While final NHL roster decisions give you an idea of where each player stands in the organization, they also tell you just where the organization itself stands in the grand scheme of player, and team, development.
For young players trying to crack their first big league roster, it’s far from the end of the line if they get sent to the American League; it’s just the beginning of their professional life. In fact, when a kid starts his career in the minor leagues it’s often a testament to how successful and calculated organizations have rubbed off on others, rather than a direct need for the individual’s improvement.
“If you look back at teams that anyone with a hockey brain would consider successful – and I’m thinking a team like Detroit – you’d know you have to develop guys,” said one NHL scout. “That’s how good organizations are built.”
While 2010 first round picks Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and, surprisingly, Alexander Burmistrov have made their NHL squads out of their first camp, news was made in Toronto earlier this week when 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri was sent down. There was a feeling Kadri nearly made the team out of camp last fall, so expectations were high this time around.
But why rush a kid to the big leagues? If the NHL had a nickel for every time a youngster’s development was ruined from his career being fast-tracked, it could run the Phoenix Coyotes for the next 100 years.
For high-end guys like Kadri, who are penciled in for prominent roles in the future, there is simply no sense in having them develop the characteristics of a different kind of player just to squeeze him onto the NHL roster.
“For guys who have been pigeonholed into a position, like Kadri as a top-six forward, he’s not going to develop as you want playing bottom-six minutes in the NHL,” the scout said. “They need him to play top-six minutes.”
And, especially in a hockey-mad market like Toronto that recently purged itself of the “country-club atmosphere,” the last thing you want is to give the new era a sense of entitlement.
Not only will a top-flight prospect get the minutes he needs in the AHL, but as an organization you get a further glimpse into what type of a player you have on your hands by seeing how he handles the demotion.
“How do you react?” the scout said. “Good pro scouts might check in to see how he practices and good organizations can figure it out almost right away. In his first game, is he going to be cocky like he’s better and shouldn’t be there, like a (Jiri) Tlusty? Or is he going to give it his all like a Justin Abdelkader or Darren Helm? You want to see he’s going to compete. He has to learn how to win, how to lose and how to be a pro in a pro environment.”
Good players and good organizations are built through the AHL. Take one look at the Red Wings and you’ll see Helm and Abdelkader were sent back to the ‘A’ after contributing to deep Stanley Cup playoff runs and Jonathan Ericsson spent two and a half years learning the ropes there. In fact, Helm was sent back down after winning a championship in 2008.
It’s almost like the AHL has a negative connotation because it’s classified as a “farm league,” but easing players into the NHL by first making them pay their dues in the world’s second-best circuit is clearly a road towards success. It’s not often the popular choice to start high-end prospects there because fans want to see their team’s future with their own eyes, but much like a keen-eyed pro scout monitors progression, fans can interpret such a decision as their organization trending in the right direction.
“I think it was actually braver of Brian Burke to put Kadri with the Marlies,” the scout said, “because the pressure for Kadri playing in Toronto is immense.”
While organizations take the temperature of their future assets by testing them in the AHL, fans can take the temperature of their favorite team by monitoring how they handle the next wave. Cautious and careful or immediate and illogical?
Compare a team like Atlanta, who has seen its past three first round picks make the roster out of their first camp (Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Burmistrov), with one like Detroit, that rushes no player, and it’s clear how gradual prospect development can pay off.
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