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Talking Development with Jackie

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Minnesota Wild v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Exactly a week ago today, the Oilers assigned Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto to the Bakersfield Condors. Since that’s happened, prospect development, and the proper way increase the possibilities of success have been on the mind of Oilers fans.

It’s not only because of those reassignments however, it’s because the Oilers have consistently been behind the curve of getting players aside from top-picks into the NHL. Every fan has an opinion on what works and what doesn’t. The part that doesn’t work is very apparent to Oilers fans.

Personally, I also have opinions on what works as well, but I find we all suffer from a bit of tunnel vision after the Decade of Darkness. Oilers PTSD is a very real thing. Because of this, I decided to reach out to someone for the outside — and someone who knows a lot more about it than I do. This Person is Jackie from Burgundy-Rainbow, and MileHighHockey.

Now, this probably would have been a great idea to use as a Know your Enemy preview piece last week before we played each other, but quite honestly, that idea didn’t cross my mind until after it was too late. The Bakersfield Condors are taking on the Colorado Eagles this week though, maybe this counts as a lead up to that. We don’t do enough AHL coverage around here.

I chose Jackie for two different reasons. The main reason is because talking prospects and development is her thing. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a conversation with her where asset management, prospects, drafting, or development didn’t take a prominent role. She watches a lot of the lower leagues, and specializes in the AHL. Burgundy-Rainbow is AHL credentialed, after all.

The second reason is because she’s an Avalanche fan. Maybe that seems odd that I would pick someone who closely follows a team that also struggles to develop anyone, but in this case I think it really fits. The Avalanche and Oilers suffer from the same result, but they got there through very different ways. Here is the transcript.

Patrick: Hi Jackie, thanks for agreeing to do this, welcome to Copper&Blue. First question — The Oilers have a reputation of bringing their prospects to the NHL too early and asking them to try to contribute too much. They haven’t been able to get many of their post-1st rounders to develop. Do the Avalanche do things like this?

Jackie: With the Avalanche the funny thing is those prospects that have played in the NHL right away have all done well. Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon played at 18 and of course they were top three picks. The Avalanche haven’t had a pick outside the top 10 develop entirely in their system and stick in the NHL since Tyson Barrie. Yet they committed to Samuel Girard playing in the NHL once they acquired him in the Matt Duchene trade and he’s flourishing as one of their top defenseman now.

Patrick: What has been the general course of action with the players who haven’t been thrown into the NHL right away?

Jackie: Basically the old school idea of grinding away in the minors and waiting for an opportunity that either never comes or is too little too late. There’s even a waiting game to get opportunity in the AHL due to veterans playing most of the bigger roles. Then before you know it a prospect’s ELC and waiver exemption is nearly up while the organization is taking a closer look at their newest prospects.

Patrick: But playing in the AHL for a long period of time makes them all better than when they started, right? Isn’t that what the AHL is there for?

Jackie: I believe just about any player can benefit from time in the AHL but it is a diminishing returns situation. Of course everyone and their paths are different but generally if they aren’t getting moved along after roughly 40-60 games or in their second year of professional hockey then they won’t be an impact player at the NHL level. The Avalanche haven’t had a player with 100 AHL games or more stick as a NHL player since Chris Stewart. AHL development is an important step for many players but it must occur in conjunction with opportunity and a plan for their path to the NHL.

Patrick: So speaking in terms of generalities, have you seen a team do the AHL-NHL development plan well? And if so, what do they do?

Jackie: Tampa Bay uses their AHL affiliate very well. They regularly dressed nine rookies last season and Syracuse went to the second round of the playoffs. Now two of those rookies in Anthony Cirelli and Mattheiu Joseph are regulars with the Lightning this season. They were third and fourth round picks respectively, which makes the feat even more of an accomplishment.

Boston also gives a lot of opportunity to their young players and they do not sacrifice winning to do so. Defensemen Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy were placed into NHL roles right away and stayed. Jake DeBrusk stuck in the NHL after just one season in the AHL. Boston gives opportunities to prospects when they are in need of callups and do not default to veterans or the waiver wire like many other teams do. Despite having their defense hit with injury they’ve given a look to young prospects Uhro Vaakainen, Jeremy Lauzon and soon to recent recall Jakub Zboril.

Patrick: It’s funny you mention the waiver wire. I saw this tweet yesterday — not to pick on Matt, this is a wide-held opinion — and that line of thought gets a lot of support. Any thoughts on that?

