Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Out of Time: Thoughts on the talent pipeline

I intend to get to the Columbus Blue Jackets position analyses for the 2010-2011 season soon, but I thought that the next post in this series should address what I consider to be a critical strategic issue for the team.

Despite the suggestions that they have addressed a main problem of the Doug MacLean era, that of rushing young players into the NHL too quickly with too little preparation, the roster doesn't lie:
  • Derick Brassard, 23 - 3rd "full" season with Columbus (1 of the 3 cut short due to injury)
  • Matt Calvert, 21 - 1st season in Columbus  (I don't think anyone sees him returning to Springfield)
  • Jakub Voracek, 21 - 3rd season in Columbus
  • Kris Russell, 23 - 4th season in Columbus
  • Steve Mason, 22 - 3rd season in Columbus
Has experience not been instructive?  Of the many CBJ draftees since the inception of the franchise, it can be argued that only Rick Nash was able to handle the jump from the draft (and juniors) to the NHL without meaningful time in the minors.

We were told that the new Howson regime wouldn't make MacLean's mistakes and would protect the kids from getting rushed.  Howson is wrapping up his fourth season as general manager, which means that ALL of the players listed above were played at a young age in Columbus under his watch.  That's right, 18 and 19-year-olds playing the Red Wings six times a season.  I'm sure that'll do wonders for their confidence.

These guys needed to be playing Providence, Manchester and Binghamton six times a year instead of Detroit...and thump them for a while.  They needed to learn how to win as professionals.  They needed to get to the AHL playoffs and do some damage...THEN come to Columbus with the know-how to get this club over the hump.  Derick Brassard got to the 2nd round in '07-08 with the Syracuse Crunch, but nobody else experienced playoff success at the AHL level.  (And pardon me for snobbing out, but World Juniors and Memorial Cups aren't the same as playing playoff hockey against near-NHL level talent in a professional environment.)  And you wonder why the Blue Jackets players are seemingly numb to mediocrity and losing?  It's what they know as professionals!

This isn't an issue of on-ice performance.  It's not about goals, assists, blocked shots and hits.  It's an issue of professional maturity.  When you have kids with incredible skill, the performance will come with maturity.  If you don't have maturity, however, you can have all the skill in the world but the performance won't materialize.

Which brings us to the next big issue...the talent in the Blue Jackets' minor-league system:

FORWARDS
  • Cam Atkinson, 21
    • 5 games played (Springfield), 3 goals, 2 assists, +2
  • Nikita Filatov, 20 
    • 23 games played (Columbus), 0 goals, 7 assists, +3
    • 36 games played (Springfield), 9 goals, 11 assists, -2
  • Ryan Johansen, 18
    • 63 games played (Portland, regular season), 40 goals, 52 assists, +44
  • Tomas Kubalik, 20
    • 4 games played (Columbus), 0 goals, 2 assists, -3
    • 76 games played (Springfield), 24 goals, 29 assists, -7
  • Maksim Mayorov, 22
    • 5 games played (Columbus), 1 goal, 0 assists, +/- 0
    • 69 games played (Springfield), 19 goal, 14 assists, -12
DEFENSEMEN
  • Anton Blomqvist, 22
    • 5 games played (Springfield), 0 goals, 1 assist, +/- 0
  • Cody Goloubef, 21
    • 50 games played (Springfield), 5 goals, 12 assists, -12
  • Nick Holden, 23
    • 5 games played (Columbus), 0 goals, 0 assists, +/- 0
    • 67 games played (Springfield), 4 goals, 21 assists, +2
  • John Moore, 20
    • 2 games played (Columbus), 0 goals, 0 assists, +/- 0
    • 73 games played (Springfield), 5 goals, 19 assists, -27
  • Brent Regner, 21
    • 56 games played (Springfield), 6 goals, 13 assists, -4
  • Theo "I was traded for Sergei Federov" Ruth, 22
    • 52 games (Springfield), 1 goal, 5 assists, -18
  • David Savard, 20
    • 72 games played (Springfield), 11 goals, 32 assists, -6
  • Jonathan Sigalet, 25
    • 67 games played (Springfield), 4 goals, 18 assists, +12
And I'll skip the goalies because I don't see any as being close to contesting for a roster spot in Columbus.

Here's my point in showing you all of these numbers: Of all the forwards, who has absolutely shown brightest at their level?  The youngest of all of them, Ryan Johansen.  Keep in mind that his gaudy numbers came at the expense of junior hockey opponents.  Knowing that silly rules won't let him play at the AHL level next year (something to do with his being too young, a protectionist measure for the Major Junior system), do you think that he's ready from a skill and maturity perspective to play at the NHL level?  Do you honestly think he can get anything close to the same level of production at such a higher level?

Based on the numbers above, would you be able to say that other forward beyond Johansen could be remotely ready for the NHL?  Seriously?  Remember, Kubalik was the 4th best rookie scorer in the AHL...and couldn't score in his brief stay in Columbus.  

Then look at the defensemen.  Either you get young scorers who would be runaway favorites for the vaunted Blue Jackets "green jacket" (biggest "minus" at the end of the season), or you get older players who might not necessarily be the best scorers but - as demonstrated by plus/minus - have a little better understanding of how to play defense.  So why not let the higher scoring kids stick around in the AHL long enough to - oh, I dunno - learn how to play NHL-caliber defense?

