Joyce: Not ready for primetime

September 14, 2009, 5:08 PM

By GARE JOYCE
Sportsnet.ca

The end of September looms and we’re entering the silliest season: that stretch when NHL teams start trimming their rosters and sending some teenagers back to their junior teams. I call it the silliest season, because it’s “some” and not “all” teenagers and because, with the lessons of history, NHL general managers should know better.

Many folks were amazed that Sidney Crosby scored at better than a point-a-game rate in his rookie season. I wasn’t surprised by that. Maybe even more impressive is the fact that he managed to take a regular shift the whole season without injuries knocking him out of the line-up.

Look at Rick Nash, arguably the most physically formidable first-line forward in the NHL these days, and Ilya Kovalchuk, whose speed eclipses the strength mostly in the perception of fans. Both jumped straight from the draft into the league and both suffered injuries that ended their rookie seasons. In the end their development wasn’t hurt but that’s a testament their talent rather than any case to be made for playing 18-year-olds in the NHL.

Back in 2001 Jacques Martin, then the Senators coach, was asked about the decision to send Jason Spezza back to the Ontario league. When Martin called the NHL “a men’s league,” he meant it as a diss to Spezza, but there’s an element of truth in it if you look at history.

So this history lesson is intended less for the entertainment of junior hockey fans and more for NHL general managers, including but not limited to: Los Angeles’ Dean Lombardi, who will have to make the call on Drew Doughty, who patrolled the blue line for Guelph last season; Atlanta’s Don Waddell, who must weigh the risks and returns of playing Zach Bogosian, a Peterborough defenceman just two years out of high-school hockey, on what promises to be a train wreck in Atlanta year; Phoenix’s Don Maloney, who will determine the readiness of Mikkel Boedker, a forward who flashed some skill with Kitchener on the Rangers’ run to the Memorial Cup; and Vancouver’s freshly minted boss Mike Gillis, who might try to rush the first first-rounder of his tenure, Cody Hodgson, into the line-up when he could benefit from another season in Brampton.

Storm coach Jason Brooks has resigned himself to the fact that Doughty, the No. 2 overall pick, wore a Guelph sweater for the last time when he skated in practice a few weeks back before heading off to L.A.’s training camp. “We’ve put our team together on the assumption that we won’t get Drew back,” Brooks said. The last entry looks a little more likely off Hodgson’s first exhibition game with the Canucks, a performance that had coach Alain Vigneault calling the young centre “a piece to our foundation and to our future, whether the future is right now or down the line.”

It’s one of hockey’s more curious phenomena: Everyone prizes a pick in the first round of a draft but, once the selection is made, the development of the player is an afterthought. Not that general managers are dead against being patient with prospects – just that they think it’s other teams’ problem.

Every NHL draft seems to have at least a casualty; those who were rushed and those who were asked to do too much too soon.

I won’t go back to Alexandre Daigle but we’ll stick to the last decade or so, but here are a few examples:

1999: Patrick Stefan, first overall to Atlanta. Scouts thought that Stefan looked like a beast at the 1998 world juniors as a 17-year-old. But the rest of that season and the next he was a boy among men, playing for Long Beach in the IHL. A warning sign should have come when he missed the next under-20 tournament with an injury. No matter, Atlanta drafted him No. 1 overall and put him directly into the line-up. He responded with a five-goal season and a career that was ruined by injuries. He made it into 455 NHL games before retiring – it’s cruel that he’s thought of as a flop when really an utterly lost Thrashers organization should take a lot of the blame. It’s also cruel that the most memorable moment of his career is this anti-classic. Vancouver had to wait a year for the Sedins to come over – probably more the Sedins’ decision that the Canucks’ – but still a wiser course.

2000: Dany Heatley opted not to follow Stefan’s lead of rushing to Atlanta and stayed at the University of Wisconsin for another season before turning pro. He parlayed that decision into a Calder Trophy.

One who did go directly to the NHL from that draft was Marian Gaborik and he scored 18 goals in 71 games with the Wild. He doesn’t seem to have suffered for too much too soon but nobody has a better record than Minnesota when it comes to handling teenagers in the NHL.

2001: HoF stupidity, tragic waste. Dan Blackburn was probably the best goaltending prospect to come along since Roberto Luongo. For reasons never fully explained, Glen Sather decided that he was best served by sitting on the Rangers bench at 18 rather than returning for two seasons of seasoning in junior and a stint in the AHL. When I say tragic waste, it’s thankfully tragic just for the Rangers but not Blackburn according to this story.

2002: Jay Bouwmeester stepped right in with Florida and while he made it through the season in one piece it’s not clear whether it helped him. Ten seasons in junior and the pros and he made the playoffs once, that when Florida sent him to the AHL at end of one season. I’m not saying that another year of junior would have changed him, but it could scarcely have hurt.

Pierre Marc Bouchard, who must have been 150 pounds as a rookie, was kept up by the Minnesota Wild though he was really just a part-time player when he was loaned out to the Canadian team for the under-20 tournament.

2003: Eric Staal made it through a rookie season in Carolina with 11 goals but he caught a lucky break: the NHL lockout. He spent his entire second pro season with the Lowell Lock Monsters and by the time the NHL opened for business again he was unrecognizable, scoring 45 goals and racking up 100 points.

That was the same story with Patrice Bergeron in Boston – a second-rounder unexpectedly making it into the league at 18 but down the road, much better for his experience in the AHL during the lockout.

2004: The rule about 18-year-olds does not apply here. No draftees jumped directly to the pros because of the NHL lockout. It doesn’t look like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin lost too much ground not being able to jump into the league at 18.

2005: Crosby was the exception but Gilbert Brule the rule. A lot of junior fans out west maintained that Brule was the equal of Crosby. Not even close as Crosby made the step up seamlessly and Brule almost had his career ended before it started. He suffered an injury that just speaks to how physically unprepared he was for the rigours of the NHL. Warning: Wince-worthy link. Columbus should have seen this one coming. I’d make a case that he never really has recovered, in mind if not body, from that injury.

2006: The jury is out on whether Jordan Staal, No. 2 overall, has benefited from jumping directly from the Peterborough Petes to the Penguins. His season at (barely) age 18 was sometimes spectacular, scoring 29 goals and looking like the league’s best PK guy. But his goals fell off to 12 last year in a complete season. Not a write-off by any means, but still I’d bet on Jonathan Toews, No. 3 overall, passing Staal. Toews stayed at the University of North Dakota for a season before signing with Chicago and his stock is ahead of Staal’s right now.

2007: Patrick Kane was ready for his close-up with Chicago. His teammate in London, Sam Gagner, made the jump up as well, but that’s about it.

In most of these past cases general managers were simply going with teenagers who were the best talent they had on hand. Lombardi, Waddell, Maloney and Gillis should think of these players not as quick solutions but long-term investments. As such, they shouldn’t be put in a position of physical risk like Brule and they shouldn’t have to break in with a doormat team like a lot of players on this mostly sad list. You want to put them in a situation which gives them a chance of individual success on a winning team.

We’ve left one name out of the mix for the upcoming season: Steven Stamkos, late of the Sarnia Sting and the subject of a Tampa Bay marketing campaign before he was even drafted No. 1 overall in June. On talent, Stamkos has a better chance of winning the Calder than Kane did this time last year. By the end of last season he was playing at level not matched by anyone on this list with the exception of Crosby. It’s easy to project him in a lead role with the Lightning.

“Tampa Bay could be a gong show this year,” one former general manager told me the other day. “The best thing Stamkos has going for him is that Vinny Lecavalier went through all this before. Still, the best place for Steven would be back in junior until he’s physically ready.”

That’s a point that has been lost in all the talk about the prospect-Steven wasn’t a man among boys last year, more like a Superboy among boys, more solid physically than he had ever been but still not fully grown. (A point lost on most people: How compact and powerful Crosby was at 18, very much a contrast to Stamkos.)

There are two ways of looking at it: He’s so good that he has to play now or he’s so good we have to protect him for the future. If your owners have dropped about $200-million on guaranteed contracts in just a few months, the future is now.

CHL NOTES

I came across this translated entry of a Russian online outfit’s interview with Nikita Filatov. It reminds me of one of my favourite Newsradio episodes. I’d bet on Filatov staying in “Kolumbus” rather than winding with the Sudberry Rabid Forest Creatures … Last week I wrote about the struggles of CHL teams trying to get the releases of their import draftees from Russia. I should have noted that the Guelph Storm managed to get defenceman Evgeni Molotilov into camp and into the line-up. How did the Storm pull it off? “I can’t really explain how it happened,” Guelph coach Jason Brooks said. “(Former general manager) Dave Barr looked after the negotiations before he left the organization. Evgeni is a ’91 birthday and isn’t (NHL)-drafted yet. He was on the Russian team at the under-18s but I don’t remember him at all. Maybe he wasn’t a priority of the Russian league.” Maybe that’s the key: CHL teams might need to project a little more rather than count on delivery of near-finished products. It should be, after all, their development league no less than it’s ours … Oh yeah, re: the Russian imports, I’m still waiting for CHL commissioner Dave Branch to return my call. I suspect some league GMs are in the same boat. Do svidaniye.

Gare Joyce will be writing on junior hockey for Sportsnet.ca this season. A veteran journalist, Joyce is the author of Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts, When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey’s Cold War and Changed the Game and Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm. He also writes for ESPN The Magazine, espn.com and several Canadian magazines.

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