Not too long ago, I got into something of a debate with a commenter when I expressed my excitement, joy, surprise, etc. about the Flames retaining their first round pick, 13th overall, in the 2011 NHL Draft (knock on wood). The argument I was presented with was that under Darryl Sutter's leadership, the Flames traded away just one pick in the first round of the Draft when they acquired Olli Jokinen from the Phoenix Coyotes in the Spring of 2009; before that, the last time a first-rounder was shipped out of Calgary was 1989, the year the Flames won the Stanley Cup.
While that may be true, trading a first round pick almost always represents a lack of foresight, unless you're getting say, Wayne Gretzky back in return. The Flames are a team that severely lacks quality young prospects; blame that on a poor assessment of skills/poor drafting or the mediocre position that comes with finishing in the middle of the pack almost every season since the lockout, but the Draft is an opportunity to replenish your organization with young, developing talent on the cheap (at least at first) in the salary cap era rather than trying to attain it through trades or free agency, an opportunity that any general manager with an eye for the future and an ounce of fiscal sensibility should not pass up.
Furthermore, it is well known that the further down the Draft order a team gets, the less likely it is that the player it selects will make a significant impact at the NHL-level. Of course there are exceptions both ways (Theo Fleury and Alexander Daigle, for example), but in general, the rule is that players chosen in the first half of the first round of the Draft have the highest "success rate" in the NHL, defined thusly by The Copper & Blue's Scott Reynolds:
So what constitutes a "top" forward in the NHL in terms of drafting? In my view, it's those forwards that are expensive and the most expensive players tend to be those players that produce consistent offence. Any forward with the "checker" label likely isn't going to be making much money and the type is frequently available for a song in free agency. It's obviously better to draft a Dominic Moore than a total bust but he's not the kind of player that should be particularly difficult to replace via free agency. We know that because he see him sign on the cheap almost every year. As such, I've set the criteria for a "successful pick" in these drafts as any player who has played a minimum of 200 NHL games and has scored a minimum of 0.5 points per game.
Defenders are a bit more complicated. The elite defensive defenders make a lot of scratch so it doesn't seem like points is the best measure of ability especially since the power-play specialist type (think Marc-Andre Bergeron) will rack up points but isn't all that expensive to replace. That said, I think a minimum points requirement is necessary; a player with no offence is surely somewhat detrimental. Thus, a 0.15 points per game minimum standard will be used to accompany the 200 GP threshold. In addition, I've decided to use a TOI minimum of 18:30 per game which should eliminate the guys who are just power play specialists.
Examining players drafted from 1997-2005, Reynolds determined that teams had a success rate of 41.2% when selecting players 8th-13th overall, meaning that of the 51 players chosen in that Draft slot over the course of eight years, 21 became "top players" in the NHL. Those are fairly good odds, odds that the Flames missed out on when they sent their 2010 first-rounder to Phoenix two years ago and odds that could potentially fall in their favour later this month.
Over the past decade, the following players have been drafted 13th overall:
- BUF--Drew Stafford (317 GP, 94G, 196P, 0.62P/G)
- LAK--Dustin Brown (513GP, 141G, 305P, 0.59P/G)
- WAS--Alexander Semin (392GP, 176G, 354P, 0.90P/G)
- EDM--Ales Hemsky (490GP, 114G, 395P, 0.81P/G)
Each of these forwards meet Reynolds' criteria for a top player in the NHL; each represent something that the Flames sorely lack; and each was selected in the first half of the first round of the Draft, more precisely, 13th overall. This is the highest the Flames have picked in the Draft since selecting Dion Phaneuf ninth overall in 2003. I know there's no guarantee that the Flames are going to select the next Alex Semin or Dustin Brown with their pick in this year's Draft, especially when the depth of talent available is considered questionable, but the chance is there, and it's a good one--one that should not be squandered on another checking forward or stay-at-home defenceman if Goulet and Co. can help it.