The 2021 NHL Entry Draft is the most intriguing one in years. Without a consensus number one pick and with the stark differences in the number of games played in each league, how teams evaluate players is going to be incredibly different. Each team—and especially each GM—has a unique way of looking at each league, and these differences can be seen by looking back at their drafts over time.
For the Flames, who have had five general managers since 2001, each management system has valued certain leagues very highly and disregarded others almost on a whim. With that said, some leagues have consistently been favorites for the Flames each year regardless of who was in charge. Let’s break it all down, first by looking at the general trends then by each GM.
Being in their backyard, the Western Hockey League has been the go-to league for Flames draft picks, and by a substantial amount. 43 Flames prospects have been selected from the WHL, including Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki. Nearly twice as many prospects have been taken from this league than any other.
The next closest league, unsurprisingly, is the Ontario Hockey League, which has produced 23 Flames prospects since 2001. This is interesting as the OHL has produced the most NHL first-round picks of any league in the same timeframe. Among the Flames’ players currently, Sean Monahan, Rasmus Andersson, Matthew Tkachuk, and Andrew Mangiapane all hail from the OHL.
One would expect that the QMJHL would be next, but the Flames have only taken 12 players from this league, and only taken more than one player in a draft once when they selected two at the 2020 draft. Instead, the US Hockey League (USHL) takes the third overall spot with 16 picks. This includes the US Men’s National Team Development Program, which was historically independent but has joined this group of late.
Let’s break how each GM made their picks for the Flames.
Prior to becoming an analyst for TSN, Button was the GM of the Flames from 2001 to 2003, and while he was only in charge for a few years, his draft picks went on to have remarkably good NHL careers. While he did not officially oversee the 2003 draft—having been let go of just before—his fingerprints were all over this draft, and just like his first two, each draft yielded over 1000 NHL man-games each played between all prospects.
Button was also one of the most spread out drafters—taking players from every major league without real preference for any league. What is most interesting is that when he was in charge, Button drafted six players from Russia. Not a single one played a game in the NHL. It took until 2013 for the Flames to draft another Russian, and even from 2013 until now, not a single one has come across to North America.
If you are looking for why the Flames have historically drafted so many players from the WHL, the Darryl Sutter GM era is the prime reason. When in charge, he selected a whopping 44% of his picks from this league alone. Take a look at the chart below:
Outside of the Western League, Sutter had a good amount of trust in the OHL, taking nine selections from there, and the Swedish system, taking six selections including Mikael Backlund.
However, in spite of making 50 selections over seven drafts, Sutter only got 3819 total man-games out of his draft class—the majority of which came from three players: the aforementioned Backlund, T.J. Brodie, and Micheal Ferland.
To make matters worse, not only did he miss on a number of picks, but he also missed in whole draft classes. In 2005 and 2006, the Flames had eight picks each year, and could not get even 100 NHL man-games out of each class. On top of that, among his first-round picks over his tenure, Backlund was the only one to hit 100 NHL games, a huge hit to this organization’s pipeline. While he was one of the Flames’ better coaches, he struggled in his role as GM.
In terms of drafting, Feaster was a bit of a shake-up from Sutter, opting to take players from different leagues than just the WHL. Take a look at the chart below:
While he did still take the majority of his picks from the WHL, he spread it out through the other leagues much more evenly. He was the first GM to take a player from the Russian leagues since Button, but like his predecessor, that pick did not pan out well.
However, Feaster actually was a reasonably decent drafter. Leaving aside taking Mark Jankowski in the first round in 2012, he managed to find Johnny Gaudreau in the fourth round, drafted Monahan, who has been one of the best players from his draft class being the sixth-overall pick in 2013, and has found depth NHLers like Brett Kulak in the fourth round, Markus Granlund in the second round, and even goaltending with Laurent Brossoit in the sixth round,
Over his three-year tenure, Feaster managed to get 2422 games out of his selections so far, an average of 121 NHL man-games per prospect. Not bad for a short-term GM.
Brian Burke was many things in his time with the Flames, but an excellent drafter was not one of them. Prioritizing size and “truculence” over speed and skill was his bread and butter, and while he was part of the organization for a number of years in a support capacity.
While Treliving was officially the Flames GM at the 2014 draft, Burke’s fingerprints were really all over the draft and the selections the Flames made, so for the purposes of assessing the Flames’ drafts, we’ll credit this one more to Burke than to Treliving. Here is how he did.
It is hard to draw conclusions from just one draft in terms of the leagues he picked from, but here is what we do know. All of his players but one were from North America, with the OHL being most common. All of his players were over six feet tall and were big-hitting prospects. While they all were physically imposing, only one made it to the NHL, which was Sam Bennett.
We have previously broken down how disappointing the 2014 draft class was for the Flames, as it was not a great success across the board. When the organization’s highest ever pick ends up being a depth player who’s no longer with the organization, something has gone woefully wrong. It will be interesting to see if he follows the same formula at his new job with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The current Flames GM, Treliving has made 37 picks over the last six drafts and has been very diverse in his picks:
What is interesting is the number of picks he has made from the OHL relative to other leagues, and that when he drafts two OHLers in the same league, they typically come from the same team. This includes taking both Mangiapane and Andersson from the Barrie Colts as well as Tkachuk and Tyler Parsons from the London Knights.
On top of that, he has taken a number of prospects from the American systems, especially the USHL. This includes Martin Pospisil, Emilio Pettersen, and Josh Nodler, who are all in the system currently and have taken eight prospects from the US programs entirely.
It is still too early to evaluate his success in terms of drafting and developing NHLers, with it usually taking a few seasons of development before a prospect is NHL ready. That being said, there are a number of exciting prospects that are in the system that could become regular NHLers down the road.
What can we expect from Treliving this year?
There are a number of really interesting trends that can be seen. The first is that with his first-round pick, Treliving has always opted for a player who can play a strong two-way game. Scouts prior to the draft all noted how good Tkachuk, Connor Zary, and Jakob Pelletier were at backchecking and supporting the play in transition, and naturally Valimaki as a defenceman has strong defensive instincts.
On top of that, with first-round picks, Treliving has taken players whose teams have had success that season. Tkachuk and the London Knights were coming off of a Memorial Cup in his draft year, while Zary’s Kamloops Blazers, Pelletier’s Val d’Or Foreurs, and Valimaki’s Tri-City Americans were all in the top half of their respective divisions. Whether the team benefitted from having a potential first-round pick on them or whether Treliving just liked talent from winning teams, this has been a trend among all four first-round picks.
Speaking of Tri-City, Treliving has consistently taken a player from the WHL in every single draft, but never more than two in a given year. Also, in the past four years, he has taken at least one player from the QMJHL and even took two last season.
Finally, Treliving seems to also like European-born skaters who have played in North America prior to being drafted. This includes the aforementioned Pettersen from Norway, Pospisil and Milos Roman from Slovakia, Valimaki from Finland, Stepan Falkovsky and Ilya Solovyov from Belarus, and Yan Kuznetsov and Dmitri Zavgorodniy from Russia. While it is hard to speculate why these players are getting selected by Treliving, it seems like more than a coincidence that eight of Treliving’s 38 picks had this trajectory.
The Flames go into the draft at this point with seven selections, which includes two third-round selections (one acquired as part of the James Neal trade) and no fourth-round pick (part of the Derek Forbort trade). We have broken down the Flames’ needs in terms of the team’s prospect cupboards, but with no consensus first overall pick, and a number of off-the-board options expected, this is a draft to watch.