SUN Hockey Pool

Flames' cupboard bare

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:59 PM ET

The Sutter family was built around the farm.

As a general manager, Darryl Sutter can, at best, receive a barely passing grade building his farm.

However, as we know from his own words, OK is not OK.

As disappointing as this season has been, there aren’t signs the Flames have a bright immediate future.

Maybe next year’s Flames team will benefit from a collective bounce-back next year, with all those players who struggled offensively finding their form, and reach something close to the expectations everyone had this season.

Maybe the disappointment will spur something that wasn’t consistently done this season. Maybe change will help the cause.

Maybe this was just an “off-year” for so many players or maybe the Flames will follow the pattern of the New Jersey Devils over the two years Brent Sutter coached them — they scored 40 more goals in the second season.

But that wouldn’t change the belief there aren’t enough blue-chip prospects to watch for in the coming season or two.

Let’s see, the Flames fans can look forward to a full year from Mikael Backlund and ... well ... uh ... no, that’s about it.

Sutter has repeatedly pointed out the difficulty in finding a blue-chipper when you draft in the bottom

10 of the first round every year, which the team has done in each of the last six drafts.

That is valid, but it’s worth pointing out he has traded down a few times and passed over the likes of Travis Zajac, Wojtek Wolski and Andrej Meszaros for Kris Chucko to gain picks that became Dustin Boyd and Brandon Prust in 2004.

(It did work in 2007 when he dealt away the 18th pick to St. Louis and grabbed the aforementioned Backlund at No. 24 and used the acquired third-round pick to select one of the club’s top prospects in John Negrin.)

Nor does it excuse the lack of success at the draft table since Sutter took over the club before the 2003 draft.

That year, he took Dion Phaneuf with the ninth pick, but it was obvious to all the Flames would get Phaneuf, Ryan Suter or Braydon Coburn, and it was just a case of receiving which talented defenceman would be available after the other two were chosen.

The rest of that draft was a bust, with Tim Ramholt the worst example, chosen ahead of the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber. (Yes, those things happen to every team, but it’s proven to be a costly miss.)

Of the 53 players chosen in the seven drafts since Sutter’s arrival, only four have played more than 50 NHL games: Phaneuf, Boyd, Brandon Prust and Adam Pardy. Only Pardy remains with the organization.

Backlund is next on the list, followed by Brett Sutter.

It gets more grim.

Here’s a list of the first-round picks: Phaneuf (2003), Chucko (2004), Matt Pelech (2005), Leland Irving (2006), Backlund (2007), Greg Nemisz (2008) and Tim Erixon (2009).

Chucko’s skating ability has been called into question and now has concussion issues; Pelech has been hampered by injuries this year, but still, it’s time he made the jump; Irving spent a big portion of the season in the ECHL and is the back-up in Abbotsford; Nemisz had a disappointing world juniors and then missed a few weeks leading up to the playoffs after receiving a gash on his thigh, which required reportedly 40 stitches.

The Flames have had some bad luck, too, with Mickey Renaud’s untimely death, John Armstrong’s shoulder injuries and Dan Ryder’s emotional issues.

However, the fact remains there are no sure things coming next season.

All that remains is hope for a bumper crop, but most of the optimism involves players who are still a few years away from evolving into impact NHLers.

The club can hope Erixon, Pelech, Negrin and T.J. Brodie (114th overall, 2008) can make up a strong defence corps down the road.

It can hope Backlund, Nemisz, Ryan Howse (74th overall, 2009) and Mitch Wahl (48th overall, 2008) all parlay their skills at the NHL level as they have in the junior ranks, and that either Irving, Matt Keetley (158th overall, 2005) or Joni Ortio (171st overall, 2009) becomes the goalie of the future.

But that leaves too many question marks for a squad which has suddenly become one of the oldest teams in the NHL.


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