Lacing Up: Ride The Pine, Rookie
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres have spent considerable time in the press box this season. In fact, until Thursday, Bortuzzo hadn’t even cracked the lineup. It’s no surprise, Josh, that you and I both agree that rookies should have to earn their playing time, working their way up from the bottom line or defense pairing. Where we differ, though, I think, is in how they get to the point to earn their time.
To me, if a rookie is on the roster, he should be in the lineup. Period. End of story. He might not be ready for big minutes or prominent roles, but if he’s in the NHL, he’s ready for action. And if he’s ready for action, he should be playing. Young players are the most vulnerable in professional sports, as they’re at a crossroads between development and contribution. The problem, though, is if a player isn’t in a position to contribute, he’s not in a position to develop, either.
I don’t care what anyone says, playing 20 minutes a night in the AHL has much more significance to a young player than sitting in the press box in the NHL. Josh, will you be the first to convince me? I doubt it, but you can try…
Joshua Neal: I think the AHL has its merits. Many say it rivals the KHL for being the second most-talented hockey league in the world. While the development process is handled differently by each franchise, I think that perhaps the way that the Penguins organization handles it is curious to us when we look at teams like Edmonton (whose last 4 or so draft picks came right into prominent team roles with the big boys).
In a game where even veteran players get 10 years of peak performance, why waste the time in the AHL? If it’s a guy that has the skills to contribute, I’m all for putting them on the big squad right away – even if it’s in the press box or in a sheltered-minutes role. No matter what AHL program you’re a part of, I think that the NHL-level practice, even in drills, communicates the speed of the big league’s game and all the other things that it entails. The sooner these guys get that, the better.
Further, it puts a team in a situation where veteran players are pushed to improve to maintain their spot. These rookies may be young, but they’re not children with fragile psyches. In fact, some of them have likely faced tougher pressure in leagues like the QMJHL. Developing a player’s style of game should already have happened by the time the player is drafted. Developing experience, to me, is only valuable at the NHL level if that’s where the player will be spending a bulk of their career.
I understand what I’m saying sounds like a gross discounting of the AHL and its legitimacy. I can promise it’s not. What do you think the AHL’s role is, Matt? Is it a strictly developmental league or is there something more there?
Matt: By no means is the AHL strictly a developmental league. Look at some of the players on our very own “Baby” Penguins roster. The first name that should pop out at you is Mark Eaton. The man has had a long and successful NHL career, and yet he finds himself on a PTO contract in the AHL. He’s using the opportunity to get himself into game shape so when an NHL team calls, he can answer.
If a mid-30s Eaton can occupy a roster spot in the AHL, the idea of the league being purely developmental clearly is wrong. There are very high level players in the AHL, and the competition is intense. Is it the NHL? Absolutely not. But, as you said, there are many who can argue quite well that it is in fact the second best professional league in the world.
Josh, maybe I’m missing something (and I realize Bortuzzo, for example, must clear waivers to return to the AHL — which is why he remains in the NHL), but I just don’t see how a young player can learn more by practicing in the NHL rather than playing in the AHL. Of course there’s something to be said of spending time with NHL veterans and learning their routines and professionalism (in most cases, anyway), but there’s a lot more to be said of learning through personal experience.
Josh, did you learn better by watching your roommates in college study or by studying yourself. I’m curious about this one.
Josh I see where you’re coming from, but I think it’s a little bit different than completely “sitting out” when the players sit out the game action. Maybe this falls to your side a bit, and I hate to give Philadelphia credit, but why not utilize that allotment of “free games” with the NHL club. In a traditional season, junior players can play up to 9 games without any penalty whatsoever. Philly almost always uses this – we saw Scott Laughton, their first round pick on the ice in the first game of the season.
I guess even from a practicality standpoint, I view sending a guy back down – even for a guy that wouldn’t have to clear waivers – as being just as much a detriment as struggling at the NHL level. At least the latter option happens at the NHL-level. Why not carry the full allotment on the roster. Perhaps mixing a guy in a bit more often makes more sense. I think we should have seen Bortuzzo a bit earlier this year, for example.
But versus carrying a utility defenseman around just because he has a few games experience, I think even a seat in the press box is better occupied by a guy who will contribute long-term. Let the kid be there to see the team everyone will know him with. Get him on the ice every once in a while so the fans know what you’ve brought them. Because otherwise, even for big hockey fans, they’re going to be relying on hearsay to know what their farm team guys are doing from a production/development standpoint.
Matt: First of all, I think we’re beginning to agree a bit. I love to see young players get the nine-game look to see if they can cut it in the NHL. If they make the cut, though, they better play — and I think most teams realize this and agree with this. I also agree that, in a vaccuum, carrying a full 23-player roster makes a lot of sense, allowing the coaches to encourage internal competition and to play the hot hand. The problem here, though, is the salary cap,and many teams, such as the Penguins, prefer to keep their “extras” in the AHL to save money under the cap.
Now, where we disagree. Sending a player to the AHL can be a positive experience. For starters, if done properly, it can be a learning experience, especially for players who have had rosters spots handed to them throughout their amateur careers. Additionally, it can light a spark in a player, fueling a renewed focus and determination. I credit Kris Letang’s success to a coaching staff that wasn’t afraid to send him to the AHL, where he spent a brief stint dominating his opponents.
Lastly, the benefit to having veterans as extras is that they tend to be capable of coming in “cold,” so to speak. They can go long stretches without playing, then step in and perform adequately; whereas, with young players, they’re in the process of learning the game, which, when combined with being “cold,” often results in a poor performance, which can lead to a lack of confidence and additional press box time (which leads to further lack of confidence issues).
Josh, I’ll give you the last word.
Josh: I think the big thing that you’re nailing down here is that it’s truly a matter of coaching and philosophy. Some coaches take the approach of easing their players into a system, sheltering minutes and being very careful about linemates and game situations. Others take the approach of the cold, stoic father, who throws his kid in the water in order to “teach” him or her how to swim.
Many of the high draft picks the past several years had higher stock than usual because they were NHL-ready right away. The first round’s first few picks have spent a lot of time at the NHL level and piled up some nice statistics. Certainly, some guys aren’t quite ready for that kind of stage. But I think that at some point, being part of the club and being given the opportunity to make some plays is more valuable to a team, the player, and his fans than dominating the AHL circuit.
Because as we know, success at the AHL level doesn’t necessarily signify “development” or readiness. Not to pick on the guy, but look at someone like Eric Tangradi. A guy who has been dominant in the AHL as a force of size and scoring who has seen his NHL career basically be cut to hang by a thread. All the AHL time in the world hasn’t gotten him to that point in the NHL. So for me, I think I’d rather at least catch a glimpse of what we’ve got in store for the future rather than being too conservative with the youngsters.