Not going to lie: I originally thought he was throwing up a gang sign in this picture, which I thought was a brave choice for an acne-ridden kid from a private school. (Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Easily the most surprising pick in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft was the Calgary Flames picking Mark Jankowski with the 21st pick overall. Sure, it was surprising to see Filip Forsberg fall a little ways down and some of the defencemen like Slater Koekkoek get picked higher than expected, but Jankowski was slated to be a mid-second round pick at best, or so independent scouts would have you believe.

International Scouting Services had him ranked 55th overall, up from 85th in their midterm rankings, while NHL Central Scouting had him 43rd amongst North American skaters, up from 74th. TSN’s Bob McKenzie had him ranked 41st overall, while his colleague Craig Button was one of the few who didn’t see the pick as a stretch, having him ranked all the way up at 14th overall. Generally, however, the consensus was that Jankowski wasn’t going to go in the first round.

The Flames thought differently.

It’s a perfect example of going off the board, like I talked about on Thursday. Jankowski may have been low on everyone else’s draft ranking, but the Flames had their own list and Jankowski was right at the top. After selecting Jankowski, Jay Feaster explained why they picked him in the first round, suggesting that he and the rest of the Flames’ management and scouting staff think he will be the best player to come out of this draft.

I believe him.

I fully believe that they think he will be the best. He seemed completely sincere. They even had a story all ready of Assistant GM John Weisbrod driving through a blizzard just to see him play. It was Weisbrod who apparently told Feaster, ”I’ve just seen the guy who’s going to be – 10 years from now – he’s going to be talked about as the best player in this draft.” A bit later on, Weisbrod himself said, “He’s Joe Nieuwendyk.”

So the Flames’ staff entered the draft like Gnostics, full of secret knowledge. In their eyes, they didn’t need the first overall pick to get the best player in the draft, because the best player wasn’t Nail Yakupov or Ryan Murray or any of the other highly-touted players available. The best player was Jankowski and no one else had a clue. Weisbrod covered his bases with those who might question the pick, saying that “at least two teams that would have taken him in the first round after us.”

While it’s easy to mock Feaster and the rest of the Flames’ staff, I have to applaud them for several things. First, they recognized that most of the other teams didn’t have Jankowski high on their own lists and took the opportunity to trade down in the draft and gain a second round pick from the Buffalo Sabres. If they were going to pick Jankowski at 14th overall, and all indications are that was their intention, then trading down was an intelligent move.

Second, they took a risk on the right type of player. Every scouting report I have read on Jankowski praises every part of his game: his shot, skating, compete-level, two-way game, vision, puckhandling, and passing – it’s all there. The only knocks on his game are his weight, as he evidently grew 6 inches in the last year and hasn’t filled out his frame yet, and the fact that he played in a Canadian high school league, where the competition is significantly lower than in major junior or the USHL. None of the knocks against him are related to his ability, just to his circumstances, which is an indication that he might be worth the risk.

Third, you simply have to give the Flames some credit for having the guts to take this type of risk when the team is facing a lot of pressure from fans to either succeed now or rebuild for the future. Jankowski is a long-term project that may pay off in a big way or never pay off at all. While the Flames could have gone for a safer pick to shore up the prospect pool, they swung for the fences, hoping to avoid flying out to center.

There is plenty of risk, of course. That’s what going off the board is all about. The Flames were clearly enamoured with Jankowski, to the point that they may have become blind to his downsides. Their scouts loved him when they saw him, but they saw him surrounded by weaker competition that was nowhere near the level that the other prospects faced. Perhaps he was seeing passing lanes so well because the passing lanes were so large that they were impossible to miss. Perhaps he skated circles around his opponents because his opponents were lousy skaters. Perhaps he looked good defensively because of how bad his opponents were offensively.

One positive is that Jankowski is young: he’s still 17 and is just 2 days removed from entering the 2013 draft instead of this year’s. With his recent growth spurt, the Flames are clearly hoping that he’s a long way from his peak.  But if it was youth they were after, they could have stayed at 14th and picked the highly-touted Finn, Teuvo Teravainen, who is just 2 days older than Jankowski.

By being picked 21st overall, Jankowski is easily the highest pick out of a Canadian high school in draft history, with the previous top pick being Colin Greening at 204th overall in 2005. Jankowski lead the league in scoring with 93 points in 57 games, including 53 goals, but he played far more games than many of the other players in his league, which evidently doesn’t follow the same type of schedule as a major junior league.

Jankowski will evidently be heading to the USHL next season to play against tougher competition and the eyes of Flames’ fans and management will follow him there, hoping that their risky pick will begin to show signs of paying off. It’s entirely possible that Jankowski will struggle against players closer to his talent level, that what the scouts saw as high-end skating, puckhandling, and vision was simply high-end in comparison to his competition. The Flames are gambling on that not being the case.

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