Nic Petan: Can a Prospect be too “NHL-Ready”?

 

When Claude Giroux came out of the Quebec Major Junior League in 2008, it was clear to all that he was a high-end talent. Not only was he coming off three straight 100-point seasons, and a strong showing with Canada’s gold medal winning World Junior Championship squad, but he utterly dominated the QMJHL playoffs, leading the league in scoring with 51 points in just 19 games. Based on that resume, it would have been incredibly easy for the Flyers to put the 20-year-oldin the NHL in the fall of 2008, and yet, they resisted the urge – partly because Giroux was just 5’11, and around 170 lbs. Instead, they sent him to the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, where Giroux spent just 33 games scoring 34 points.

Claude Giroux has since become one of the top forwards in the NHL, and he is one of the league’s leading scorers year after year. In fact, did you know that he’s the NHL’s top scorer since the fall of 2010? While it’s impossible to say what kind of player he would have become had he skipped the AHL, it’s certainly fair to say that spending half a season in the minors didn’t hurt his development.

Following a striking change in organizational philosophy, today’s Toronto Maple Leafs are doing things in a very similar waySpeaking about the organization’s “timeline” for player development, Assistant GM Kyle Dubas said the following:

“…we want the players to master the AHL level and the minor-league level and not bring them up after one good weekend,” he said. “They have to show us they can do all of the things. …Once our guys show they can master [the AHL] consistently, then we’ll have that conversation. That’s up to the players. Never been a hard and fast rule that no one is coming up this year.”

The key phrase there is “master the AHL”; while you could debate what “master” means, I interpret that to mean that a young player should stay in the minors until they prove that they’re too good for that level.

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In an incredibly curious move from this off-season, the Winnipeg Jets opted not to re-sign veteran Lee Stempniak, despite the fact that Stempniak was keenly interested in staying. While it’s doubtful  that anyone considered Stempniak to be part of the Jets’ core moving forward, he was a consistent 15-goal scorer with modest contract demands. In a worst-case scenario, he was good, affordable depth for the organization – a player who could play up and down the lineup, from (at least) the 2nd line, to the 4th line. And while passive observers have the benefit of hindsight, it’s worth noting that he has fit in incredibly well in New Jersey, scoring 12 points in 16 games, while making just $850,000 on a one-year contract. (That would put him third in scoring on the Jets, while putting him 12th in salary among forwards). Most importantly, the decision to let Stempniak go allowed Nic Petan – a 20-year-old rookie who is at most 5’9, 170 lbs. – to make the NHL without playing a single game with the Moose.

Let’s look at the possible reasons why the Jets held a spot open for a youngster, rather than re-signing Stempniak, or a similar player:

(1) Petan might be better

While you can’t analyze players in a vacuum, with 12 points in 16 games this season, and 10 points in 18 games last season with the Jets in a third line role, it’s hard to argue that Petan has has made the Jets better than Stempniak would have, given that he has just 2 points through 14 games. Plus, if he was a key part of the team, he wouldn’t have been scratched 4 times this year.

(2) Petan would be cheaper

Petan will likely will be a bit cheaper than Stempniak this season, but not significantly. While Petan does have a lower base salary than Stempniak, if he were to hit all his bonuses (the clauses of which are unknown), his cap number will actually be slightly higher than Stempniak’s $850,000. Regardless, if Petan ends up making ~$100,000 less, that’s just .14% of the NHL’s $71.4M salary cap.

(3) The Jets already have plenty of organizational depth

Given the Moose’s struggles so far, this is a pretty easy one to address. The Moose currently sit second-last in the AHL, and they don’t have a single forward on the roster who is in the top-100 in league scoring. While that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good players down there, it’s pretty clear that there’s no one currently banging down the door to get to the NHL.

(4) Petan will develop faster in the NHL than in the AHL

While there’s no iron-clad argument against this, a whole lot of anecdotal evidence would suggest that this isn’t the case. The “plug-and-play” approach – taking undeniably skilled, but very young players, and placing them directly in the NHL – failed miserably for years in places like Long Island in the late 90’s, Florida in the early 2000’s, Columbus in the mid-2000’s, and most recently, Edmonton.  Meanwhile, the “draft and develop” model followed by teams like Tampa Bay, Nashville, and most famously, Detroit, has worked pretty nicely for several years now. Some of that is detailed here, and here. 