Lest anyone think I can't see what's going on, I'll happily acknowledge that there is hope. Howson has slowed the talent development train considerably, keeping the John Moores of the world in juniors for an "extra" year and keeping a roster of barely twenty-somethings in Springfield as opposed to rushing them up to Columbus.  

This whole matter of youth developing getting better, but it needs to stay that way no matter how rough things look in Columbus.

MY SUGGESTIONS

From a "send 'em back to the AHL perspective," I'm resigned that all current CBJ players listed above outside of Matt Calvert have no chance of going to Springfield for anything more than a conditioning stint at this point.  (And, if you believe Scott Arniel from his season wrap-up press conference, that means that a lot of the roster in general could be lumped into the "conditioning" mode.)  Calvert is still under an entry-level contract, and while I don't know the ins and outs of his status vis a vis getting bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL, I can easily see a scenario where it would be deemed that his development as a young forward would be better advanced by being a dominant player in the AHL as opposed to a 3rd-4th liner in the NHL.

As for the rest of the now-veteran crowd, their beds are made.  They've been thrown to the wolves.  They've now been in the NHL too long, their entry-level deals are done and they're under (or will be under next season) regular, one-way contracts.  The one-way contract is the kiss of death for AHL-level player development as a player will need to clear waivers (and thus be exposed to poaching from another team) before jumping from one league to another.  That's regrettable, especially in the case of Steve Mason, who desperately needed a reprieve to get his game back together at times this past year in somewhere other than Columbus.  Jake Voracek may also have benefited from a stint in the AHL, if only to realize how precarious his professional position was in a contract year.  Let's hope these guys all learn how to win in the big leagues.  No way but the hard way, right?

Going forward, however, I can't shout loudly enough, "EXERCISE CAUTION!" when it comes to bringing the Springfield prospects up to the NHL for anything more than an injury-related stopgap.

The prospects need to establish a tradition and expectation of winning that they can bring to Columbus and advance through their careers.  This group of youngsters have not won as a team at the AHL level - in fact, Springfield had a slump in March that was as bad as anything experienced last season in Columbus.  They need to grow, mature and learn to win before taking the final step in their professional journeys.

These youngsters also need to be challenged as individuals, too.  I've been suggesting over the course of the season to friends that Scott Howson should have personally challenged Nikita Filatov to get his game back together.  One way to do so is to say something like, "You're going down to Springfield.  You need to be a scorer and regain your touch.  Until you get 20 goals, don't think about coming back to Columbus.  Once you get to 20, we'll talk."  Filatov, of course, had 9 goals this past season in Springfield.  With an appropriate target-based incentive, perhaps he might have come around faster.  (Maybe Howson did this.  I don't know.)

Similar incentives could be used with other forwards.  You also could do the same with the defense, perhaps with plus-minus, Corsi numbers or some combination of goals/assists.  My point is the organization needs to incent these youngsters as a group and individually to perform at the highest level before getting "the call" to the big leagues.  It should not be a given that they are expected to play one year in the AHL and then will be on the NHL roster the following year (Filatov's approach).  They have to deserve the promotion.

Of course, this whole approach also presumes that there are roster spots open for such high-performing players in Columbus.  To get that, you'd need a lot of two-way contracts (or injuries, but we won't talk about that) in Columbus...and the topic of contracts is one for another day.

The numbers don't suggest any current Springfield Falcon should be considered a lock for the 2011-2012 Blue Jackets roster.  If they blow the doors off in training camp, that's one thing...but please, please use caution in bringing these guys along.  Let them grow, let them mature, let them learn how to play...and how to win.  

5 comments:

  1. While I agree with a lot of what you are saying, I want to point out one weakness - and ironically, it's Filatov, who is a player I'm not currently fond of.

    Let's not forget that after going down to Springfield, Filatov missed a LOT of time with a concussion (and a "neck soreness" injury before the concussion that I will bet you was actually a concussion that he didn't want to admit to.)

    It's entirely possible that Filatov was challenged to do better - and wanted to perform better - but he missed so many games that it simply wasn't possible.

    Otherwise, I'd certainly prefer to see the kids given more time to grow (and to win) in Springfield, but when the team looks at filling out the roster spots, I think contracts ARE an issue - specifically, if you're going to be trying to bring in veteran players, even if they're journeyman types, you're still going to have to pay them...

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  2. Good point on Filatov. Now that you've jogged my memory, I do recall his concussion issue.

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  3. Not to nitpick, but I'm pretty sure only Jake jumped to the NHL before he was 20. While I'd say maybe Russell and Mason definitely could have used a full AHL season, the team was desperate, which is why at age 20 they made the jump full time. That is not the situation, anymore (thankfully)...

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  4. Danielle - Thanks for your prompt...I should have inserted links to the stats that I used when making the initial post.

    You can look at the number of NHL seasons for each and do your own math.

    And yes, it seems that things are not desperate...but Calvert did get the call rather quickly in his AHL career...

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  5. R Johansen is a problem. Without another year in Junior Hockey he cannot play in the AHL. From everything we can read, he will benefit little with another year in Junior. A solution would be to let him play PART time in Columbus, letting him earn more or less than every 3rd game [for example] by his performance.

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