. I always like to tell the story of the draft choice that keeps on giving – the 64th pick in the 1976 NHL entry, when the Atlanta Flames took Kent Nilsson. Nilsson had a terrific scoring career in Calgary – his 131 points in the Flames' inaugural season in Calgary is still a team record – but he wasn't a Bob Johnson type of player, so in 1985 general manager Cliff Fletcher traded him to the Minnesota North Stars for two second-round picks at that year's draft. Calgary immediately used the first of their picks to select Joe Nieuwendyk 27th overall (even though Central Scouting had him rated 63rd). It was a reach and the headline in the Calgary Sun the next day reflected that. It read Joe Who? – and the first paragraph of the news story was clear and precise: "Joe Nieuwendyk for Kent Nilsson? It stinks."
Well, actually it didn't. Nieuwendyk also had a terrific scoring career and 10 years later, when he was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Flames, general manager Al Coates traded him to Dallas for Iginla, the 11th overall player selected in the 1995 draft. The reaction was less critical that year because it was mid-December, Iginla was a relatively high draft pick and he was having a breakout junior season. Then Christmas came and Iginla rocked the world juniors in Boston and eventually his compelling back story became known and all was well in the world again. But Iginla referenced this circumstance on Thursday, at his goodbye press conference: He was in that position once before, an unknown prospect traded for a known commodity. Iginla also acknowledged that he, like the majority of people, didn't know the thing about the players coming Calgary's way, but he wished them good luck and he hoped that they would thrive.
My point is, you just don't know at this stage of the game what the upside for Hanowski and Agostino might be. In explaining why they'd targeted these two players, Flames' general manager Jay Feaster said that during the lockout, he had deployed his professional scouts to watch U.S. college (when they otherwise might be watching NHL games), so they got a longer look at everybody playing in the NCAA and they saw an upside in both players. Feaster predicted they would play in the NHL; he wouldn't venture how high up on the depth chart they might play.
And that of course will ultimately factor into the evaluation of the deal. Nieuwendyk turned out to be far better than anyone, even the people who watch prospects for a living, thought he'd be. And in the case of Iginla, there were some who believed, when Dallas took him where they did, that they'd hopelessly overreached and if they'd wanted him, they could have gotten him much later in the draft.
The draft was in Edmonton that year – some even believed they picked Iginla so they could be sure their selection it would be cheered. Yeah, people ventured crazy premises like that, even before Twitter was invented. In the scouting game, where the object is to predict how a growing boy will mature into a man, everybody sees something different – and tries to find a reason why they will beat the odds and make it to the NHL. Some do. Most don't.
There were 211 players chosen in the 2012 draft alone, and the vast majority of whom will never play an NHL game, let alone develop an NHL career. Of the ones who do make it, the largest percentage come from among the blue-chip top-10 prospects who have been scrutinized since their mid-teens. So we'll see.
Feaster's regime made a similar off-the-board move in last year's draft, trading down from No. 14 to 21 to draft the longest of long shots, a high schooler named Mark Jankowski from Stanstead College, who has played 34 games as a freshman for Providence College this year and scored 18 points. They view Jankowski as a long-term project but were not averse to dropping Nieuwendyk's name into the discussion when projecting his update – he needed to grow into his tall and rail-thin frame, but they ultimately believed he had the skill set to evolve into a top NHL player. So we'll see.
The draft and every element that follows in terms of player development is a risky business and the people in charge should have the courage of their convictions; it's the only way you can operate. But the price for failure is high too – and as the Flames try to unmake the mess that they've created these past few years, the hope among their loyal and faithful fan base is that the people with the keys to the car know what they're doing. Otherwise, is going to look ugly for a long time to come.
THIS AND THAT : Had lunch this week with an aspiring young sports journalist who made a pretty good point about how the Flames season ended last year, with a victory in a meaningless 82nd game that jumped them to 17th in the overall standings and ultimately let them finish with the best record among the non-playoff teams. (Calgary had 90 points, Dallas and Buffalo 89, Colorado 88. If they'd lost that game, they have been tied with the Avs at 88, but Colorado had the tie-breaker, more regulation and OT wins).
