Star to Prospect, Prospect to Star

July 12th, 2013 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Growth in any business is a difficult process that requires smart minds making sharp decisions, all in the face of risk and potential failure.

Good teams tinker with their rosters each and every hockey season hoping to stay on top if they reside at the pinnacle, or to move to the top with a few adjustments.

Chief among the tasks falling under any NHL general manager is asset management. How to maximize the value of their stable of roster players, minor league players, developing prospects and draft picks. In the past decade another piece was added to the puzzle in cap space.

Move all of these groups forward and you turn things around quickly. Get too impatient (see Mike Milbury) and you doom the franchise to the bottom of the NHL standings for a generation because the patience and hard work was avoided for quick fixes that turned out to be long term hexes.

This week in Calgary, the Flames are hosting a development camp fresh on the heels of an NHL Entry Draft that saw them take multiple players in the first round for the first time in NHL history. It’s a dizzying experience for Flames fans used to that one player taken every summer in the 23-27 range and being excited to see him at camp.

Taking in day one of camp was a very unique experience for fans and media because there has never been so many players to keep an eye on.

Three players in particular have a significant role to play in Flames history going forward, though clearly they shouldn’t be saddled with the weight that comes along with the story line.

Under the topic of asset management; one set of transactions continues to be the spine of a franchise that has been in Calgary since 1980, that circle of life now has three fresh faces to ponder, and with it a lot of intrigue in this year’s camp.

Lap One: Nilsson

The Flames moved to Calgary with a veteran lineup that was built to win but couldn’t find playoff success in Atlanta. They had size, and used the small confines of the Calgary Corral to their advantage, volleying equal parts of intimidation and skill to batter their opponents.

The team’s sniper was Kent Nilsson, a hugely skilled right wing that still holds the franchise record for points in a single season at 131.

Nilsson, as enigmatic as he was skilled fit well with a veteran team, but when the Flames turned the page and hired Bob Johnson to be a coach, the direction was one of systems and development, teaching, and not maverick hockey from inconsistent players.

After a few years of working together the Flames began the circle of life trade by moving their star winger along with a third round pick to Minnesota (North Stars) for two second round picks in 1985. The picks turned out to be Joe Nieuwendyk and Stephane Matteau.

Lap Two: Nieuwendyk

The Nieuwendyk era was more successful than the Kent Nilsson era in Calgary. The lanky pivot was more of a goal scorer than a set up guy, and caught national headlines in challenging Mike Bossy’s rookie record for goals in his first season.

As Joe developed, the Flames developed, finally winning a Stanley Cup in 1989 with Doug Gilmour and Nieuwendyk leading the way.

He was named captain soon after, but then left when a contract impasse with Flames GM Doug Risebrough ended his tenure in Calgary.

Stephane Matteau was traded to Chicago for serviceable defenseman Trent Yawney, and Joe Nieuwendyk was dealt to the Dallas Stars (the same franchise that took Kent Nilsson years earlier) for journeyman Cory Millen and prospect Jarome Iginla. Many of you may have heard of the latter previously.

Lap Three : Iginla Era

It didn’t take Iginla long to put his stamp on the franchise, as he scored a goal in his first playoff game before joining the team full time the following fall.

Iginla was a star player on and off the ice, won awards, represented Canada at the Olympics, and game within a game of repeating Nieuwendyk’s performance of hoisting a Stanley Cup.

He was traded this winter to the Pittsburgh Penguins to bring the story back to the development camp and three players to watch.

At the moment it appears to the star to star to star chain of the most important transaction lineage line in franchise history may be in peril, as the team doesn’t have that world class blue chip can’t miss player that is comparable to Jarome Iginla in 1995.

But not so fast.

Current Lap: The Penguin Trio

True the Flames knew they were getting a world class prospect, a can’t miss player in Iginla from the Stars when they moved their captain in 1995, but the Nilsson trade was anything but a sure thing when it went down.

Myself of vintage to remember that transaction as disappointing, can remember saying “that’s it?” I remember the draft and two players I’d never heard of. I remember not thinking much about either player again until Nieuwendyk started making waves at Cornell a few years later.

Today the flip flop clad fan base is watching a more trim Ben Hanowski cruise up and down the wings, a player that won’t be a star but looks to have the frame to be a two way bottom six forward. Additionally the group has their first look at Ken Agostino, the more polished of the two Penguin prospects; a decorated Yale hockey player that had a great first day with his vision, patience and hockey sense. The player must be signed, but he looks to be well on his way to an NHL career as well.

The more interesting piece though? Morgan Klimchuk, the Flames third of three first round picks. His draft position at 28 is one spot behind the spot in the second round where the Flames took Nieuwendyk 18 years earlier.

Which of these three players is the face of the next era of Calgary Flames hockey?

It will be fun to find out!

Additional Camp Notes:
To finish up my asset management obsession this morning it was also interesting to see the components of the Jay Bouwmeester trade on the ice as well. Bouwmeester cost the Flames Jordan Leopold and a third round pick, and now becomes Reto Berra, Mark Cundari and Emile Poirier. Berra looked great in the world championships and effective in day one of camp. Cundari was an interesting player to watch towards the end of the season in Calgary, and Poirier took to the ice yesterday for the first time to mixed reviews and nerves. … Not a lot has been said about Corban Night’s first day in Flames silks with the hoopla of this and last year’s draft picks, but the pivot looked very strong in battle drills and three on twos. Good size, strong on his skates and has good vision. … My surprise though was Michael Ferland. Ferland looked to have maybe gained a step from previous camps, suggesting the move back to the WHL and Saskatoon was good for the young power forward. The Sportsnet documentary on the Blades was interesting as it showed Ferland off the ice and the leadership he brought to a young group. Yesterday he was strong on the body, and very good releasing one timers in the slot in battle drills. Impressed …. Can’t say enough about John Gaudreau. Still small, no way to hide that, but he’s good along the wall and sees the ice better than any prospect in camp including Baertschi. … Sean Monahan was as expected for me on day one. Very good. Very young. He’s not a flashy player and he looked a little bit nervous but you can see the skills and vision under the surface waiting to come out. I’m guessing he was excel in the scrimmage game on Saturday.

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