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The Hockey News

A high-ranking player development figure for an Eastern Conference team had an interesting way to describe a key conundrum that faces every franchise:

“I call it the hobby/horse decision,” said the figure, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “Really early on in players’ careers now, (GMs) have to decide what kind of investment they want to make in them.

“So I think what it comes down to is whether the team sees the player as a guy who approaches the game as a hobby – as something that player enjoys, but something he doesn’t obsess about night and day – or whether the team sees him as a horse that can pull the rest of the players behind him.”

The word “horse” is a familiar one in hockey circles – but most people really don’t appreciate all the qualities of the animal.

“There are tons of horses out there that can run quickly,” said the source, “but the best ones…seem to have a sense they’re needed/depended on by their jockey or their trainer. They know why they’ve been put on the track. That’s the same type of player I want – someone who not only accepts the responsibility, but thrives on it.”

With the help of that player development figure, let’s take a look at five young-ish NHLers and decide what side of the hobby/horse debate they fall on:

Phil Kessel – Toronto Maple Leafs

“If you had asked me this time last year about him, I’d definitely have told you he was a hobby guy,” the developer said. “He wasn’t in top physical condition – and when you see a guy become a main part of the team and yet nobody talks about making him a captain, or even an assistant captain, that’s a comment on their leadership/horse potential.

“But this year I can see a difference. I understand he’s in much better shape and he’s starting to comprehend how much room for growth there still is in his game. I’ll have to wait to see how he does the whole season before I’d call him a horse, but he’s on the right track to leave his hobby days behind.”

Matt Duchene - Colorado Avalanche

“A horse, big time,” the player developer said. “A Clydesdale, as a matter of fact. Some guys just exude their willingness to do anything to win, and in my mind, Duchene has always been one of those players. I really believe if you took him off Colorado’s team, they don’t make the playoffs last year. (Paul) Stastny is important to them, but he doesn’t project that urgency to win quite the same way Duchene does.”

Patrick Kane – Chicago Blackhawks

“Sorry – and maybe it's just because I compare him to (Jonathan) Toews, who is a horse-and-a-half – but I think Kane is still at the hobby stage,” the developer said. “He’s a 21-year-old kid who has fantastic natural talent, a lot of money and he’s in one of the world’s best cities, so to a degree, I can see why he hasn’t had to push himself to his limits. But after their cap problems, that team is going to need more from him than they’ve gotten so far.” 

Erik Johnson – St. Louis Blues

“He hasn’t completely blossomed yet, but I feel like Johnson is an absolute lock to be a horse for St. Louis,” the player developer said. “People might look at his (golf cart) accident a few years back and say he’s an immature kid – and that may be true. But he was quietly very good for them last year and I think he’s back on track to be a real stud in this league. Having (Hall of Famer Al) MacInnis there to tutor him is going to pay off.”

Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning

“By far the biggest and best young horse in the league in my opinion,” the developer said. “Try and find a (scout) who will say something bad about him. You can’t do it. Once he learned about the pro game and learned what it would take from a physical perspective to thrive in the NHL, he took off like few guys I’ve ever seen.

“Having (Martin) St-Louis there to keep pushing him is the best thing that could’ve happened to him – and I think Tampa will be benefiting from what Stamkos learned from St-Louis for a very long time.”

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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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