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Hail Caesar!

Anthony Patrick

May 31, 2001

For the new emperor of the Calgary Flames Empire, Craig Button, it has been anything but an easy year.  I myself have been very vocal in my displeasure with the way the club was managed over the past eleven months.  There have been many bold statements made that have been construed as promises, promises that have gone unfulfilled.  The fans thirst for a play-off berth has yet to be quenched, something that was almost assured last spring during the season ticket campaign.  That desire may turn into a thirst for blood should the team not be talking about a satisfactory performance in the playoffs this time next year.  That is the pressure that the emperor will have to endure.

But I have not come to bury Caesar, but to praise him.  For all the mistakes that the first year General Manager made, he did make some moves that deserve acclaim.  His work to make the team immediately better was a resounding flop, but he did lay the ground-work for potentially greater success in the future.  His acquisition of Jordan Leopold was a very wise move.  The past draft can be listed as virtually one of the best in years.  And his hiring of a true developmental coach is worthy of a standing ovation.

For years this team has been looking for a steal on the trade front.  We have always watched as the Flames traded away quality players for prospects that had not lived up to their potential.  It has been frustrating to see these players come in and prove time-and-again why their original teams gave up on them.  Well Mr. Button pulled a rabbit out his hat and shipped out one of these under-achievers for a quality prospect that fills a hole and develops more depth.  When Craig Button shipped out Andrei Nazarov, and our second round pick in 2001, for Jordan Leopold there was a sense of confusion for many people.  How could this help the team get into the playoffs?  But Mr. Button was more concerned about finding a player that could help us long term, which Andrei Nazarov was not.  That the fans would have to wait three to four years before seeing the fruits of his labour was not his concern, filling a hole in the organization was.  Bringing in a Hobey Baker finalist, and arguably the best defenseman in college hockey, was a coup.  Losing the attitude of an underachieving player was an added bonus.  In the short term this deal hurt the Flames to a small degree.  In the long term this deal could turn out to be one of those steals that Flame's fans been looking for.

The 2000 NHL Entry Draft could very well be looked at as one of the best in team history.  While Craig Button was not directly involved with the selection of the players when it was time to make the call, you could tell that he had some impact on these selections, or at least the approach to the style of player the Flames were going after.  The scouts did not make the “typical Flame picks” where you wondered why they drafted them or if they would even sign the players down the road (a la Cory Pecker).  These were guys that you looked at, researched, and then said. “Yeah, this guy is a player”.  I haven’t been this content with a draft in the fourteen years that I have followed it closely.  While Brent Krahn was not my first selection when Calgary’s pick came up, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed getting the big goaltender, who many think was the best from his class.  When you consider that the Flames got a goaltender in the fourth round the caliber of Levante Szuper, it makes me feel more confident in the selection of Krahn.  When the Flames were able to grab two players in the second round that I had on my own list I was tickled.  Kurtis Foster and Jarret Stoll will both be NHL players in my opinion, and will be long time contributors to the success of the Flames because of their willingness to accept the roles given to them by their respective teams.  The other players selected (Davis, Moen, Heutunen and Hajek) started to fall into the gamble category, but they appeared to be educated gambles.  The final pick in the draft could also be a stroke of genius, and potentially Ian MacKenzie’s swan song.  Diminutive Micki Dupont was grabbed 270th overall, but could be the biggest sleeper in the draft year, like Theo Fleury was when he drafted him fourteen years ago.  He’s a small defenseman, but he has top end skills and a mean streak in him.  With the performance of small defensemen like Stephane Robidas and Brian Rafalski this past season, you might see more and more teams risk the smaller skill players on the blueline again.

The final feather in Craig Button’s 2000-01 chapeau is probably the biggest, and most important.  His hiring of Jim Playfair is the most significant move this organization has made in the past five years.  For the longest time the Flames have been touted as having one of the best organizations in the game when it came to young players.  Unfortunately they didn't possess a coach in the system that understood how to develop talent and foster a positive environment for his players.  The minor league players have always been subjected to egomaniacs like Bill Stewart and Rick Vaive.  This hindered their development dramatically.  Enter Jim Playfair.  In one short year the Saint John Flames turned around.  The players found a new attitude.  Players that had seen some retardation in their games started to take huge steps forward in their development.  The team began playing as a unit and buying into the all important team philosophy.  The players liked their coach, and respected what he was doing.  At no time did you hear a player take a run at his coach.  This hiring paid off in spades as Saint John captured the Calder Cup.  Craig Button wanted to expose the young players in the organization to a winning environment, and Jim Playfair delivered that atmosphere.  It would have been natural to rush Jim Playfair to the big team and see if he could foster that same attitude in the Calgary Flames, but Craig Button understands that the long term health of this team is dependant on developing NHL players in the AHL.  Leaving Jim Playfair in the AHL is the best thing for the Calgary Flames now and in the future.

It is hard for long suffering Flames fans to understand, but Rome was not built in a day.  While we hope that we will make it to the play-offs next spring, and Craig Button’s future probably hinges on that accomplishment, we should be content that Caesar is focused on building an empire more than building a city.  So for the time being we should all sheath our daggers and give praise to our emperor.  He has made some astute moves in building his empire.