I Disagree, Mr. Lawless

1st overall pick in 1993, Alexandre Daigle
1st overall pick in 1993, Alexandre Daigle

 

Gary Lawless recently wrote an article in the Free Press named “Youth Must be Served”. As you might infer from the title, the idea is that the Jets should put some young players in their lineup this fall, because the young guns offer more than some of the veterans who currently fill the bottom of the roster. (Ok, let’s see, young guys, lots of talent, fun to watch – sounds plausible so far). He further justifies the point by saying that the team isn’t very good anyway, so “why not bring in some youth and let them learn on the job”. (Yeah, I guess so…you gotta learn somewhere, right?) Let me tell you why I think it’s a bad idea. Actually, let me show you why I think it’s the worst idea.

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Wings' rookie sensation, Gustav Nyquist
Wings’ rookie sensation, Gustav Nyquist

 

There are two types of organizations – those who rush their players, and those who don’t. Ken Holland and his group in Detroit are ‘the good guys’. Gustav Nyquist just finished his rookie season with Detroit, where he scored 28 goals in only 57 games. In fact, he was on pace for 40 goals in – let me say it again – his rookie season, had he played in all 82. Interestingly, he was already 24 years old when the season started, and was playing with the poise and maturity that one might expect from a player who had been clawing to get to the NHL for a number of years.

I’m a fervent believer in the Detroit Red Wings model of development – the one in which you actually give players time to develop, until they clearly demonstrate that they’re too good for their previous level, whether it be junior, college, Europe, or the AHL. For the Wings, that usual entails leaving them in junior till age 20 (21 if coming from College or Europe), and then a one or two year stint in the AHL. Most Red Wings don’t make the squad full-time before they’re at least 21, and the last time a teenager played a full season in Detroit was in 1991, when Keith Primeau made the team as a 19-year-old. Nick Lidstrom – almost universally recognized as one of the top-5 defencemen of all-time – didn’t play for Detroit until he was 21. Henrik Zetterberg came over from Sweden at 22, while Pavel Datsyuk didn’t leave Russia till 23. The Red Wings’ current stud defenceman – Nik Kronwall – didn’t make the roster as a full-time NHL’er till he was 24. In the past 20 years, Detroit has absolutely set the standard for player development in the NHL. No other team lets their prospects “ferment” in the minor leagues for as long as Detroit, and perhaps there’s a method to the madness.

There’s another dramatic example from the early 90’s which took place a little closer to home; although truth be told, it actually took place in Finland. A now defunct NHL team drafted a very talented player Fin in the late 80’s, and had to wait several years before he agreed to cross the Atlantic to play in the NHL. In fact, he spent three full seasons playing pro hockey in Finland, until it was clear that he was far too good for that league. He came to the NHL at the ripe old age of 22, and to everyone’s surprise, he scored 76 goals, shattering just about every NHL rookie record in the process. Damned if I can remember his name though.

NHL Graduation: Is Later Always Better?

The honest answer is, there’s no way to know absolutely. Who knows what Alexandre Daigle would have become had he been drafted by another team, rather than becoming the centerpiece of a young, pitiful Sens team, which lacked the support and mentorship that an 18 year old desperately needed. But perhaps we might gleam a few insights by looking at organizations which have been the polar opposite of Detroit – those who continually rushed their players into the big leagues.

Columbus Blue Jackets (2000-2008)

The Blue Jackets got off to an inauspicious start in the first decade or so of their existence. In their first nine seasons, they had a top-10 draft pick every single year! And of those nine picks, six played in the NHL as teenagers. Suffice to say, not many of them had success in Columbus. Rick Nash was certainly the best of the lot, but he was also picked *1st overall; Jakub Voracek also turned out well, but hey, even awful parents sometimes end up with good children on occasion. The remainder – Rostislav Klesla, Nikolai Zherdev, Gilbert Brule, and Nitika Filatov – had very brief success, if they had any at all. Sure, one could suggest that the Jackets drafted poorly, and certainly there were a few picks they’d probably like to take back. But it was their post-draft decisions that really decimated the organization for over a decade.

*Perhaps it isn’t a shock that the best prospect in the world in 2002 became a very good player in spite of difficult circumstances. There haven’t been many busts at #1 over the past 15 years or so.

