It was fun and amusing for me over the past 10 days to survey various message boards and Tweets for hard and fast assessments of Capitals’ prospects participating in the team’s development camp. Also, newspaper accounts themed in kind. Blogs, not so much. A few observers seemed to have it about right with respect to the formality of the event — it’s not unimportant by any means, but it bears precious little relationship to the Capitals’ opening night roster for 2010-11.
Some, however, seemed to attach vast and even defining meaning to the appearances of individual camp participants, as if somehow Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 3-pt. performance in a July scrimmage — on a sheet of ice comprised of no small number of unsigned hockey talents, and even a high schooler or two — was somehow indicative of his being an outsider candidate to crack the Caps’ roster.
It was especially peculiar for me to encounter no small segment of the professional press covering camp according it the distinction of a quasi formal audition for opening night, say by 2009 first-round pick Marcus Johansson, for instance. Maybe Johansson makes the club this fall (personally I doubt it). More likely, history suggests, he does not. But what he did the past week at Kettler wasn’t going to determine it. How he looks in September’s exhibition games certainly will.
In these press accounts there seemed to be little if any appreciation for the fact that the 19-year-old, unlike his countryman pivot Nicklas Backstrom, wasn’t a lottery pick. He was drafted far closer to the second round than the lottery. Players drafted late in the first round are done so most often for this reason: they aren’t impact players. Most often, they take years to develop merely into the role of NHL contributors. A Patrice Bergeron is very much an outlier.
This is not to single out Johansson or any other talent who participated in camp for criticism. It just seemed to me that as an event this particular camp garnered a bit of a coverage frenzy (largely on line) that was disproportionate to its actual importance. And that’s a wonderful thing for heatwave-suffering puckheads in D.C. this summer — so long as some perspective is maintained. This new-found interest in what Joe Finley thought of as “conditioning camp” I think is a reflection of how far digital coverage of this organization has evolved in just the past two or three years.
Local print and to some extent broadcast media had to cover development camp as if jobs were going to be won or lost because for Caps’ bloggers and other new media mavens this fun event was simply that — fun, and therefore worthy of spirited coverage. To not contribute to the BYOB camp party was to be, in effect, marginalized media.
But development camp as an initial job interview? Not uh. Jobs are on the line with fall camp. In July, kids come to D.C. to skate Herbies, learn how to eat, learn how to train, and play paintball or take in a ballgame together. For the region’s hockey fans, it’s a modest oasis in the puck-parched calendar of middle summer.
It wasn’t all that long ago that to find insight and detail about a development camp’s developments you had to meander through the threads of the Capitals’ message forum at Hockey’s Future. I was in there a bit last week, rummaging around, finding what I usually do: some clever and astute observations, a fair bit of snark, some sentiments that struck me as ill-formed relative to what I’d heard from Capitals’ and Hershey Bears’ officials. Basically, what I thought I’d find. But I was also struck by how influential local digital voices (bloggers, Tweeters, and Flickr snappers) had become for the ‘Net’s premiere prospect site. What was once a chamber of distinctly individualized opinion not necessarily shaped and supplemented by a variety of respected media vantages has evolved into a more significant (highly links laden), more erudite outpost of prospect passion. This, too, makes development camp fun.
Here’s how I view Development Camp: an exercise in identifying, perhaps just partially, what skills a player has in his toolbox. At a camp you can tell whether or not a player has an NHL shot, whether or not he can stickhandle in the proverbial phone booth. So three summers back, for instance, I was certain that Mathieu Perreault possessed NHL playmaker tools and hockey sense, but that he also needed a few seasons in professional development (the ‘A’) before we could plausibly posit whether or not he’d one day wear a Caps’ sweater. Some then who watched him at development camp merely looked at his small stature and wrote him off. George McPhee and Doug Yingst certainly didn’t.
I treat development camp as something more than hockey’s equivalent of pickup hoops on a city blacktop but a whole lot less than a training camp scrimmage. It’s partially a puck party for under-agers, hockey’s Sweet Sixteen affair. Only Roman Polanski would pick a bride from a Sweet Sixteen Saturday night.
An illustration of the patience typically required for player development. There was a defenseman in the late 90’s in the American League who played in Kentucky. Incredibly tall, kind of gangly, almost looked like Bambi on ice trying to keep up and learn the speed of the AHL. First year there was rough, second year was much better, and by year three, he was ready for prime time. But he needed three years of development in the ‘A.’ One scout in particular was known to scoff at him back throughout 1997, saying he’d never develop and didn’t think he’d amount to much, and in truth he was still developing in the ‘A’ in 1999. You might have heard of the player. His name is Zdeno Chara.