It had implications for the entry draft because instead of drafting at 14, the Flames would have been at 11 – and at 11, the highly rated Swedish prospect Filip Forsberg, who'd been projected to go as high as No. 2 overall, was still available (because of the run on defencemen in last year's draft). Washington took him instead; they had the pick from Colorado in the Semyon Varlamov trade. Then at 12, there was Mikhail Grigorenko available, who went to Buffalo and actually played some NHL games already this season. At 13, Dallas took a highly regarded defensive prospect, Radek Faksa. The point is that sometimes, the race at the bottom of the standings is as important as the race at the top of the standings – and how a win in a meaningless playing-out-the-string sort of a game may have significant repercussions on the franchise for years to come.
The Columbus Blue Jackets' Vaclav Prospal made that point earlier this month – the players on a team don't care about draft positioning, they only care about winning the game at hand, which is how it should be. The integrity of the game is paramount, at any juncture. There have been teams in the past that deliberately tanked their seasons to guarantee a high pick – the NHL slapped around an early version of the Ottawa Senators for doing just that – but you can understand why fans get frustrated when a team plays its best hockey in the games that don't matter, but can't seem to win the ones that do matter. And in Calgary, while the general consensus is that they want to see Iginla win a Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins because he deserves it after all these years, if that happens, then the pick coming Calgary's way will be 30th overall. In a deep draft, who knows what sort of player they'll just miss with that pick.
DRAFT SCHMAFT : What are the odds that between now and the rescheduled NHL entry draft (which is taking place on June 30th in New Jersey this year), there'll be multiple 10-year anniversary stories on the celebrated 2003 draft? Probably high, since a lot of independent scouting observers think this year's draft could be approach 2003 in terms of its overall depth. If that projection proves accurate, then teams with multiple picks could do very well for themselves.
Columbus leads the way with three first-round picks, its own plus New York's for Rick Nash and L.A.'s for Jeff Carter. (Quick aside: The reason the Kings were not seriously in the Iginla bidding was because they didn't have a 2013 first-rounder to surrender; it had been traded away already, and Calgary didn't want to wait until 2014, which was the earliest first-rounder that L.A. had available to trade).
In 2003, Anaheim had the 19th and 28th picks and hit two home runs – Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry respectively, both of whom became franchise players. Props to Alain Chainey, their director of amateur scouting, and to Tim Murray, their player personnel director. Philadephia chose Jeff Carter 11th overall and Mike Richards, 23rd. Props to Dennis Patterson, who was their chief scout. Both Richards and Carter helped the Los Angeles Kings win last year's Stanley Cup.
The middle and later parts of the first round any year any time can be perilous ground, but it was less so in 2003, where the likes of Dustin Brown (13th), Brent Seabrook (14th) Zach Parise (17th), Brent Burns (20th), and Ryan Kesler (23rd) were picked. The bounty didn't end there either: Loui Eriksson went 33th, Patrice Bergeron 45th, Matt Carle 47th, Shea Weber 49th, David Backes 62nd, Jimmy Howard 64th, Joe Pavelski 205th, Toby Enstrom 239rd, Dustin Byfuglien 245th, Matt Moulson 263rd and Jaroslav Halak 271st. But there were misses too: Hugh Jessiman (12th), Robert Nilsson (15th), Marc-Antoine Pouliot (21st) and Anthony Stewart (25th). Los Angeles had three picks that year, but after getting Brown, missed on both Brian Boyle (26th) and Jeff Tambellini (27th). What if they'd chosen Perry and Eriksson there instead? How differently might the NHL landscape have looked?
But if that's how it goes in 2013, and the draft really is as deep as some scouts believe, any team with multiple choices in the opening round could begin to re-stock the prospect cupboard, with astute drafting, intelligent player development and maybe a little luck thrown in for good measure. Now that the Iginla era is officially over, Calgary, for sure, needs that to happen.