The Life of a Teenager

Picture this: you’ve just drafted two young Russian teenagers, one of whom doesn’t speak a lick of English, while the other is somewhat comfortable with the language, but entirely unfamiliar with most everything else. Not only are they from Russia, they’re also teenagers – think of how immature most teenagers are to begin with. Do they know how to make nutritious meals? Sleep at normal hours? Make smart choices instead of easy choices? Some do, but those are probably the exception. So you have a pair of Russian teenagers, and the plan is to set them loose in a foreign country, without any parental support. But at least they’ll have about a million dollars, right? I mean, at least if things don’t go well, they’ll have PLENTY of distractions to dull the pain of their floundering career. And why would it be floundering? Maybe because they’ll be pitted against fully grown men, night in, night out – men who are bigger, faster, and more intelligent than any of the competition they’ve faced before. It will be difficult to do what they’ve done at prior levels – which for most of them means scoring. And regardless of whether they can produce offence, their coach will also expect them to play a reasonable level of defence. But most young players lack the strength, smarts, and experience to play without the puck, especially against seasoned professionals. This inevitably leads to run-ins with many coaches, and if they’re Russian, it means a scolding in a foreign language. Sure, they may not understand the words, but I think they’ll be able to infer the message from the coach’s menacing body language.

Now a sublimely talented 18-year-old like Ilya Kovalchuk can probably survive all this and still have success, but for all rest, who don’t see success early on, it can be a serious blow to their ego. Remember, most of these kids are used to being dominant players throughout their life, so failure in a hockey context will be unfamiliar to them.

Based on all this, it’s no wonder that kids like Zherdev and Filatov never made it. I’m not saying that these are the only reasons for their failure – Zherdev was incredibly talented, but also had a reputation for being incredibly lazy – but perhaps he might have succeeded in another *atmosphere.

*The Jackets made bad decisions with Canadians kid too. They kept Gilbert Brule – an incredibly talented Western Canadian kid – when he was just 18. In fairness, he actually looked really good in his first few games, that is, until he broke his collarbone. Rather than send him back to junior then and there, they gave him another try. Upon his return, he promptly broke his leg. Brule was known for his physical play in junior hockey – he always played bigger than his size. But when you’re 5’10, that style of play may not hold up against men who are 6’4, 225.

Going Back to Lawless – and, the Red Wings 

Not only do I object to the notion of rushing a young kid – I feel it’s an unnecessary risk with little or no pay-off – what angers me further is the notion that it’s ok to do it because the team isn’t very good. This is exactly what kills prospects – putting them into losing situations before they’re mature enough to handle the tug-of-war.

When Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg came to the NHL, they were fortunate to became teammates with hockey legends from their native lands – Sergei Federov, and Nick Lidstrom. (Not to mention one of the game’s great captains, Steve Yzerman). Not only did these future Hall-of-Famers help them off the ice, but they could also relate to them off of it. But when a prized young player starts off on a weak team, the pressure mounts as fans, media, and eventually, even teammates, begin to think of that youngster as “the saviour”. For instance, Rick Nash got to Columbus at 18, and by 19, he was already their best player. While Rick Nash was an exceptional player, it doesn’t help him to get to the top of the mountain at such a young age. In order to stretch that player to the far reaches of their potential, they need someone to help them in several ways:

  • They need to learn from other great players off the ice – to teach them what kind of preparation it takes to become great
  • They need to play with other great players on the ice, to help ease the transition to the league as they begin to find consistency
  • And they even need to *practice with other great players, day in, day out.

*To a man, the Red Wings forwards said that one thing that made them so much better was having to practice every day against Nicklas Lidstrom – probably the smartest defenceman of all time.

Of course, not every team has the luxury of surrounding their prospects with great players, but the further from great that core is, the more unrealistic and unfair it is to expect those young players to ever become great.

former defensive prodigy, Jay Bouwmeester
Former defensive prodigy, Jay Bouwmeester

 

There are many other examples which scream out, beyond just Columbus. About ten years ago, the Florida Panthers had a seemingly great core, with gifted prospects like Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, and a few others. Each of them were top-4 draft picks. Bouwmeester was the bees knees – 6’4, and one of the best skaters in the world, period. Weiss was a two-way forward who was expected to become a poor man’s Steve Yzerman, and Horton was a power forward in the making. Each of them played in the NHL as teenagers, and was expected to become a fixture of the franchise. Needless to say, it never happened.

Beginning in 2008, the Atlanta Thrashers made a few very high draft picks which were supposed to turn their fortunes around. Zach Bogosian was taken 3rd overall, Kane was drafted 4th the following year, and Alex Burmistrov was picked 8th in 2010. The organization couldn’t wait on any of them, and put each one in the NHL immediately following their draft year. Bogosian and Kane were consensus picks at those spots, and some scouting services (ISS) even had Bogosian ahead of Drew Doughty, who went 2nd. Strange, how many years later, we’re still waiting on these players to reach their potential.