If Petan were in the AHL, he’d be playing around 20 minutes per night, quarterbacking the powerplay, likely generating tons of scoring chances, and helping make his young teammates better. And if the Jets ran into injury troubles, or if he simply lit up the league – or “mastered the AHL” – they could call him up at any time. Instead, Petan is averaging 9:22 of ice-time per game, and playing primarily with Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn – two gritty, hard-working players who don’t have a future as top-6 forwards. Not only is he not being put in a position to succeed – he’d be better complemented by a finisher with some size, like Drew Stafford – outside of the 1:23 per game he averages on the powerplay, he’s not really being given a chance at all.

Scale of the Problem

Taking a step back, is this situation the end of the world? Absolutely not. Nic Petan is a very skilled, intelligent player, and while his development might be better served in the AHL, he can still become a very productive player by following his current path, and a potential replacement for the style and offence of Mathieu Perreault (should he wish to depart when his contract expires at the end of 2017). But the logic behind this series of decisions is a concern, and for Jets fans, it’s something to keep an eye on.

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. Continue reading

2012 NHL Playoffs: 2nd Round Picks

I don’t have as much time as I’d like to elaborate on these picks, but I’m morally obligated to make them prior to any games beginning, so here they are. I’ll be doing a post-mortem on round 1, as well as a more detailed look at the rest of the playoffs, so stay tuned.

(If you’re up for a laugh, check out my 1st round playoff picks. I went 3/8! Bear in mind that I am not always  this foolish – I was 7/8 last year, and 6/8 the year before.)

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(2) St. Louis vs (8) Los Angeles

Winner: Los Angeles

Why: The Blues matched up really well against San Jose – bigger, faster, younger, and better goaltending. But the same can’t be said against LA. The Kings have tons of size up front – Kopitar, Carter, Brown, Penner, King, and Nolan – and  lots of speed between Richards, Williams, Lewis, Richardson, Stoll, as well as the aforementioned Carter and Brown. Furthermore, Jonathan Quick is about as good a goalie as you’ll find. Because both of these teams are so good – and so evenly matched – it may come down to who gets a break in a key game 4/5. And when the game is tight, I like to have Mike Richards on my side.

(3) Phoenix vs (4) Nashville

Winner: Nashville

Why: Speaking of evenly matched, how about Phoenix and Nashville. Great goaltending, tight defensive systems, very strong bluelines, and – at least on paper – a bit challenged offensively. The reason I like Nashville is that they have a bit more talent up front than in the past, adding a game-breaker like Alex Radulov, which helps bring more out of other skilled players like Erat and the Kostitsyn’s. And while Nashville’s two-way centres like Fisher and Legwand are countered by Phoenix’s Hanzel, Vermette, and Langkow, I prefer Nashville’s depth guys better – Gaustad, Halischuk, Bourque, Spaling –  to the players in Phoenix’s bottom-6 like Pyatt, Gordon, Brule, and Chipchura. Phoenix has been resilient all year so don’t count them out, but I think Nashville – for probably the first time in their history – has just a little more star power.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) New York vs (7) Washington

Winner: New York

Why: This one is a struggle to explain, because I actually think that Washington is probably a better team from the goal out, but I like the Rangers to come through. Yes, Braden Holtby was majestic against the Bruins, and out-dueled last year’s Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, but I don’t think lightning will strike twice. I’ve seen this story before, where the underdog goalie outplays the heavily favoured rival goalie, and it usually doesn’t last. In 2004 when Philly’s Robert Esche played unexpectedly well against New Jersey’s legend Martin Brodeur and forced them out in the 1st round. But he got worse in each round that followed, eventually losing to Tampa Bay in the Conference Finals. Same thing in 2010, when Brian Boucher was significantly better than Brodeur in a 5-game series win by Philadelphia. Boucher was terrible in the next round against Boston, before getting hurt and making way for Michael Leighton’s unexpected heroics (which again only lasted for about 1 round). I’m not saying that Holtby isn’t a good goalie, but there were no expectations of him beating the Bruins; now that they’re into the 2nd round, guess what: expectations.

