February 7th, 2003

 

The Big Prize

Number One Pick Within Grasp


by D'Arcy McGrath

It's within their grasp.

For the first time in franchise history the Calgary Flames have a shot at the first overall draft pick all they have to do is continue to prosper at something they seemingly have mastered this season; lose.

The Flames haven't made the playoffs in six going on seven hockey seasons. Usually when hockey teams go through long periods of playoff drought they are reborn at the other end of the futile stretch, their roster flush with young stars and top prospects.

Unless you're Calgary.

The Flames on the other hand, have found themselves lost in the buffer zone between playoff teams and true doormats for the past few years. As a result they haven't drafted in the top five. Haven't found that next franchise player. Haven't turned things around with a brand spanking new team of young stars.

The team first missed the playoffs in the spring of 1997. They finished 21st in a league of 26 teams and drafted sixth overall. Their pick, Daniel Tkaczuk bounced up and down from Saint John, was traded to St. Louis in the Roman Turek deal and is now in hockey oblivion.

In 1998 the exact same set of events occurred once again. They finished 21st in a league of 26 teams and this time selected Rico Fata 6th overall. Fata was lost on waivers to the N.Y. Rangers and is now a very expensive depth player in Manhattan.

In 1999 the Flames drafted Russian import Oleg Saprykin, a scoring winger that was tearing up the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Saprykin was taken 9th overall as the Flames had finished 20th overall in a league that now held 27 teams, but moved down one spot in a trade to acquire Marc Savard.

Not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to grab the prize.

If the Flames had finished in the bottom three in each of the above seasons they would have had one of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or Olli Jokinen in 1997; one of Vincent Lecavalier, David Legwand or Brad Stuart in 1998; and one of Patrik Stefan, Daniel Sedin or Henrik Sedin in 1999.

Think that would have made a difference?

So do I.

The failure of Tkaczuk, Fata and Saprykin to make it to that next level is a key turning point in the organization's history. This spring the trio would be 24, 23 and 22 years old respectively and should have been playing key roles in what would be a completely different Calgary Flames team.

Instead only Saprykin is still plugging away, far from the potential that many envisioned, but at least still in the system and on the radar screen.

Placing blame at this point is almost irrelevant as the entire management team has been rolled over since the 1989-99 season, but one has to wonder; were these bad picks? Or did good players enter a bad development system, destroying the promise they seemed to have?

Likely a bit of both.

That past is the past however, let's shift our attention to the future. The very near future; June 2003.

The Flames are currently sitting last in the West and in a tie for 28th overall with the Carolina Hurricanes. If the season was to end today the local squad would be drafting fourth overall in a deep draft that contains a good crop of very intriguing prospects.

The big question, with 28 games to play, is which way is this club heading?

In true "Flame" fashion you can almost see the inevitable run up the standings in the last quarter of the standings a run that turns a top five pick into a 8th or 9th overall pick doing nothing but dampening the value of their pick, and with it the potential of the player they select.

But habits have to change at some point. Bad turns to good. Misfortune to good fortune.

If the team can't turn it around on the ice, maybe they'll get it right off the ice and find a way to sink a little lower in the standings and burst into the top pick or at worst the 2nd pick overall.

The Numbers

The Flames have the good fortune to have picked a very obscure season to slip down the standings. As their play has fallen off, the bottom has literally risen up to meet them. The current 30th place team, the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres, are on pace for 66 points this season. Now while 66 points isn't likely to do a lot in a season ticket drive the number itself represents a significant boost for the league's worst when compared to prior seasons.

Year

Last

Team

# < 66

2002

54

Atl

3

2001

52

NYI

3

2000

39

Atl

3

1999

49

Tby

4

1998

44

Tby

4

1997

61

Bos

2

1996

41

Ott

3

1995

23

Ott

5

1994

37

Ott

5

1993

24

Ott/San

5

The table to the right shows the last ten years of basement dwellers. Notice that a team finishes last with 60 or more points only once in this time frame, and even that year they were six points behind this year's crop.

The column to the right shows the number of teams in each season that would have finished behind this year's 30th place team (based on current projections). Flame fans are a little frustrated this season, and with good reason, but can you even imagine what the Ottawa fans endured in 1995 when they picked up only 23 points (adjusted to 82 games from 84 that season to keep the data comparable)?

Year

Standing

2002

27

2001

25

2000

25

1999

23

1998

22

1997

24

1996

21

1995

21

1994

21

1993

19

The table to the left shows how the Calgary Flames would have finished in each of the past ten seasons with this year's projected point total of 68 points. It really shows just how much the bottom of the NHL has come up to the middle in terms of futility.

So we've established that this year is different, and because it's different it's reachable for a poor team to be the worst team as no clear "door mat" exists to take on the worst team in hockey crown.

What will it take for the Calgary Flames to reach last overall?

The race for last is pretty much down to four teams; the Buffalo Sabres, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames. Within this group, the Thrashers appear ready to move up the standing since they hired former Avalanche coach Bob Hartley and went on a run. Buffalo is maintaining their pace, while Carolina is falling off the face of the Earth.

The Sabres have three games in hand on both Carolina and Calgary. The Thrashers have two games in hand on Carolina and Calgary.

Based on the Flame's current pace one could expect the club to finish out the their final 28 games with a record in the neighborhood of 9-14-5 for 23 points. That would get them 68 points and a top five pick.

The Buffalo Sabres are expected to finish out the string at a pace that would see a record similar to 10-16-5 and finish with 66 points.

Based on today's numbers, the Calgary Flames cannot exceed 20 or 21 total points in their final 28 games.

Improving Their Odds

The largest immeasurable variable at this point is the seller market.

Which of the above four teams will step up to the plate and move veteran players? A move that not only improves a club down the road, but also improves their chances of slipping in the standings after the March 11th trade deadline date.

With Buffalo you have the added threat of asset sales, as the creditors and NHL itself may be forced to get something for a bankrupt team that nobody seems willing to buy.

For Calgary it means taking a hard look at players that won't be in their plans when the team finally does turn that corner.

It means taking a look at Bob Boughner will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.

It means taking a look at captain Craig Conroy who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.

It means taking a look at any and everyone including expensive pieces Roman Turek and Jarome Iginla, and assessing the future.

A future that could get much brighter if the correct moves are made down the stretch.

All they have to do is lose ...


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