Wilson: 40th anniversary of greatest Flames draft class reminder of what Calgary has been missing

The incredible ’84 draft class was the apex of the best draft run this organization has ever experienced

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest single draft in Calgary Flames history. With 12 picks in hand, GM Cliff Fletcher selected Gary Roberts (12th overall), Paul Ranheim (38th), Brett Hull (117th), Jiri Hrdina (159th) and Gary Suter (180th).

The incredible ’84 draft class was the apex of the best draft run this organization has ever experienced. Between 1980 and 1985, the Flames also picked Hakan Loob (1980), Al MacInnis (1981), Mike Vernon (1981), Dan Quinn (1983), Perry Berezan (1983), Sergei Makarov (1983) and Joe Nieuwendyk (1985). Theoren Fleury was added in 1987.

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The Flames made the Stanley Cup finals in 1986. By 1989, they’d won it all.

NHL general managers face myriad challenges when building a team. Coaching, culture, contracts and trades are some of the biggest, most obvious factors.

Perhaps the single-most important aspect of running an NHL club is creating a robust development pipeline. Without quality draft picks, and a process for reliably turning them into quality professional players, an organization is doomed to languish in mediocrity over the long run. Great coaching, good culture, tough negotiating and even clever trades cannot sustain a club indefinitely without a reliable font of fresh talent. For a GM, the development pipeline is the lifeblood of your organization.

The reason for this is simple. The draft is the only reliable, persistent source of core players and superstars. And it is weighted so that the best players can often be found at the top. Luck and competence play no small role when it comes to drafting, but even a moderately capable algorithm could assemble a good team if it was allowed to pick early and often enough.

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NHL rosters also suffer from natural erosion due to aging, injuries and free agency. Other forms of acquisition, such as free agency and trades, are especially costly, rendering them supplementary roster-building methods at best. Eventually, you run out of cap space and assets if you are forced to constantly chase whales in the summer or on the auction block.

Drafting and developing superstars internally is also the only way to secure their best seasons at below-market contracts. NHLers tend to peak between the ages of 22 and 27, which are the “restricted free agency” years. The collective bargaining agreement artificially caps a rookie’s first contract and suppresses the bargaining power of youngsters. The single best way to build a cap-efficient roster, then, is for a significant portion of your top players to be younger than 28.

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Here’s another illustration from the Flames’ history. Calgary’s last significant post-season success was its Cinderella run in 2004. Since falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final, the Flames have won a total of two playoff series.

In contrast, four different teams have won multiple Cups over the same period: the Pittsburgh Penguins (three), Chicago Blackhawks (three), Los Angeles Kings (two), and the Lightning (two). Yes, Tampa beat Calgary for the Cup, bottomed out, rebuilt, became a contender, and won the Cup twice in the intervening two decades.

A commonality among these quasi-dynastic runs is clear — each of these organizations built a core of superstars through the draft, often due to drastic or protracted rebuilds. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc Andre Fleury, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are an imposing collection of talent, all scooped within the first 11 selections (most within the first five). This list doesn’t even include the waves of resonant talent these clubs selected through the rest of the draft that helped to augment the core players they nabbed early.

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It is not impossible to build nominally good, one-off rosters without a great pipeline. But to build a true, enduring contender, the development pipeline thick with draft picks and elite talent is a must. Nothing guarantees a Cup win, naturally, but the scales tip well in your favour if you boast a generational talent and waves of internally developed kids. Talent that comes up together and stays together effectively compounds over time, as familiarity and chemistry grow.

We’ll conclude with one final list of players: Cory Stillman (sixth overall), Daniel

Tkaczuk

(sixth), Rico Fata (sixth), Brent Krahn (ninth), Eric Nystrom (10th), Dion Phaneuf (ninth), Sean Monahan (sixth), Sam Bennett (fourth) and Matthew Tkachuk (sixth). These nine players comprise every top-10 selection the Flames have ever made at the NHL entry draft. Glancing over the relative paucity of that list explains the organization’s lack of dominance since the early ’80s.

Perhaps the Flames will have another “1984” one day, but so far they’ve only managed that once. Otherwise, the path back to contending must be paved with elite prospects plucked from the top of the draft.

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