Prospects, Like Fine Red Wine, Take Time

We’re in this interim between the draft and the Capitals’ July Development Camp (mercifully, a period lasting little more than two weeks), and with the arrival in town soon of so many recently drafted prospects, it seems an appropriate time to map out what I regard as a fair and accurate timetable for hockey fans to await the arrival of promising youth to the parent club.
I do this because, as is the case with every draft season, a fair swath of fans get a case of the vapors when they take stock of a draft asset three or four years removed from his selection, and still in development; and swept up in message board madness, are therefore inclined to judge him “a bust.”
Let’s start out by stating the obvious: it ain’t easy projecting the NHL bona fides of 18-year-olds. More on that, as it relates to one Vincent Lecavalier, in a minute.
But let’s first address what I call the One-Tenth of One Percent Club. Your Ovechkins. Your Lemieuxs. Your Stamkoses. They don’t arrive every year, but when they do they seriously outclass their draft class. As 18-year-olds, they’re going straight to the NHL, to shine on a first line. They are very rare — the drafting exception. Here’s how rare a specimen Ovie was: a majority of NHL scouts, taking stock of his 18-point performance at the World Under-20s in 2001, thought him easily capable of taking regular — and impact — shifts in the NHL as a 16-year-old then. Again, though, this is the uber-exception, the cream of the elite crop. Most often at the very top of NHL drafts are really nice hockey players who need more CHL or European pro league seasoning.
So what happens with your more typical top-of-the-class blue-chippers, rest-of-the-first-round fellas, year in and year out? A few will require only a single additional year or two of competition in the Canadian Major Juniors. Think Karl Alzner (who likely would have earned a Caps’ sweater for a round two of the NHL playoffs this spring had the Caps prevailed in game 7 against Philly). If he’s a Euro lottery gem like Nicklas Backstrom, an additional year in his country’s top professional league before coming over. But again, we’re still discussing the cream of every draft crop and the odd exception to the general rule: even really terrific hockey prospects take time to develop. Ninety-plus percent of NHL first-rounders will require marinating in juniors and minor pro leagues, or on campus and then the minors, for years.
I mentioned Vinny Lecavalier earlier. He was drafted first overall in 1998. Tampa, then a league doormat, needed some star-buzz-Mojo in its lineup, and fairly forced the young Qu?©b?©cois into the NHL at 18. He scored a grand total of 13 goals during 1998-99. It’s almost beyond dispute that Vinny would have been better served with an additional year (or two) of development before hitting the bigs.
The next three seasons, Lecavalier notched between 23-25 goals; talk of “draft bust” necessarily followed, widely and loudly.
Then in 2002-03 Vinny hit 33 goals. He followed that with 32 in the ’03-’04 campaign, which culminated with Tampa winning the Cup. Vinny played an important role in the Cup win, but he certainly wasn’t regarded as a stud. Some no. 1 overall, huh?
But a funny thing happened when Lecavalier returned from the lockout, some seven years after his drafting: he was still developing as a big-leaguer! In 2006-07 Lecavalier recorded his break-through, superstar season: 52 goals — nearly 10 years after he was drafted. These days, Lightning ownership is discussing inking Vinny to a lifetime contract.
How’s that for patience? Anybody talking about Vinny being a bust of a no. 1 now?
So with non-lottery picks, almost always, years and years of development are commonly required. Let’s cite Eric Fehr, since he’s a bit of a flashpoint for the with-vapors crowd. When Fehr was drafted in 2003, both Director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney and GM George McPhee swiftly, publicly, established his requiring years more development just in Canadian Major Juniors. And Fehr rewarded the Caps’ plan of patience. He notched consecutive 50-plus-goal campaigns with Brandon of the WHL.
It’s instructive at this point to note that even a veteran bluechipper of a WHLer doesn’t waltz into the American Hockey League and command a first-line perch. The ‘A’ is a pro league of men, and at 20 or 21, CHL graduates — even distinguished ones — are raw meat for the grizzled grist of the last-chance-or-bust bus league. I know this doesn’t conform with message boards’ demand of immediate gratification, but it’s a reality of real-world hockey life.
So Fehr acquitted himself modestly well in 2005-06, his rookie season in pro hockey, potting 25 goals. In ’06-’07 Fehr was hampered by injuries, but still he managed 22 goals in just 40 games with the Bears. He was, in just his second year of pro hockey, a point-per-game player. At the age of 22.
How about Brooks Laich, an ’01 draftee? After he was drafted by Ottawa in ’01 he spent an additional two full years in the CHL. Then he apprenticed in the ‘A’ for more than 120 games. He put up a grand total of 15 goals in more than 140 games with the Capitals between 2005-07. Some return for Peter Bondra, right? Well let’s see if the Caps regard him as a bust, seven summers removed from his draft year, during new contract negotiations this summer.
Brooks Laich is the norm in NHL development. Mike Green is not.
In 2004 the Caps drafted Minnesota prospect Travis Morin in the ninth round. He enjoyed an All American-caliber career at Minnesota State before signing with the Caps. His name was even discussed in association with the Hobey Baker award his final two seasons with the Mavericks. It’s irrelevant to me if Morin sees a single day of NHL duty in his pro hockey career. Finding that quality that late in any draft is a sure sign of scouting deftness. If the Caps’ scouts are going to uncover Hobey Baker candidate prospects once in a blue moon in a seventh or ninth round of the draft, I say (1) keep the scouts and (2) give them raises. It isn’t the job of your NHL scouts to develop Matt Pettinger into a consistent 20-goal scorer; that’s Matt Pettinger’s job.
So what is a general development formula for draft picks? I’d offer two years of additional CHL development after draft selection, a stint of at least two years, on average, in the ‘A,’ and then, potentially, graduation to 4th line minutes with the big club — and that’s if you’re a bluechipper. Not a stud, but a bluechipper. And no development-impairing injuries like we saw with Fehr or Nolan Yonkman, or else the timetable gets adjusted outward.
If you’re a U.S. collegian, 3-4 years on campus and at least 1-3 years in minor pros. That’s the norm. Joe Finley’s getting at least a full season in Hershey after having spent four years at one of the premier college hockey programs in America, and likely one season plus with the Bears. And he was a first-rounder. Guys like Phil Kessel (a serious bluechipper) who shortcut it just don’t seem to have made wise choices.
For Euros, well, there’s wide variance in the caliber of competition from league to league, but with a good prospect like Anton Gustafsson we ought to expect another year sub-Swedish Elite League season and at least one year in the Elite before we see him. He’d also have to stay healthy for those two years. A year in Hershey afterward probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

