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The Heat Is On

Rick Charlton - June 19, 2001

There will be more than a mid-summer Florida sun beating down on Craig Button this week in Miami when he guides the Flames fortunes at the NHL entry draft.

Most GM's would concede there are various pressure points through a year for any organization, the importance of each clouded by the relative successes or failures of the previous season or, in the case of the Calgary Flames, the previous decade.

In Calgary, the architects of the on-ice product have never been under as much pressure as they are now. Button has essentially conceded the Draft this weekend will be one of the last days of the still early summer to decisively improve his hockey club before training camp in the fall.

As an interesting sidebar, even the Flames marketing department seems to be expecting Button to pull a rabbit out of his hat either this weekend or sometime after unrestricted free agents come on the market in early July.

"At this point in time, we're waiting to see what the draft holds and what free agency brings," Flames vice-president marketing and sales Garry McKenzie told the Calgary SUN. No doubt the marketing fellas would love to have a shiny new convertible to flog rather than the beat-up 1960 Volkswagon they're currently trying to peddle.

Having Button land an impact player at the Draft would certainly help ticket sales.

THE ARGUMENT TO KEEP THE PICK - Should he elect to use his number 11 pick, instead of packaging it in a trade, expect Button to go for a forward with skill, the type of player the organization is sorely lacking top to bottom.

It's pure speculation on my part but it wouldn't surprise me if someone like Chuck Kobesew hasn't caught the eye of Button, filling his requirements for speed, excellent scoring touch and a 5'11 body offset by a square frame and an aggressive nature.

If you believe owners will cold-cock the NHLPA in 2004 then the value of building young assets through the entry draft will be just as important tomorrow as it is today. Trading the pick for immediate help would be shortchanging that process in a major way.

TRADE THE PICK - The draft is one of the few points in the summer where a somewhat desperate Button will have an opportunity to catch a conglomeration of other NHL GM's in a mood to wheel and deal. Calgary's priority at this draft, more than using their 11th overall pick, will be to emerge with a leader, a player the rest of the troops can point to in critical times for a decisive turn in direction.

With a team that came to within one game of .500 on nine occasions last year and failed to cross that pivotal threshold all nine times, you can see where Button is coming from.

The Flames own newsletter, Afterburner, mailed to all season ticket holders last week and usually filled to overflowing with warm pablum, contained some unusual straight talk, with Button himself stating the time for rebuilding was over. Winning and a playoff spot, he said, would be the only standard acceptable.

Button's speech varied little from the one he gave last summer. A lot of talk, not a lot of results. Will this year be different? And is that number 11 draft pick for sale?

As Al Coates found out, draft picks only help your replacement.

MOVE UP OR DOWN IN THE DRAFT - Button could also trade the pick for a player and a lower place in the draft order, thereby moving towards his ultimate goal of getting two veteran scoring forwards of good or a veteran thumper on defence.

That in turn makes the number 11 pick look vulnerable as part of a package involving recalcitrant winger Val Bure. And to be frank, there are probably very few players on the Calgary roster truly safe from dismissal.

Trading up in this draft seems unlikely given it would probably cost the team someone off the current roster for a player who wouldn't help them for three or four years. That in turn runs counter to Button's latest rumblings about winning today.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is a trade downwards, getting help today and a pick in the second round.

OTHER PRESSURES - For the ownership group, these next weeks and months are also filled with nail-biting.

The Flames have been decidedly patient in allowing the Klein Tories to put an election behind them before pressing forward on the issue of a lottery solution for their budget woes. While the exact formula is yet to be agreed upon, there seems little doubt now the Flames will have a lottery up and running before the end of the year.

It was something of a surprise, however, after treating Klein with kid gloves, for the Flames to stumble headlong into the Saddledome crisis with a civic election only months away. Small wonder then, that city politicians were looking like deer caught in the headlights as the arena issue came careening at them out of nowhere at the worst possible moment. It mattered little that the concept itself was eminently sensible. The reality was a political time bomb. Was anyone surprised aldermen deftly dodged the bullet. But this too will eventually get done if given the appropriate time.