And then there’s Henrik Lundqvist – the consensus best goalie in the world, and one with a history of success against Washington. He nearly stole their 1st round series in 2009 – a time when the Caps were a far more dangerous team offensively. The Rangers took a 3-1 series lead against the heavily favoured Capitals squad, solely due to the play of Lundqvist, before succumbing to the Caps’ then-dynamic attack. To my eye, Washington is no longer the same team, and though I think the series will be close, I like New York to once again squeak it out.

(5) Philadelphia vs (6) New Jersey

Winner: Philadelphia

Why: I think this series will be very interesting. Just like Washington is no longer the offensive juggernaut they once were, New Jersey is no longer the defensively stifling, systems-oriented team of their past. They actually have very good offensive depth up front with the likes of Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias, Zajac, Henrique, Clarkson, Zubrus, and Sykora, as well as a little more on the back-end with the deadline-day addition of Marek Zidlicky. In some ways, this will present a greater challenge to Philadelphia, whose defence is banged up with injuries to Grossman and Meszaros, and of course Chris Pronger. While Coburn and Timonen were matched up against Malkin and Neal, leaving only two truly dangerous Pens in the rest of their lineup (Staal and Crosby, the latter of which didn’t look right for most of the series), Philly’s depleted blueline will now need to stop the Elias and Henrique lines, and hope that Timonen and Coburn can shut-down the ever dangerous Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk line.

All that being said, I don’t think New Jersey will win the series. Philly just has too much skill, and different types of players that complement each other. Small, quick, skilled forwards like Briere and Read mixed in with big, skilled forwards like Voracek and Jagr; gritty guys Hartnell, Schenn, and Simmonds; two-way players like Couturier and Talbot; and then there’s the guy that stirs the drink – a man whom Flyers coach Peter Laviolette boastfully called “the best player in the world” – # 28, Claude Giroux. I’ve  watched Giroux for years, from his days in Gatineau of the QMJHL, when he barely made the team as an undrafted 17-year-old,  to his play in the 2008 WJC for Team Canada, his quick 33-game transition through the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, and now his gradual but steady ascent to the top of the NHL’s elite. He was very noticeable in his first-ever NHL playoff series in 2009, playing against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

(Go to 2:57 to see Giroux’s short-handed magic)

He was instrumental the following year in the Flyers’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final, scoring 10 goals (2nd) and 21 points (3rd) on his team in scoring. He was the 3rd most dominant forward in the NHL during the season, behind only Malkin and Stamkos, and during this year’s playoffs, he’s taken it to a whole new level, displaying a combination of speed, skill, grit, vision, and pure passion that very few players will ever possess.

I don’t think New Jersey will be able to stop him.

Sunday Jets Notes: Impact Players, Line Combinations, and Scheifele

Impact and Complementary Players

It’s interesting to hear people analyze a certain player’s role or importance. Most assumptions about players are inherently imprecise, but none more so than the labeling of players by their supposed line. Terms like “1st line centre” and “2nd line winger” get thrown around a lot, and are meant to reflect a certain level of talent as well as expectations for offensive production. But how do you know if someone is suited to the 1st line or the 2nd line? Doesn’t it depend in large part on their linemates? The ice time they receive? The specific opportunities (1st unit pp?) they’re afforded by their coach?

A concept that’s equally subjective, but which may be more precise involves splitting players into two categories: Continue reading

Suspensions in the NHL: Curbing the Concussion Epidemic

(Aftermath of the hit that may end Marc Savard’s career)

What is the purpose of handing out suspensions? Some believe that introducing punishment ensures fairness – if a player has been injured, it’s only right that the offending party sit out for some period of time as well. (Some even go so far as to say that a player should be suspended for the entire duration of the other party’s  injury). However, I believe that the main reason to suspend a player is for the sake of prevention. When determining suspensions, what factors should newly hired head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan take into consideration? Here are some criteria to consider: Continue reading