Jackie: At best it is a temporary solution, at worst it’s a crutch that only prevents opportunity for those that need it. In a lost season the best thing an organization can do is give NHL minutes to prospects. It will only help give them experience and prepare them to deliver a bigger impact the following season. Hitting up waivers also sends a message to those who have worked hard for an opportunity in the minors that they never had a chance anyway since outside help is the preference.

I know there are many arguments about keeping prospects away from a losing environment but youth who work hard and establish themselves often leads to a winning environment. Look no further than Vancouver who are one of the many examples of the youth movement taking over the culture of a team, even Ottawa is riding a wave of talented young players to lift themselves higher than many thought they’d be.

Patrick: No concern about ruining a player’s potential through rushing?

Jackie: I’d say the bigger problem is stagnation but it is true that going straight to the NHL might not be right for every player. The coaching staff has to be ready to work with the player in a real role and that is as much a problem as playing a player before they are truly ready. Another problem is that it becomes an either or situation, that a player is either ready right away or they have to spend copious amounts of time in the minors. Some professional experience goes a long way.

Patrick: You mention that the coach has to work with a player and use them in a real role. In the event that this isn’t happening — I’m speaking of course about Jesse Puljujarvi who was sent down last week after playing ~10 mins per night in the NHL — is there anything negative that can happen with players being sent down after playing in a lot of NHL games? Or conversely, is this going to help the player?

Jackie: The AHL is a great place to build a foundation for a player but it isn’t a magic wand where all their issues are solved. It’s also not a prospect playground where they get to play half of the game and just rack up points. It’s a difficult grind with even more veteran influence. So keeping that in mind there just isn’t a lot where someone who has spent 100 games in the NHL can get out of playing in the AHL other than a quick reset. Stagnation, role confusion and mixed messages are real concerns. If there’s a plan from the organization and a short timeline with what the expectations are then the player could take some positives out of a move back down. If it’s an out of sight out of mind situation then results probably won’t follow.

Patrick: I should bring up Rantanen, having spent a year ripping up the AHL and then coming into the NHL and being one of the best wingers in the game, do you think that the Avs should get credit for developing him?

Jackie: The Avalanche have received NHL games out of prospects who had prior European pro, or at least three years of college experience, and Rantanen falls under that category. The organization feels comfortable moving them through the system in a short amount of time and in Rantanen’s case 56 AHL games is the sweet spot for getting something out of the AHL before moving up to the NHL. Did the Avs in particular add to Rantanen’s development is a tough question. He was on a last place San Antonio Rampage team with little help around him in a very poor environment with a lot of players the organization dumped waiting for the end of their contracts. Head coach Jared Bednar’s work with him should get the most credit for the Avalanche helping make Rantanen the player he is today. He gave Rantanen a consistent role and ice time since day one even in the lost 48 point season. Ultimately it was good for Rantanen to play in the AHL first but getting him to the NHL is where he really took off.

Patrick: OK, I think that’s all I have for questions. Thank you very much for doing this. Is there anything else you want to get off your chest about development processes?

Jackie: Just that a system and a process is what development is. Making good draft choices and managing assets properly to get draft picks and prospects in order to have talent for the development system is a big part of it but that’s the aspect that’s the most visible and easiest to understand. Personal responsibility in the development process also can’t be overlooked. A player’s ownership of their development plus injuries is certainly a factor in this as well and I’m not discounting that. But the system itself and organization’s role in how they get a player from A to B is something that happens largely behind closed doors and is what poor development organizations struggle with.

There has to be a plan and path to the NHL laid out for each player. NHL experience is part of development and it is important to get early and frequent opportunity. The scouts, front office, coaching staffs at each level also need to get on the same page about who a player is and what role he should be working towards. So it shouldn’t come down to NHL vs AHL or who is to blame when things don’t work out, create a proper system first.

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There you have it, some insight from an outside perspective on plans and strategies that work, and don’t. After reading that, do you feel more, or less confident with the Oilers development process? Personally I’m not feeling great about it.

A big thanks to Jackie for taking the time to answer those questions. Her insight is a resource, and I’m happy to have the chance to share it.

If you want to see some of her work talking prospects, she can be found at Burgundy-Rainbow and occasionally MileHighHockey.

And of course, if you have any further questions for her, or if you’re just a person from the internet who enjoys telling people how wrong they are, she is quite active on twitter @Tigervixxxen. I hope everyone enjoyed this.