The Flames added $6 million to their player budget last season and then lost $6.5 million when all the dimes and nickels were added together in April. The Oilers were in a similar boat in Edmonton and tried to foist the problem off on the departed Glen Sather, which prompted the latter to suggest the deficit might have been all about an owner lockout fund rather than any contracts left over by himself. That in turn makes a cynic cast a dubious eye at the Flame deficit as well.

Then there is the mood of Harley himself, promising to stick around to 2004 but taking on a harder edge of late. I've often wondered why Flames owners, good citizens all, would continue to have their names dragged through the mud year after year just so a Bluto sitting on the couch at home could watch a local NHL team. Harley sounds like he's starting to think that way himself.

Still, a lottery project generating $2 million per season and being relieved of $1.3 million in annual Saddledome costs would go a long way to solidifying the Flames financial picture

But the bread and butter still comes down to putting warm tushes in the seats. Winning does that.

So again it all comes back to Button and what he does in the next few weeks.

The heat is truly on.

"IT WILL TAKE A LOT TO GET US AWAY FROM THAT NO. 1 SPOT. If we trade this pick and five years from now the player we could've taken is leading the league in scoring, and the two or three guys we traded for are pushing shopping carts in a supermarket, I'll have to worry about who's going to be sitting in this (GM's) chair." - Don Waddell, chief Poobah in charge of the draft for the Atlanta Thrashers, admitting that he is likely to be using the pick rather than trading it.

FURTHER DRAFT GUESSING  . . . . . ER, PREDICTIONS. As postulated in an earlier column, there are likely to be some very, very large contracts shuffled around the upper echelon teams this summer, both on draft day and after the shopping season opens July 1 for unrestricted free agents. As teams take on large bills, it is probably inevitable they will be looking to drop salaries in other areas which is where the Flames may come in with the relatively inexpensive Val Bure. The Atlanta Thrashers will keep their number one pick overall and take Ilya Kovalchuk. The New York Islanders will almost certainly send their pick elsewhere, probably Ottawa with the Islanders getting Alexei Yashin. The team you might suppose the Flames would deal with to move up would be Florida but Bill Torrey the last few days seem disinclined to a trade as does Pierre Gauthier in Anaheim with the fifth pick overall. That leaves the New York Rangers at number 10 as the next team most likely to move their pick, possibly in a deal involving Jaromir Jagr. So I don't see the Flames moving up in this draft for those reasons as well as Button's assertion that he needs help now rather than later. As to moving downwards that is anyone's guess. The rumour mill has the Flames moving defence prospects rather than more obvious candidates like Sergei Varlamov, implying the talk of Paul Manning on the move might have some merit.

SALARY INFLATION HAS BEEN FIVE PER CENT OR LESS the last two years running and under ten percent for three years, hardly fitting the tag of "runaway costs" we've been hearing about lately. Personally, I have been waiting some years for just the summer we are about to see a large number of unrestricted free agents available to the highest bidder. Without a doubt the top end of the pool will be more sought after than the fine fillies at a Sylvan Lake dance hall. But as you move lower into the pool we should see the principles of supply and demand begin to assert themselves. In the end, the large cheques given to the likes of Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy should be offset by the scattered dollars going to the average Schmoe's looking for employment. "There are so many chairs available and when the music stops, they might find themselves on the floor," says an agreeable Vancouver GM Brian Burke. Supply versus demand. If that principle holds true then Calgary GM Button may have more of a field to play than we might be presuming. Even the ugly guys get married.

"DO I WANT TO TRADE ANY OF THEM? The answer is NO. But, we also didn't make the playoffs last year, with 88 points, and that's tough. I'd like to say no, that we'll absolutely keep them - but if there is an opportunity, you have to look at everything." Bruins GM Mike O'Connell talking of the possibility of trading restricted free agents Kyle McLaren, Bill Guerin or Jason Allison.