STATE OF THE UNION
Chatting with NHL Radio at the 2009 Entry Draft, Calgary Flames General Manager Darryl Sutter told listeners, "I really believe that if there's a tie between a defenseman and a forward, you take the defenseman."
As trade secrets go, it's not exactly the formula for Coca-Cola or Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.
When the Flames hired Brent Sutter as coach in June, the Flames told everyone who would listen that shoring up a porous team defense was their No. 1 priority.
"We went from first in the League (in goals-against during the 2005-06 season) to 23rd (in 2008-09)," Darryl Sutter said, "and were, quite honestly, fortunate to be a playoff team."
The GM has been at it with a vengeance this summer in an effort to restore the Flames' reputation as defenders of the faith. And landing the cream of the free-agency crop, blue-chip blueliner Jay Bouwmeester, was the biggest piece of the puzzle.
"We want to get better defensively. It's obviously something Darryl and I stress, and something that I believe in as a coach," Brent Sutter told NHL.com. "You need to play well defensively, and that involves more than how you play in your own zone. It's also puck-possession time. It's about how you forecheck. It's about the things you do as a group. It's about getting the puck back as quickly as you can.
"Yeah, defense is how you play without the puck, but good defense also means having the puck a lot, too, because that means less time chasing the other team."
The Flames upstaged everyone during the draft -- and ultimately spoiled what would have been a televised Bouwmeester Sweepstakes Show on Canada Day -- by acquiring the negotiating rights to the star Florida Panthers defenseman June 27. Four days later, they signed him to a five-year deal worth a reported average of $6.6 million per season.
"We want to get better defensively. It's obviously something Darryl and I stress, and something that I believe in as a coach."
-- Brent Sutter
That goes double for Sutter, who now has a top-four defense corps of former Norris Trophy finalist Dion Phaneuf, Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich.
Added to that mix are last season's pleasant rookie surprise Adam Pardy, Mark Giordano, July free-agent pickup Staffan Kronwall (brother of the Red Wings' Niklas) and Anton Stralman, a slick, young puck-moving prospect with a right-handed shot, who may end up being the steal of a July 27 trade with Toronto -- even if some considered the deal a Calgary salary dump, with Wayne Primeau going the other way.
The Flames also acquired Keith Seabrook, projected as a future top-three defenseman, from Washington; drafted Sweden’s Tim Erixon in the first round; and boast a deep defensive talent pool for the future, with the likes of John Negrin, T.J. Brodie, Keith Aulie and Matt Pelech in the organization.
Exiting were Adrian Aucoin, who left for Phoenix via free agency; Jordan Leopold, who went the other way in the Bouwmeester trade; and Jim Vandermeer, sent to the Coyotes in a deal that saw Calgary re-acquire spark plug Brandon Prust.
"You look at the top-end guys, like Dion and Jay and Robyn, that's huge. There's no question that we're excited," Sutter said. "And we've also got guys like Kronwall, Stralman, Pelech, who are all right there pushing for spots. We have eight, nine, 10 guys back there capable of playing at the NHL level. It's a real solid group throughout. That's what's so great about it."
Up front, the Flames -- who have made four consecutive first-round playoff exits -- were unable to make major changes, partially due to salary-cap constraints.
Brian McGrattan was signed as the club's enforcer and Nigel Dawes was plucked off waivers from Phoenix, but there was no replacement for Michael Cammalleri, last season's 39-goal scorer who left for Montreal.
Sutter isn't concerned with filling that hole, pointing to forwards Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and David Moss, who all blossomed in the scoring department last winter.
"(Scoring) will take care of itself," he said. "You’ll always score enough goals … you've just got to make sure you don't give up as many."
Last season was a real coming-out party for Calgary Flames prospects, with no less than eight products of the club's system earning their NHL initiation wearing the Flaming 'C.'
And despite the fact 22 Flames players will show up to September training camp on one-way contracts, GM Darryl Sutter still promises open season on the vets.