The Edmonton Oilers have picked in the top-10 every year since 2009, and picked 1st overall in three consecutive years from 2010-2012. They’ve assembled a dynamic core of players, from Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, to Paajarvi and Yakupov. We’ve been waiting on them for years to become the next Chicago, but it just isn’t happening. Why? Because management keeps making the team younger, and younger, and younger. Back in 2007-2008, the Oilers had a “kid-line” of Nilsson-Cogliano-Gagner. They were 22, 20, and 18 respectively. They played very well in the last 15-20 games of the season, when the pressure was off. Management decided that those kids were the future, and traded away a key veteran, Jarrett Stoll, so that the kids could take on a bigger role. The kids regressed; the Oilers ditched Nilsson quickly, then Cogliano a few years later, and eventually Gagner, only to bring in even younger players like Magnus Paajarvi – who they’ve already traded to St. Louis, and Nail Yakupov, who’s already been the subject of much trade speculation after his “sophomore slump”. Edmonton remains a bottom-feeder to this day.

Is this all just a coincidence!? Why can’t GM’s see that this strategy is doomed to fail? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

Now there are a few cases where you can put a teenager in the NHL and they’ll still reach their potential. The very elite young players are so far beyond junior hockey that it only makes sense to put them in the *NHL – Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Tavares, Toews, Kane, etc. But if you look at VIRTUALLY ALL THE OTHER GREAT PLAYERS in the NHL today, you’ll find that none of them weren’t rushed to the NHL at 18 or 19 – they were given time to develop at lower levels, and then once they did make the NHL, they played behind or with a star/veteran that took pressure off them, and relieved much of the weight of expectations. Ryan Getzlaf was highly touted coming out of junior, but he didn’t make the Ducks out of training camp. Instead, they sent him in the AHL for a few months, and then brought him up slowly behind then first line centre, Andy McDonald. Meanwhile, his partner in crime – Corey Perry – played behind future Hall-of-Famer, Teemu Selanne. But it wasn’t McDonald or Selanne who led the Ducks in playoff scoring when the won the Stanley Cup in 2007 – it was Getzlaf. Duncan Keith didn’t become a top-flight defenceman overnight. He played two full years in the AHL, and was on his way to becoming a very good, top-4 defender. Another event helped him take his game to a whole new level – the signing of Brian Campbell. Bringing in an experienced, big-name player took the pressure off of Keith, and allowed him to gradually assert himself as a #1 d-man, without having the expectations of being a #1 from the get go. Keith won the Norris Trophy just 2 years after Campbell was signed. Shea Weber didn’t start as a #1 d-man either – he played most of a year in the AHL, and then came up behind very good defencemen like Marek Zidlicky, Kimmo Timonen, Dan Hamhuis, and alongside another tremendous youngster, Ryan Suter. When Weber got to Nashville, there was absolutely no pressure for him to do anything special – he had plenty of time to “find his game”. He’s been a Norris finalist almost every year since 2009. Claude Giroux played half a season in the AHL before he made the Flyers, and when he got there, he was well down the depth chart, behind Danny Briere, and Mike Richards. When the Flyers traded Richards in 2011, it opened the door for Giroux to become a true franchise centre; the timing was perfect, as Giroux had already “apprenticed” since 2009, and proven that he was ready to take on more responsibility. Smart organizations know all this – they put their young players in a position to succeed, not in a position to fail.

* There are probably 3-4 teenage prospects per year that come to the NHL because they have absolutely nothing left to prove in junior hockey. This year, that group will include Jonathan Drouin, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart. However, there will be others, and in most cases, they probably won’t benefit from that decision.

So, What About the Jets

Last season, Jacob Trouba was one of the Jets’ best defencemen. At just 19, he rarely looked out of place. Who’s to say that Josh Morrissey couldn’t come in and do the same? Let’s look at how the two players compare.

Trouba is a big guy: he’s 6’2, and built like a man. He also skates wonderfully, and came from College hockey, where he played against 18-24 year olds. Furthermore, when he started last season, he played behind Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian. But Trouba played so well that he forced his way up the lineup. In fact, part of the reason Dustin Byfuglien moved to forward is because Jacob Trouba needed more playing time. He earned every minute he got, until he was playing as much as any Jets’ defenceman. He also proved that he was too good for amateur hockey, as he was named the top defeneman at the World Junior Championships – which is particularly noteworthy because he was just 18, and the tournament is typically dominated by 19 year olds.

