“The cupboards are bare” is a refrain we’ve heard plenty over the last number of seasons when it comes to Calgary Flames prospects, and it’s something that I can understand.
There were times last season where the Flames had just two drafted players in their lineup (Mikael Backlund and David Moss). Over the last decade or so, there have been first round picks that haven’t panned out, from Rico Fata and Daniel Tzachuk to Kris Chucko and Matt Pelech. Development hasn’t been as successful for this franchise as it has for others, which is just incontrovertible fact.
Going into June’s NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota, I was very intrigued to see how Jay Feaster would approach selecting the latest of Flames prospects. I had a pretty good idea after talking to both of them the day before the first round, and it played out in a way that I think is significant for the organization. An increased emphasis was put on skill, as it was identified as a key area for improvement. Sven Bartschi is the perfect example of that, as the Swiss winger had one of the highest ceilings among eligible players. His numbers in the Western Hockey League thus far speak for themselves, but two 2011 later round picks stand out for me just as much.
Both Markus Granlund (2nd round) and John Gaudreau (4th round) are picks that didn’t fall into the typical mold of this team over the last number of drafts, but both of them carry a sizeable amount of skill and promise. While Granlund may not have a stamp fashioned after him in his native Finland (like his brother, Mikael), he’s off to a very nice start in his first full season of pro hockey. A year younger than his 19 year old sibling, has 16 points in 26 games, more than holding his own among much older competition.
Gaudreau earned Rookie of the Year honors playing with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League last season and accelerated his move to NCAA hockey this year. With an initial commitment to Northeastern University for next season, the diminutive forward decided to fight for an opportunity at Boston College with no guarantee of making the team. He made it, and is now playing alongside fellow Flames pick Bill Arnold on the top team in Hockey East with 14 points in 18 games.
You can see Granlund along with his brother star for Finland at the World Junior Hockey Championships, and the overwhelming theme of skill jumps off the page when reading what scouts say about him: a strong playmaker who is exceptional on the powerplay and great vision on the ice.
"He is just outstanding with his understanding of the game and smart, cool passes," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. “He's an above-average skater, smallish, but compensates for his lack of size and strength with his outstanding vision."
Gaudreau is a player who takes it to the next level in the size category, standing 5’6 and weighing in at 141 pounds. However, physical size has no bearing on hockey sense and raw skill, and watching him at summer development camp, those were the traits that stuck out more than anything else. Gaudreau is quick, extremely skilled with the puck, but one word stands out more than anything else: shifty.
"He's one of the most dynamic offensive talents that our country has seen in the past 10 years," former coach Jared Beach told The Courier Post. "His name is right up there with Patrick Kane, a smaller guy with an unbelievable skill set."
Comparisons to Kane may be lofty, as the former first overall pick already has a Stanley Cup under his belt. However, there is one point that sticks out more than anything else with Gaudreau, Granlund, and even Bartschi. There may have been prospects deemed to be “surer things” at this past draft in Minnesota, but the team put an emphasis on the overall skill level of their system. Many pointed to Mark McNeill (drafted 18th by Chicago) as a good Flames pick because there was a feeling his game had more of a surefire translation to the NHL.
With Granlund and Gaudreau, the same is true for players taken after them in the second and fourth rounds; but all three players have high ceilings, higher than many guys who present more “risk”. Risk is a good thing, and the Flames have confidence in their development system right now.
Knowing skill was something they wanted to address, Calgary started to go that direction at the draft, including their acquisition of Paul Byron from Buffalo. It’s the direction they needed to go in, and I for one am excited to see how it translates in the future.
Pat Steinberg can be heard on the Big Show weekdays from 1-4 pm and on Overtime after every Flames game on Sportsnet 960 The Fan radio.