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Discussing NHL Teams’ Junior Roster Ransacking With 3 WHL Coaches.
[originally printed in The Kelowna Daily Courier, October 30/2011]
MONDAY, 31 OCTOBER 2011 08:39 by DAVE CUNNING
Just how exactly do you replace an NHL-calibre player on a junior roster once he’s moved on?
That’s the conundrum many major-junior hockey teams have been trying to solve over the past month, as many elite players have had opportunities to crack rosters on teams in the best hockey league in the world. Some were sent back to their junior franchises, while some were invited to stick around with their NHL club a little longer.
Getting to the NHL is the opportunity every young player dreams about, and is the developmental principle that the Canadian Hockey League operates by.
While it’s a phenomenal achievement for a player to earn a spot in the line-up at that level, you can’t help but feel a little bit bad for the junior team that just lost a world-class player and is now trying to fill the void. It’s not like you can expect a call-up from minor hockey to score the 50 goals that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Brett Connolly was projected to score for Prince George this season had he returned to the WHL. Or the 60-plus projected points that the Minnesota Wild’s Brett Bulmer might have again scored for the Kelowna Rockets.
“It’s obviously tough for us right now because of our inability to produce goals,” said Dean Clark, the Prince George Cougars’ head coach. “Taking a guy of Brett’s calibre from us is a tough pill to swallow. He’s probably a 50-goal guy. You just don’t put 50 goals back in your line-up. Brett’s a gifted player and that’s why he’s playing with guys like Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St. Louis. But when a guy is taken from your team that you need in order to develop your program, that’s tough.”
Rockets head coach Ryan Huska echoed the same sentiments on Bulmer’s absence from Kelowna’s roster.
“It makes it challenging when you’re expecting a key 19-year-old to be in your line-up,” said Huska. “It’s difficult to fill the hole that has been left without Brett here.”
And is it possible that, at just 18 or 19 years of age, these players are simply too young to be competing against the world’s biggest, fastest, and toughest grown men in the best hockey league on the planet?
“It happened to me as a player,” recalled Marc Habscheid, GM and head coach of the Victoria Royals. “I played in the NHL as a 19-year-old. As an 18-year-old, I had a good year in junior (had had 151 points). At 19, I played 32 games in the NHL (he had 13 points). If I could turn the clock back — for me, personally, maybe I should have gone back,” said Habscheid. “I wanted to play in the NHL as quick as I could. Everyone wants to play in the NHL and make seven million dollars. Let’s face it – these kids are no different. That’s where it’s up to the NHL teams to do what’s best for the kid and their team. But it’s tough to make a blanket rule or statement for every player, because how do you keep a Sidney Crosby out of the NHL, just because of his age?”
“For a lot of them, I think it’s too much too soon,” added Huska. “Every year there’s exceptions, but a lot of times, when you bring 18-year-olds up and keep them up, it’s difficult on them. They’ll play without a lot of pressure or push from their coaches their first year, but when they start playing more years, teams will expect more out of them. A lot of times, I don’t think they’re quite ready for it, and they have a tendency to lose a little confidence in themselves.”
Getting to the NHL is one thing, but staying there and being productive are other variables to consider. Sure, it’s great if a young player can blend in without missing a beat (as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to have done with the Edmonton Oilers).
But if a player who was a first-line, clutch scorer who played every regular season game in the WHL suddenly only plays a handful of games in the NHL, or plays on the fourth line and is only used sparingly, is that really good for him to go through, developmentally speaking?
“In some cases, it’s good to keep the kid in the NHL,” said Habscheid. “If he’s in sync and things are going great and he plays lots, there’s no need to send him back. To remove him and send him back to junior might get him out of sync, and you don’t want that either. You have to look at each player individually, and his maturity level. How would he handle being sent down? Would he take it as a demotion, or would he take it as a chance to keep working on his game and become an NHL player later? Maybe there are young players there that shouldn’t be in the NHL, but, because their teams need them, they stay. You look at the team, too. There are some kids that belong to teams that are powerhouses in the NHL that maybe could play, but don’t because their teams are power-houses and don’t need them. “
When the smokes clears, and doors close for junior-eligible players in the NHL to return to their CHL clubs, those junior teams have no choice but to move on and attempt to achieve success without them. They have to get back to doing what they do best – developing players to help their team win, and to one day be able to play in the NHL.
“It’s out of our control and we can’t stand here and feel sorry for ourselves,” Clark said. “We have to develop the guys we still have. This league is a developmental league and we’re here to produce players.”
While it’s a tall order to move on without a star player, teams and coaches feel nothing but pride for their former players that have made the jump.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to try and develop these guys,” said Huska. “That’s what these guys have grown up with, wanting to play in the NHL. If we can be a part of them getting there, then I’m happy with it. I’m thrilled that Brett’s up there. I want him to have a ton of success. He continues to make our organization very proud.”
Dave Cunning is a former semi-pro hockey player turned writer, coach, and personal trainer. Read his blog on the web at https://davecunning.wordpress.com, and follow him on Twitter@davecunning.