Josh Morrissey is small – he’s listed a hair under 6′, and around 180, although I read recently that he’s gained about 10 pounds. After his WHL season ended last year, he played in the AHL playoffs with St. John’s, where he got rave reviews in their run to the Calder Cup final. He was praised for his skating, his poise, and his maturity on and off the ice. And while he too forced his way up the Ice Caps’ depth chart, he wasn’t expected to be in their top-4 when he arrived on the scene. He earned his place. But the AHL is not the NHL. Everyone is a step slower, a little smaller, and the high-end guys just aren’t there. In the NHL, you don’t have as much time to react to the play, so maybe you don’t look quite as poised out there. Everyone skates really well. And every forward out there is either 6’2, 200+, wildly skilled, or both. Furthermore, unlike Trouba, who started on the bottom pairing, Morrissey could legitimately start on the 2nd pair with Zach Bogosian. If he’s half the player now that he’s going to be down the road, I don’t see Mark Stuart or Grant Clitsome getting in his way. And that’s just the trouble. Who’s going to show him the ropes? Toby Enstrom is a very good player, but he has a quiet disposition, and isn’t the leader and mentor that Morrissey needs. What about Zach Bogosian? He’s just starting to figure things out for himself – both on and off the ice from the sounds of it – and I’ve heard rumours that the Jets would prefer that Trouba had a better mentor than Bogo. (Trouba has been bunking over at Bogo’s place). As for Trouba himself, he looks like a gem, but if you’re the Jets, you don’t want the blind leading the blind.

So let me paint you a picture. Josh Morrissey has a great camp. He plays well in the exhibition season. He even plays 5 or 6 games in the NHL to get his feet wet. He sits down with Kevin Cheveldayoff, and Chevy tells him: “Josh, we’re incredibly thrilled with how well you’ve played through training camp, and into the regular season. But we think the best thing for you in the long run is to play one last year in junior hockey. We hope to see you help lead Canada to a Gold Medal at the World Junior Championships.  We want you to take Prince Albert deep into the WHL playoffs, and if that fails, we’d love for you to help the Ice Caps’ take another run at the Calder Cup. You’ll be in touch with Jimmy Roy and Mike Keane throughout the season, and they’ll show you exactly what you have to do to get back here and start your career in the NHL. We think you have an incredibly bright future and we hope you’ll be a member of the Winnipeg Jets for a long time.” Morrissey will be very disappointed, but he’ll go play 30 minutes a night in junior – pp, pk, even-strength – and he’ll be dominant. There’s a good chance he’ll be CHL defenceman of the year. He’s already the captain of his junior team, and all his peers will look to him for support on and off the ice; sometimes the best way to learn is to lead. He’ll go to the World Juniors in Montreal/Toronto, and as one of only a few returning player, he’ll be counted on heavily. His team in Prince Albert isn’t all that good, (especially if they lose 3rd overall pick, Leon Draisaitl to Edmonton), so they probably won’t make much of a playoff run, but he might be traded to a contender at the deadline, and help a new team out. Or he joins the Ice Caps and gets more exposure to pro hockey. Regardless, there’s no downside if you return him to junior. Junior hockey can’t hurt him. The only way you hurt him is by keeping him in the NHL; by inserting a small defenceman in a defensive group where he – unfortunately – is one of the smartest defencemen on the ice. To put him on the ice with a partner who’s far far less talented, and not much more *experienced.

*Enstrom and Stuart are the vets on D, and both are left-handed shots, like Morrissey. All the right-handed players are < 25, and haven’t been around long enough to play an NHL playoff game. (Trouba, Bogosian, Postma). Clitsome and Ellerby are fellow left-handers, and only have a few seasons under their belts. Pardy – also LH, has some experience, but is considered a fringe NHL’er.

What About Nikolaj Ehlers?

Nik Ehlers is incredibly skilled – probably the most talented forward in the entire organization, including the NHL’ers. He’s also a slight, 18-year-old winger, and should be sent back to junior. Let me demonstrate why by showing you a chart. The chart includes basically every teenager drafted between 2005-2012, who has played two or more NHL seasons. The row heading shows the age at which they made the jump, while the column headings indicate where the player was drafted – 1st, 2nd/3rd, 4-9, or pick 10 or later. Presumably, the 1st overall pick is the top prospect in the world in a given year. If the player is bolded, he’s become very good, or even great. Italics indicate that the player has (or had) potential, but they haven’t reached it (and in many cases, never will). Those who are crossed off are either out of the league, or so insignificant now that it’s unfathomable that they ever cracked an NHL roster at such a young age.

