With the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, the Ryan Strome for Ryan Spooner trade, the Chris Wideman trade, the Oilers have made some serious changes in recent weeks. The focus seems to have shifted to Peter Chiarelli — where it’s belonged for a long time — and as a result of all that attention, there’s something that I’ve been thinking about that hasn’t been getting the same amount of attention — the prospects in the AHL.
It’s understandable that this hasn’t been getting much attention, the farm team is in California, there are bigger story lines, and the biggest of all, this having actual prospect thing is a very new situation for Oilers fans. For years our AHL team has been a place to dump veterans, to keep players out of sight and out of mind, and rarely for what the team is actually supposed to be used for — creating NHL players.
Now, we’re actually in that situation. Our top prospects are playing top minutes, and by all accounts, they’ve been excelling in the role. Take a look at the stats here. Rookies Tyler Benson and Cameron Hebig are leading the team in scoring, at just about a point-per-game pace, defenseman Caleb Jones has 11 points in 16 games as the best blue-liner down there and is starting to get some recognition, and maybe it’s about time to get at least one of them into some NHL experience.
As I’m typing this, I can already hear the concerns about rushing players. As I’ve stated before, I find the rushing talk to be largely unfounded, but also, because I find value in talking to people who have a passion for development and watch the AHL closely, I think we’re at the point where some NHL experience can start paying dividends in getting these guys closer to being NHL regulars.
Just to be clear, I am not advocating that the Oilers call up all of these players at once and keep them the whole year. As Ken Hitchcock said last night, some things can’t be taught or even evaluated properly in the AHL. Each of these players are going to have individual flaws and issues to work on, the best way to assert those, and give specific areas to work on is going to be seeing how they can play among NHL competition. Maybe what Hebig, Benson, and Jones are doing to dominate the AHL, isn’t going to transfer as well to the big leagues. These are issues that need to be denied, confirmed, or targeted very early on. The NHL is the place to do that.
They don’t even necessarily need to get into a game or play big minutes for there to be value in a call-up. You certainly don’t want a situation where a player is called up, stays for a month and plays two games, but a week of NHL practices, with expected reassignment can do wonders. Not only does it show the player what he needs to work on, it also helps the culture on the farm team.
AHL practices are not the same animal as an NHL one. By bringing up AHL players here and there, it motivates those players to continue working that hard when they’re sent back down. These guys make around $70k all season in the AHL, and close to $15k for one week on the NHL roster. If you don’t think it’s encouraging for a player to know he’s on the radar, and that getting a taste of an NHL paycheck is more motivating than big AHL minutes, I suggest you repeat the 2nd grade just to make sure you’re truly ready for the 3rd.
I think right now would be a perfect time to start cycling through these guys to target what needs improvement. To get to that conclusion, I’m making a few assumptions. I think that under Ken Hitchcock, the Ty Rattie experiment is on it’s last stand, and I expect he’ll be waived shortly. With Tobias Rieder out for the next two weeks, there is a roster spot available without having to waive anyone further, and that any of these players are going to be an upgrade on both Patrick Russell, and Ryan Spooner. If these assumptions are true, then right now is the perfect opportunity to get a player up and see how they look, even if it’s only for a week, and with limited minutes.
Ideally, one of these players can step up near the end of the season. After the trade deadline teams cant call up players whenever they want like they can right now, and now that it’s pushing December, it’s time to take notice. In a perfect world, the Oilers are close to the playoffs near the deadline, and instead of trading players and picks for rental garbage that we can’t afford to re-sign next season, we can call-up one of these players for the last push. Either they’re playing in garbage time and learning in games that don’t matter, or they’ve had enough target flaws worked out and can make a material impact on a team trying to win games. It’s a no-lose situation.
I know fans are going to be against this idea, but it’s what the good teams like Tampa Bay and Boston do both frequently, and successfully. The NHL shouldn’t be used as a full-time development league, of course, but it is partially.
The Oilers would get ripped on social media by people who are actively looking for excuses to paint them in negative light, but in the case, it’s a matter of doing what teams who do development well do; The team should ignore the backlash, and do it anyway. There isn’t always going to be a time where top-6 positions can be shared like they can right now, it’s a waste of an opportunity to not give some of our future a look there. They’re playing as scorers in the AHL, that’s where you want to target them for the NHL. Now is the time.