No NHL general manager is going to draft a peanut-sized skater without a couple prolonged moments of reflection. But when the time came to call Johnny Gaudreau’s name in 2011, Jay Feaster’s rationale was basically, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Feaster, you’ll recall, is the man who was axed as GM of the Calgary Flames exactly one year ago Friday. Twelve months later, it appears Gaudreau—a wisp of a player, but a wizard with the puck—will be Feaster’s parting gift to a team that’s greatly outperformed expectations this season.
And, in all likelihood, Gaudreau wouldn’t have landed in the Flames organization unless Feaster had become its GM when he did.
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Nearly four years ago, Darryl Sutter resigned as GM of a Flames team that was old and regressing. Enter Feaster, who moved up from assistant GM status to take the corner office. After missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, Calgary brought a new philosophy to the 2011 draft.
“The marching orders prior to that with Darryl were, size was a big factor,” Feaster said. “Drafting a small player was not something the organization typically wanted to do.”
Putting more pressure on the organization was the fact defenceman Tim Erixon, Calgary’s first-round pick in 2009, had refused to sign with the club, necessitating a trade with the New York Rangers. The Flames also had not made either a first- or second-round selection in 2010 because the picks were dealt away.
“That was a very, very difficult draft for us in many ways,” said Feaster, a former Tampa Bay Lightning GM who now holds the title executive director of community hockey development with the club.
The most excruciating call, it would seem, came in the fourth round when the team started giving some real thought to drafting Gaudreau with the 104th overall pick. The pressure was really on because the Flames did not hold a fifth-round pick, making it a now-or-never situation.
“The guy who was very much in (Gaudreau’s) corner and felt we just had to take him was (director of amateur scouting) Tod Button,” Feaster said. “Tod felt very, very strongly about it. He kept saying, ‘I know he’s not very big, but I’m telling you this kid can play and he’s the most exciting player we’ve seen.’
“I said, ‘If you feel that strongly about him as a player, let’s do it right now.’”
Even with Button’s endorsement, anybody could understand why a GM on his first draft day with a club could have cold feet about the selection. But in addition to Gaudreau’s wondrous ability, a couple other mitigating factors came into play.
With its first pick, Calgary had selected Sven Baertschi 13th overall. While Baertschi was playing with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, he was also a sub six-foot Swiss player. That really sent a message that the team was prepared to deviate from its previous approach.
“Any fallout, any trepidation (over Gaudreau), all that was out of the way when, at 13, we took Baertschi,” Feaster said. “That’s not the typical kind of player we would have been drafting. And then we follow up in the second round at 45 with (average-sized Finn) Markus Granlund.”
Sealing the deal for Feaster was the fact that, in 2004, he’d witnessed an undersized player named Martin St. Louis play a huge role in leading the Lightning to a championship.
“I didn’t need to be convinced about a small guy, because we had won a Stanley Cup in Tampa,” he said. “Nobody had a bigger heart.”
In a coincidental twist, Feaster inherited St. Louis in Tampa when he took over as GM of that club. The latter had been signed by Rick Dudley after failing to stick with, of course, the Calgary Flames.
More than a decade later, Feaster may have left behind the player who could finally put Calgary on the right side of a sweet little move.