Notice how there are no abject failures drafted at 1, 2, or 3 who cracked the NHL as teenagers – the chart only represents the players who played as teenagers – so it wouldn’t include the high picks that didn’t play in the NHL at young ages, like Bobby Ryan, who was picked directly after Crosby in 2005, but didn’t make the NHL full-time till 21; Nick Backstrom, who was picked right after Jonathan Toews in 2006, but didn’t play till age 20; or Alex Pietrangelo, who was picked right after Doughty and Bogosian in 2008, but didn’t play till age 20.

If you’re familiar with some of the players below, you’ll notice that many of the ones drafted after pick 3 have had a rocky start to their NHL careers. In many cases, I believe it’s because they should never have played in the NHL in the first place. Some started well but have fallen off the map, like Sam Gagner, who looked good at 18, but was recently traded twice this past summer, eventually ending up as a salary dump to Phoenix. Others have picked it up of late, like Nino Niederreiter, who struggled early-on with the Islanders, but is now starting to find his game. Defencemen are particularly volatile, as seen with the unexpected regression of promising blueliners Tyler Myers (Buffalo), and Michael Del Zotto, (initially NYR). Defencemen tend to have the most trouble making the jump, as evidenced by the underwhelming development of players like Erik Johnson, Adam Larsson, Erik Gudbranson, Dimitri Kulikov, Luke Schenn,  Zach Bogosian, and Luca Sbisa.

Back to Ehlers – you’ll notice that there aren’t as many clear success stories that lie outside the top-3, especially as 18-year-olds. I suppose the only flattering comparable would be Jeff Skinner, a small goal-scoring forward from the Ontario Hockey League who was drafted 7th by Carolina in 2010. On Draft Day, they said Skinner was about as skilled as Taylor Hall, but Hall’s skating was what set him apart. But it was Skinner who won the Calder in 2010-2011, scoring 31 goals and 63 points. But the next season, he was plagued by injuries, including concussions. None of the other successes really compare to Ehlers – a small, shifty forward whose calling cards are his finishing ability and his elusiveness. He reminds me a lot of Patrick Kane, but you’ll note that Kane didn’t join the NHL till he was 19, and he was also picked 1st overall, whereas Ehlers was picked 9th. For the Jets to keep Ehlers would be an epic miscalculation.

Age 1st overall 2-3 4-9 10+
18 Crosby, Stamkos, Nugent-Hopkins, Seguin, Duchene, J.Staal, Bogosian, Galchenyuk, Skinner, E.Kane, Gagner, Brule, Filatov  O’Reilly, Sbisa 
19 P.Kane, Tavares, Hall, E.Johnson Yakupov Toews, Doughty, Hedman, Landeskog, Turris, Huberdeau, Gudbranson Kessel, Ekman-Larsson, Johansen, Voracek, Hamilton, Couturier, Del Zotto, Bailey,  Niederreiter, Zibanejad, Boedker, L.Schenn, Sheppard, Larsson, Kulikov, Burmistrov, Connolly, P.Mueller Kopitar, Karlsson, Fowler, Faulk, Vlasic, Lucic, Perron, Myers, Brodin, Sutter, Smith-Pelly, Clifford,  Paajarvi, Josefson, Latendresse, Wright, Moller, Gillies

(2) How Can You Send a Great Kid Down?

If a player has already dominated at the junior level, they can start to make a case for why they should stay in the NHL. But even in that case, it still might not be the best thing for their development. Florida and Tampa Bay recently sent down incredibly talented youngsters because they just didn’t feel they were big enough to withstand the physical rigors of the league. Jonathan Huberdeau had led the St. John’s Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup victory in 2011, and was drafted 3rd overall by Florida the same year; Jonathan Drouin – drafted 3rd overall by Tampa Bay – was the top player in the QMJHL at age 17, and was a key player in his team’s Memorial Cup Victory in 2013. And yet both teams had the discipline to send these players back. Florida was immediately rewarded, as *Huberdeau stuck around the following year, and won the Calder Trophy as top rookie. Drouin looks to make his debut this season, and could be in store for a similar honour.

*Huberdeau actually regressed a bit this past season, as the Panthers put a ton of youngsters in their lineup, especially at forward (Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, etc).

Follow the Detroit model, and this team will soon be very competitive. Follow the Columbus model, and people may be selling their season tickets in 2-3 years. Do anything in between and watch as the team achieves the most painful thing of all –mediocrity.