Way back at the start of my hockey writing career, I remember being out somewhere with a colleague, covering the Calgary Flames when a fan approached us and asked a question about a high-ranked prospect for the next year’s draft. I started to give my standard reply – “Don’t really know much because I haven’t seen him play” – but my opposite number jumped in and gave a quick rundown of his strengths, weaknesses, size, upside etc. etc.
It was a concise synopsis and afterward, I asked him: When did you watch him play? It turns out he hadn’t. He’d been doing his homework for the draft and basically just recited the known scouting report on the player. That’s generally a fact of life about covering the NHL – and it was really true in the early days, before satellite TV, and cable sports networks. Occasionally, you’d catch a junior game live, a couple more on TV and eventually, when TSN got hold of the rights, you’d see the cream of the crop during the world juniors.
But mostly you rely on the word of scouts and other professionals when it comes to evaluating Generation Next.
It’s why I’m always so reluctant to immediately pass judgment on trades that involve futures, such as the one the Flames completed this week, where they received a first-round choice, which will probably fall somewhere between No. 24 and No. 30 in the 2013 entry draft, plus two complete unknowns from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the trade for Jarome Iginla.
My first reaction was visceral and the same as just about everybody else’s: It wasn’t much of a return for the face of the franchise – and you could make the case that it wasn’t even as much as what the Dallas Stars got from Pittsburgh for Brenden Morrow.
Iginla, at this stage of his career arc, is still a far more desirable commodity than Morrow and yet at least the player that went to Dallas, defenceman Joe Morrow, is someone I’d heard of. Morrow had more of that known pedigree – he was a first-rounder, 23rd overall, in the 2011 entry draft and someone who, although he might be having an up-and-down time of it in his first professional season, was likely going to play at some point in the NHL. Calgary’s return – the 63rd player overall in 2009 Ben Hanowski and the 140th player overall in 2010, Kenneth Agostino – look as if they are far longer shots to make a contribution in the pros.
But long experience tells me there are perils to rushing to judgment on these sorts of deals. I always like to tell the story of the draft choice that keeps on giving – the 64th pick in the 1976 NHL entry, when the Atlanta Flames took Kent Nilsson. Nilsson had a terrific scoring career in Calgary – his 131 points in the Flames’ inaugural season in Calgary is still a team record – but he wasn’t a Bob Johnson type of player, so in 1985 general manager Cliff Fletcher traded him to the Minnesota North Stars for two second-round picks at that year’s draft. Calgary immediately used the first of their picks to select Joe Nieuwendyk 27th overall (even though Central Scouting had him rated 63rd). It was a reach and the headline in the Calgary Sun the next day reflected that. It read Joe Who? – and the first paragraph of the news story was clear and precise: “Joe Nieuwendyk for Kent Nilsson? It stinks.”
Well, actually it didn’t. Nieuwendyk also had a terrific scoring career and 10 years later, when he was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Flames, general manager Al Coates traded him to Dallas for Iginla, the 11th overall player selected in the 1995 draft. The reaction was less critical that year because it was mid-December, Iginla was a relatively high draft pick and he was having a breakout junior season. Then Christmas came and Iginla rocked the world juniors in Boston and eventually his compelling back story became known and all was well in the world again. But Iginla referenced this circumstance on Thursday, at his goodbye press conference: He was in that position once before, an unknown prospect traded for a known commodity. Iginla also acknowledged that he, like the majority of people, didn’t know the thing about the players coming Calgary’s way, but he wished them good luck and he hoped that they would thrive.