"I really don't care how many one-way contracts we have … I think there's six kids in (July's top prospects camp) who are going to knock the (stuffing) out of some guys for jobs," Sutter said. "And I love it. That's the way it works."
Here's a peek at the top five prospects in the Flames' system:
Mikael Backlund -- The 24th pick of the 2007 Entry Draft, the smart, swift Swedish center is considered a premier playmaker and a favorite among the club's prospects to crack the big-league roster this season. Backlund played one game for the Flames in January, and then went to the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. He had 30 points in 26 regular-season games, and 23 in 19 playoff games to help the Rockets win the league title.
Keith Seabrook -- The younger brother of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, this 6-foot, 198-pound, right-shooting blueliner was acquired by the Flames on July 17 from Washington for future considerations. Seabrook notched 55 points for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen last season, has tremendous offensive upside and is expected to develop into a top-three defenseman. He's expected to pay his professional dues in the AHL for a couple of seasons.
Greg Nemisz -- The Flames' 2008 first-round pick (No. 25), Nemisz has soft hands for his 6-3, 197-pound frame, and could develop into a prime power forward. The center posted fine numbers in his third OHL season -- 77 regular-season points, 20 in 20 playoff games -- and will spend at least one more season in junior before taking a serious run at the Calgary roster.
John Negrin -- A shut-down defenseman, Negrin has decent size (6-2, 195) and has proven himself to be a fine outlet passer. A 2007 third-round pick, Negrin played three NHL games last spring, and will make his pro debut this season, most likely with the club's new AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat.
Matt Pelech -- A 2005 first-round pick (No. 26), this big, stay-at-home defenseman notched three points and nine penalty minutes during a five-game stint with the Flames in 2008-09. Entering his third season of pro hockey, the 6-4, 220-pounder could be in the Flames' seven-man mix with a solid, steady game.
When Calgary Flames Director of Scouting Todd Button made the club's first-round choice at the 2009 Entry Draft, he did it with the knowledge that his club might not be able to make quite as big a splash for two years.
So he made sure it counted -- taking Swedish defenseman Tim Erixon at No. 23.
"We absolutely couldn't make a mistake on our first pick," Button said. "This pick counted for two. We had to make sure this player was good enough to make up for the fact that we don't have a first- or second-round pick next year yet."
The Flames' first-round pick in 2010 is owned by Phoenix as a result of the Olli Jokinen deal, and the second-rounder belongs to Chicago as part of the trade that brought in Rene Bourque.
Erixon (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) is the son of former New York Rangers defensive forward Jan Erixon. The Swedish teen, an intelligent, two-way defenseman, is expected to return to Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League this season.
The Flames also concentrated on collecting offensive talent down the wall. Here's a look at the other five players selected by Calgary:
Ryan Howse -- A 5-11, 195-pound left-wing, Howse led the WHL's Chilliwack Bruins with 31 goals in 61 games last season. An explosive player who's considered a pure goal scorer, Howse was taken in the third round (No. 74).
Henrik Bjorklund -- A right wing with Sweden's Farjestads, Bjorklund is considered a capable goal scorer, and uses his 6-2, 202-pound frame to his benefit with an aggressive style. Taken in the fourth round (No. 111), Bjorklund reportedly has a good release on his shot and likes to use it.
Spencer Bennett -- The fifth round (No. 141) pick had 20 goals and 21 assists last season with the BCHL's Surrey Eagles. A 6-3, 185-pound left wing, Bennett reportedly turned down an NCAA scholarship from Anchorage-Alaska in order to suit up for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks this coming season.
Joni Ortio -- Taken in the sixth round (No. 171), this 6-1, 181-pound goaltender won a bronze medal with Finland at the 2009 World Junior Championship. He sported a 2.63 goals-against average in 26 games with the TPS Turku juniors.
Gaelan Patterson -- Chosen in the seventh round (No. 201), this 6-foot, 204-pound center had 22 goals and 57 points in his third season with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades.