Friday, June 5, 2009

Put me in coach...I'm ready to play?

The other day my friend and co-Bird is the Word blogger and I were discussing the recent playoff action. See I’m from Detroit and a big Red Wings fan (insert booing here), and one of the things that we were discussing is the large role some of the younger players on their team have taken on. Now anyone who has been watching the playoffs or paying attention undoubtedly has heard mention of Detroit’s ability to bring in these kids from the AHL due to injury in their lineup and still get productivity. Guys like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino and Jonathan Ericsson were all playing in the AHL this year and are now in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s 4 rookies who combined don’t have a full seasons worth of NHL experience. So how then is Detroit up 2-1 in the series with 4 rookies in the lineup? Well I thought it would be a good idea to compare Detroit’s approach on player development to Atlanta’s. Now I know some of you are already saying “How can you compare those two teams? It’s totally different”, and I agree but, I think the comparison needs to be made. If you want to be successful I believe it helps to study what has made others successful, and nobody can deny the success Detroit has had. So here goes.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Detroit has had the luxury of having a very good team for quite some time. This in effect has allowed them to leave a lot of their younger players down in the AHL and let them really develop. This fact can’t be ignored but, just because a guy plays for a while in the AHL doesn’t mean he’s going to be a good NHL player. One of the most important things I believe the Wings do starts in Grand Rapids. The players are taught the same system that is run in Detroit. That way when a player does get called up they know exactly what is expected of them whether it be positioning or the role they are asked to play etc. Now as mentioned being one of the best teams has allowed them the opportunity to not rush players into the NHL. This has also hurt them. When it comes to the draft we all know success means bad draft position. So the wings have had to find players late in the draft. I would argue that Detroit has some of the best, if not the best, scouts in the NHL. Couple that with Kenny Holland who is referred to as one of the best GM’s in all of pro sports and you have a formula for success. Take a look at some of the players they have and where they were drafted.

Henrik Zetterberg 1999: 7th Rnd, 210th by DET

Pavel Datsyuk 1998: 6th Rnd, 171st by DET

Johan Franzen 2004: 3rd Rnd, 97th by DET

Thomas Holmstrom 1994:10th Rnd, 257th by DET

Jonathan Ericsson 2002: 9th Rnd, 291st by DET

Nicklas Lidstrom 1989: 3rd Rnd, 53rd by DET

The Wings ability to find these players late has allowed them to stay competitive over the years. They keep their younger players in the AHL and wait until they are ready instead of forcing them into the lineup and making them take on a role they can’t handle. A lot of guys wouldn’t be patient and might try to play somewhere else (Pavelec anyone?), but the fact that they are successful gives them the benefit of having guys want to play for them, thus they are willing to wait until they get their chance. I’ve included an article that speaks about the things I’ve mentioned here.

The next part of my article brings me to the Thrashers. Let's take a look at some of the Thrashers draft picks and their status with the team. I've included a list of the teams complete draft history as well.

By my count 4 of our 11 first round draft picks are no longer with the team. I think we'll all agree that Stefan never lived up to expectation. The Heatley situation was unavoidable. We're all still pissed about Coburn. The ironic thing is that I've heard many people say "well Coburn wasn't developing fast enough so we traded him". He was only 21 when we let him go. He played 91 games with the wolves and 38 with the Thrashers. How on earth is that enough time to tell if he's going to develop into the kind of player we're looking for? But I digress. Looking at the link I've provided above listing our draft pick history I decided to pick out the players that I thought we did a good job of selecting. Here's my list.

Name Selection# Round# Year

Exelby 217 8 1999
Heatley 2 1 2000
Kovalchuk 1 1 2001
Lehtonen 2 1 2002
Enstrom 239 8 2003
Coburn 8 1 2003
Little 12 1 2006

Now the disturbing trend that I see here is that out of 82 picks in our history I only feel like there have been 7 that had any real impact or help to the team. Let me say that again. 7 out of 82. I'm sure some of you will argue that there are other guys worthy of mention but I ask who? The large majority of our picks have long left our team or our system.

Another thing that bothers me is when looking at the players I've listed you'll notice that all but 2 were in the first round and our first selection. Personally I think that if you pick a guy with your first pick of the first round he should have talent. I know some might turn out to be a bust but you should have a higher percentage of success than failure in that round. Only 2 of these players were late round selections or "gems" if you will. Enstrom certainly falls in this category as it looks like he was a steal in the draft. I gave Exelby a mention since he's been with the team since we drafted him and overall has been an ok player but, I wouldn't look at him as a steal.

Now compare this to Detroits history of drafting and notice their ability to find special players late in the draft and our inability to do the same. Are they consistently lucky in this category? I actually think it speaks volumes about our scouts and or managements drafting decisions. Perhaps it comes down to the development of our players. I know there are some guys in Chicago that have been there for a while and I applaud Atlanta for not rushing them into action but, is it because they aren't ready for the NHL or that they just aren't NHL caliber players? I get the impression by looking at the ages of some of the guys in Chicago that they might not ever turn out to be consistent NHL players. Maybe it's not a lack of development but a lack of skill keeping them from cracking the lineup. Once again this comes back to our scouting and draft selection.

I talked before about how Detroits AHL team runs the same system as their NHL team. Why don't we do the same? Even Bryan Little talked this year about how having Anderson come in really boosted his confidence due to him knowing what was expected of him out on the ice. It's a huge advantage for younger players making the transition and I feel a big problem with our orginization. Unfortunately Chicago isn't directly controlled by the Thrashers. All in all I feel like we might be on the right track. Bryan Little has gotten his game going and has a chance to emerge as a very solid player. We've seen flashes of good play from the likes of Stuart, Pavelec and Oystrik. We brought in Anderson and he's running the system that many of our prospects are familiar with. One would think that could only help our younger players as they move into the roster. My only hope is that whoever we draft this year is given the chance to refine his game and build confidence before we shove him into the spotlight. Here's a quote that I think really typifies a lot of teams in the NHL including ours.

"We want to give guys a chance to grow and have a chance for success," McCrimmon said. "There's a whole bunch of teams where there's a lot of pressure to put in their draft picks, for marketing reasons, or because you don't have the depth that you can say you don't need that kid right now. All of a sudden, he's on the second line."

Let's not make the same mistakes. Give our kids a chance and build the team from within. Lord knows I can't stand another 9 years of this.

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