Head of the class

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:39 AM ET

No rookie has ever arrived to the Flames with hype that even closely rivals what surrounds Pittsburgh Penguins budding superstar Sidney Crosby.

Nor has any put up the numbers the Penguins phenom is on pace for.

That said, the Flames franchise has had plenty of top-notch freshmen performances over the years, including five Calder Trophy performances -- Eric Vail (1974-75), Willi Plett (1976-77), Gary Suter (1985-86), Joe Nieuwendyk (1987-88) and Sergei Makarov (1989-90).

Now defenceman Dion Phaneuf, the NHL's rookie of the month for November, is serving notice he's ready to make his mark on history. Here's a peek at the best rookie seasons enjoyed by Flames.

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ERIC VAIL

1974-75

After a 105-point season in junior, the Big Train was actually the Atlanta Flames third draft choice of 1973 (Tom Lysiak was second overall and Vic Mercredi was chosen 16th). Having played 23 games in a 1973-74 season split between Atlanta and the CHL affiliate in Omaha, he was still eligible for the Calder Trophy in the fall of 1974.

The strapping left winger made the roster full-time and collected 39 goals and 60 points to become the first Flame to win any major award.

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WILLI PLETT

1976-77

Born in Paraguay, Willi Plett moved to Canada as a young boy and didn't start playing organized hockey until age 12. That late start didn't hurt him. A power forward chosen in the fourth round, 80th overall, in 1975, he wasn't afraid to mix it up and also showed a scoring touch.

He started the year in the minors but proved his promotion to the big club was warranted by posting 33 goals and 23 assists and 123 penalty minutes in 64 games. For that, he won the Calder Trophy.

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HAKAN LOOB

1983-84

The first late-round draft choice to star for the Flames, the Swedish standout was considered by some to be too small for the NHL but was scooped by Calgary in the ninth round, 181st overall, in 1980.

He arrived in Calgary for the 1983-84 season, producing 30 goals and 25 assists en route to being named to the all-rookie team. Jamie Macoun was also named to the all-rookie team that season.

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GARY SUTER

1985-86

The ninth round of the 1984 draft paid big dividends again for the Flames.

With the 180th pick overall, the Flames chose University of Wisconsin Badgers defenceman Gary Suter, who was working at a brewery in his hometown of Madison, Wisc., at the time.

He played one more year of college hockey and decided to make the jump to the pro ranks. Without playing a game in the minors, Suter skated to an 18-goal, 50-assist season that earned him the Calder Trophy.

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MIKE VERNON

1986-87

The local product was chosen in the second round, 56th overall in 1981. But it took a few seasons for Vernon to finally solidify his place in the NHL.

When it finally happened, though, Vernon did it in a big way.

Summoned halfway through the 1985-86 season, he helped the Flames snap an 11-game losing skid and proceeded to lead the team all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

His next season was officially his rookie campaign and Vernon posted an impressive 30 wins.

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JOE NIEUWENDYK

1987-88

After his freshman year at Cornell University, Nieuwendyk was chosen in the second round, 27th overall. Following a pair of all-American seasons, he burst onto the NHL scene with a 51-goal, 41-assist season worthy of Calder Trophy honours.

Becoming only the second NHL player after Mike Bossy to score 50 goals in his rookie season, Nieuwendyk's totals included 31 powerplay goals and eight game winners.

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SERGEI MAKAROV

1989-90

A three-time USSR player of the year before joining the Flames at age 31, the veteran Soviet Star was finally able to play in the NHL in the fall of 1989.

Chosen by Calgary in the 12th round, 231st overall in the 1983 draft, Makarov had a 24-goal, 62-assists season to start a NHL career that lasted more than 400 games.

After Makarov won the rookie-of-the-year award, the NHL made a rule stating if players celebrate their 26th birthday before Sept. 15 of that season, they're ineligible.

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JAROME IGINLA

1996-97

Acquired from Dallas for Nieuwendyk, Jarome Iginla came to the Flames for their final two games of the 1996 playoffs and collected a goal and an assist.

He scored 21 goals in a 50-point 1996-97 season to finish second behind Bryan Berard in the Calder Trophy voting and was named to the all-rookie team.

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HONOURABLE MENTIONS

* KENT NILSSON -- 1979-80

Because he played two seasons with Winnipeg of the WHA, Nilsson wasn't eligible for the Calder Trophy when he joined the Flames in 1979-80. Ray Bourque was named top rookie in 1980 but may not have received the honour if Nilsson's 40-goal, 53-assist season was counted.

* AL MACINNIS -- 1983-84

The first-rounder chosen 15th overall in 1981, MacInnis collected 11 goals and 34 assists in only 51 games.

* THEOREN FLEURY -- 1988-89

Who knows how many points the small-but-skilled Fleury would have put up with a full NHL season. After collecting 74 points in only 40 games in the IHL, he was called up and collected 34 points (14-20-34) in only 36 NHL games before helping Calgary to the Stanley Cup.


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