Alberta beef: Too much of a good thing

Bruce Bennett

At 6'0, Sam Bennett was the shortest of the six players the Flames selected in the draft this weekend. He's also going to by far be the best.

Before he hired a general manager and therefore had an excuse to be the voice of the Flames, Brian Burke was very vocal about the need for size in the NHL. While the word "truculence" is already closely associated with him, he soon added another quotable: "you better surround [smaller players] with some beef."

It took off - this is Calgary, after all - and it's now the word of choice. Beef. According to the Flames' President of Hockey Operations, there's room for smaller players on NHL teams, but if there aren't big players around them, you aren't going to be successful.

Essentially, Johnny Gaudreau won't be able to play in the NHL unless Brandon Bollig is on his team. And it's a silly, outdated way of thinking. But it's one the Flames subscribe to, which is why they turned the six picks they had for rounds 2-7 into players that ended up averaging 6'4 and 205 lbs.

Of course, big players aren't bad. Big players are good, assuming they can actually play hockey. Brian McGrattan is big, but cannot play hockey. Sure, he's definitely a better skater than most of the rest of the human population, and he's one of - if not the - best fighters in the game. But just because you happen to be standing on ice doesn't mean your trading punches is hockey. The point of hockey is, after all, to score more goals than the other team, not best them at fisticuffs.

That said, if you had someone with Gaudreau's skill set at 5'9, and another guy with Gaudreau's skill set at 6'4, you take the bigger guy. It's a contact sport played at the highest level; bigger players are much more likely to succeed. But if they don't have talent to go with their size, it hardly means anything. There's a reason McGrattan averaged 6:43 of ice time while Gaudreau got 15:11 in his debut.

So if the Flames are to keep smaller, talented prospects such as Gaudreau and Sven Baertschi, they need to surround them with beef. Big guys. And on the second day of the draft, that appeared to be the only thing on the Flames' minds.

And that's a dangerous philosophy.

There were better players available when the Flames made their selections. For example, when the Flames selected Hunter Smith with the 54th pick of the draft, a guy like Brayden Point was still available. Here are their stats from last season:

  • Smith: 16 G, 40 P, 64 GP
  • Point: 36 G, 91 P, 72 GP
Which guy would you rather have?

Now, let's toss their physical stats into the mix:
  • Smith: 6'7, 220 lbs
  • Point: 5'9, 160 lbs
Now which would you rather have? If you answered Smith, congrats, you're the Calgary Flames, a team that dressed Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth simultaneously for most of the season and performed so poorly they had the fourth overall pick.

This isn't meant to pick on the big guy. If he turns into a reliable player for the Flames, then that's awesome and would be welcomed without a second thought.

The thing is, if your team is down by one with two minutes to go in the third and there's a playoff spot on the line, who do you want out there? Which guy is more likely to score the game-tying goal?

Now, there wasn't any real damage done with this draft. Prospects, especially those selected in the later rounds, are a crapshoot. The non-Sam Bennett draft picks could all very well end up turning into useful players for the Flames. (It's far too late to hold out any hope for Bollig.) And nothing of value was given up.

But the prospects selected aren't the problem. It's the common theme among them, one that serves to only reinforce Brian Burke's - and now, by extension, the Flames' - philosophy: you need your players to be big.

That leads to poor drafts such as this one. Bennett should be really, really good. Beyond him, there isn't much of note. Hunter Smith may continue his recent upswing in development. Brandon Hickey may turn into a useful player while he goes to school at Boston University. Adam Ollas-Mattsson may grow into his skating and become a formidable shutdown defencemen. They're all maybes, but here's the thing: the odds aren't particularly great. They never are. And this is just to become NHLers, let alone finding impact players.

But this draft showed the Flames with a dangerous trend developing. They ignored smaller players in favour of bigger guys with lower ceilings. Most of us agreed that the Flames' 2011 draft - a draft which saw primarily smaller guys taken - was incredibly successful for the Flames.

In this new era we seem to have found ourselves in, where penalty minutes matter more than points, that would never happen. It didn't this weekend. The Flames had a poor draft because they were blinded by the need for beef, simple as that. And if they continue this philosophy throughout the rebuild, it's a rebuild that will never end.

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