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The draft is always a highlight of the assistant GM's year

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

There might not be the eye-popping, slam-dunk, immediately-ready-for-prime-time prodigy glittering there the shop window, cautions Craig Conroy, but the doesn't necessarily diminish potential returns.

"It's not a bad draft,'' estimates the Calgary Flames' assistant GM. "What it is is a dig-down draft, a character draft.

"There might be a future Hall of Famer in this draft. Who can tell? Granted it's not going to be like 'Hey, here's a McDavid.' But, I mean, even last year you weren't coming out of there thinking 'generational player.' You were thinking 'very good player.' 

"Then (Auston) Matthews scores 40 goals, and (Patrik) Laine, if he hadn't been hurt, would've probably scored 40, too.

"Just goes to show.

"I don't think there's the huge immediate impact guy in this draft. But slotting players this year wasn't as hard as people think."

The Flames contingent decamps Monday for Chicago and final preparations for the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. Their expansion draft list of protected and available players is filed but the announcement of the 30 players chosen by the Las Vegas Golden Knights won't arrive until Wednesday in Glitter Gulch.

The draft proper will be held Friday-Saturday at the United Center. Calgary chooses 16th in the first round.

"Could either guy" - Brandon's Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads - "go No. 1?" reasons Conroy. "Yeah. Could someone move up to 3 that we have slotted at, say, 8? Sure.

"This is a homework draft. I don't think there's a guy who can come in with the 16th pick - if that's where we stay - and play, like Matthew Tkachuk did. Or (Sam) Bennett, although he got hurt. Or (Sean) Monahan.

"I just don't see that where we are. But that's okay. In two or three years, if we have a really good player, we'll be happy. Maybe he wasn't here as an 18-year-old but if we have a 21-year-old that makes you go 'Wow!', what's wrong with that?"

The planning and plotting, evaluating and information-gathering, has been going on for some time now.

"We really started the countdown last week, with the Combine,'' says Conroy. "We've had our meetings, our list is 90 per cent done, then we go to the Combine and meet the kids. As much as you want to say you put a lot of stock in it, it's a series of 20-minute interviews.

"That's not a lot of time. Kids these days, remember, are very well schooled. They've got it the lingo down. It's actually refreshing when of them shows a little personality, isn't script. That tells you he doesn't need to be everyone else.

"Those are guys who stand out."

The expansion Golden Knights are, naturally, the X Factor, the wild card, that could start dominoes tumbling in all varieties of ways.

"With Brad talking to GMs, we're talking to agents, you start to get a feel of who might be in your range. We might have the Top 25 guys, to say we know the order …

"Last year, there was a bit of a (surprise) at 3, so we were able to get Matthew but we were right on point after that. The list matched up, there was just that one blip. 

"As I said before, it's not a bad draft but in this one teams could go all over the map. I think it's a very close draft so you might select based on (positional) need. We always say we're going to take the best player. But when it comes time for you to pick in this draft, you might have, say, two to five players you rate almost equally, there's not a real drop-off in our minds, then you make the decision based on position.

"Not right or wrong, just based on preferences."

Trade discussions, says Conroy, are beginning to heat up.

"Last week I'm like 'Hmm. Weird. Nothing's really happening.' But this week, for Brad especially, it's started to get busy.

"We don't have a second or third (selection) and you know Brad's always looking to add picks. You never know what's out there.

"We've put all our ducks in a row but you still don't know who's going to be available when it's your turn."

Treliving has been known to pull off a deal or two in his short stint as GM here, and the fact the Flames' goaltending situation is anything but sorted out only fuels speculation. 

"You're always listening, always open for discussion,'' says Conroy.

"The Dougie Hamilton trade, for instance, was a lot of fun. We barely slept that whole draft. At least it felt that way. We went to bed the night before thinking it might be dead and then at 4 o'clock in morning you get a call from Brad and it's back on.

"We'd talked to (Boston) in November about Dougie and it was a no. Another no at the trade deadline. And then they were on the plane back from the awards in June and it had changed to 'We might do something with him. What are you guys thinking?'

"That was a good plane trip. They just happened to be sitting next to each other.

"It's weird how things work themselves out."

Owing to the salary cap and general parity within the league, trades are difficult to finalize during the course of the regular season.

"You start the season and your team's your team and there aren't many trades until the trade deadline. A one-off, maybe, after December.

"It's the money. You're like: 'Well, let's wait until we're only down to 30 per cent of the contract to commit.' 

"Before, there could be a big trade in October, November, December. You just never knew when something would happen.

"The draft, now, is where a lot of that gets done. I love the draft. A lot of calls. A lot of action. A lot of … possibilities.

"And while there might not be a trade for us right this minute, that that doesn't mean there won't be in five days. Or in five hours."

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