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The Straight Edge: Powerhouse programs not always best for prospect development

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

There’s a fantastic article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the Dutch soccer factory run by the famous Ajax team, which produces some of the country’s best players and does so by bringing them into the fold as children.

The hook of the article is that America doesn’t know how to raise elite soccer players: Despite a much bigger population, the U.S. development model of heavy game schedules, parents paying for their kids to play on elite teams and a focus on winning by said elite teams does not yield results.

Ajax, for example, focuses on rearing individual talents, keeping the game schedule light and training the kids they bring in for basically no cost to the parents. The result, in a best-case scenario, is a player, who in his early 20s, is sold off to a bigger European club in Italy, Germany, Spain or England, for tens of millions of Euros. You’ll see a bunch of Ajax grads play for the Dutch in the World Cup over the next month.

It got me thinking of hockey development and something 2010 draft prospect Kevin Hayes told me at the NHL combine a few weeks ago. When asked why the talented left winger stayed in Massachusetts to play high school hockey for the Noble and Greenough Bulldogs, he was very matter-of-fact:

“I thought going back to high school hockey was right for me,” Hayes said. “I got to play on the penalty-kill, the power play, 5-on-5, 6-on-5…it allowed me to do what I do best.”

Of course, he was allowed to do his best against lesser competition than if he played in, say, the United States League or with the U.S. NTDP. But Hayes, a Boston College commit, also noted that current Eagle Chris Kreider (19th overall to the Rangers in 2009) took a similar path and it certainly didn’t hurt his draft stock.

And don’t be surprised when and if Nick Bjugstad, Brock Nelson (both Minnesota high schoolers) and Charlie Coyle (New England Jr.) are selected in the first round this summer.

Are NHL scouts aware of this Ajax model, where the outstanding players in a program, such as Hayes or Bjugstad, are allowed to flourish by dominating? In Minnesota high school, depth is an issue, so top players log a massive amount of ice time, usually to their benefit. They also play about half the games a major junior player does at the same age.

Recent success stories of this model include Minnesotans Blake Wheeler (Breck), Ryan McDonagh (Cretin-Derham) and Brian Lee (Moorhead), all of whom went on to excellent college careers and have bright NHL futures.

And though we all love the dominating major junior teams, they don’t have a monopoly on NHLers. Take the 2004-05 London Knights, who were accepted as the best junior team ever until this year’s Windsor Spitfires put up a pretty good argument.

Of those Knights, who lost just seven regular season games and beat Sidney Crosby in the Memorial Cup, only Corey Perry can be considered an NHL star. David Bolland, Dan Girardi and Brandon Prust are solid NHLers, but Girardi was a trade acquisition from Guelph mid-season. Other than that, the roster was dotted with American League tweeners such as Bryan Rodney, Marc Methot, Dan Fritsche, Danny Syvret and Rob Schremp.

Contrast that with the 2007-08 Sarnia Sting, a team that lost 29 games in the regular season and was dropped in the second round of the Ontario League playoffs. Despite having less time to get to the pros than the aforementioned Knights, that edition of the Sting has already produced an NHL star in Steven Stamkos, plus a solid NHLer in Colorado defenseman Ryan Wilson and Isles up-and-comer Matt Martin.

Having seen that particular Sting team in action, it’s fair to say Stamkos was given a lot of opportunity to round out his game before heading to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Similarly, Peterborough Petes right winger Austin Watson began to rocket up the draft charts once he was traded away from the powerhouse Spitfires this season. The Petes were by no means destitute, but clearly a step below Windsor. Watson used his time in Windsor to work on his defense from the third line, then pumped up the offense as a first-liner with Peterborough. So he got the best of both worlds.

“It’s unbelievable what happens when you get pushed back there,” Watson said. “I learned to be more of a defensive shutdown player and now (in Peterborough) I found that offensive part of my game, but at the same time I have the defense to complement it. It might have been tough at times not getting the ice time I thought I deserved (in Windsor), but it definitely helped me moving forward with my career.”

In Ajax, they don’t put an emphasis on winning games during development. So while no NHL team is going to turn up its nose at perennial winner Taylor Hall, it’s fair to say players on less prestigious teams can still develop well without a whole lot of team glory.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Wednesdays and his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday.

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