This entry was posted in Brooks Laich, DraftGeek, Entry Draft, Eric Fehr, Joe Finley, Karl Alzner, Morning cup-a-joe, Prospects, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Prospects, Like Fine Red Wine, Take Time

  1. To continue Pucks’ wine-prospects analogy: Some wines are thought to be better in their youth & to have better aging potential than they really have. And no matter how long they mature, some just turn brownish and flat rather than maturing into quality beverages (c.f. Jakub Cutta). So it’s important to make good early assessments, but the results are hard to verify for a while.
    OK, my analogizing muscles are a bit worn out now. 🙂

  2. Greg says:

    Great article.
    Just to add:
    Fehr missed a full year due to injury so it is hard to say he failed to meet expectations. Being out for that long and not being able to do much of anything when he was still developing set him back a bit. So any expectations placed on him for this past season should have been minimal if anything.

  3. Ben says:

    Just want to point out: you lament fans for labeling kids as busts too soon. Yet Phil Kessel gets the implicit “bust” label for shortcutting AHL seasoning. He’s from the Backstrom draft. Why you hatin’ on the Kess-man??

  4. James says:

    Good blog. Vinny has been signed by the Lightning for that lifetime. TB has loved him since the begining, even more for bringing the cup home and still do after finishing last this past season.

  5. Lee (PTO) says:

    I wonder if Vinny’s recovered from that beating he took in the 2nd-to-last regular season game? Cooke blew him up on, what I thought was, a shady play near the bench. We really needed that game though, and the Bolts folded like Origami after they lost him…

  6. TG says:

    So you mean that people should remember that Emminger is only 24? Or that Green, Morrisonn, etc. are all just kids? Whoa, logic being used. I gotta restart my brain here. I’m not used to fans thinking/acting rationally…

  7. Burgh says:

    I think that fans have also been spoiled of late with a surge of young draftees making the bigs (and making an impact) almost immediately. It’s difficult, especially as a fan of a rebuilding team, to be patient for highly acclaimed youngsters to contribute.

  8. Rage says:

    Lee: Cooke didn’t touch Vinny. Lecavalier was blown up by his own man. Let’s not go down this road again.
    P&B: I disagree with you regarding Morin. If the guy was a Hobey Baker candidate, it’s not like the scouts slept on his ability. People knew about him and chose not to draft him. Now, if he makes it to the NHL, you can say our scouts did a better job evaluating his ceiling than others. But that they found him in the 9th could indicate a host of things (including a willingness to place faith in college awards such as the HB) other than/including excellence.
    Let’s not forget that we continue to see high to mid draft picks cut by this team. Stephen Werner (3rd rounder, if I remember correctly) being the latest.

  9. pepper says:

    There seems to be more pressure than ever on recent draftees as a result of the cap, as clubs are expecting more great things from entry-level deal years.

  10. Pepper, you make a good point, and one that I think is all the more relevant in the salary cap era. Teams are under more pressure to have early performers on the roster — to keep high-end players, teams will continue to need youngsters contributing significantly while their salaries are low.
    Ben, I don’t interpret the post to be labeling Kessel a bust. Rather, Kessel is a solid player but one who would have benefited from a year or two of seasoning before being thrust into a prominent NHL role. We’ve seen it before, and close to home — Zubrus, for instance, was rushed into action far too soon by Philly at age 18, and it took him a very long time to become a consistent contributer (in fact it was well after Philly gave up on him). I think to this day that Zubrus would have been a better overall player at 20 or 21 had the Flyers been patient… and likely he’d still be wearing black & orange had they given him time to develop.

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