It is the season for families to unite, convene in good cheer and warm embrace and, over seasonal spirits and large-portion meals, share a year’s worth of trials and triumphs, and spiritedly debate politics and sports, and soon thereafter rupture in high-pitched acrimony and pride- and esteem-smarting dispute.
Ah, the holidays.
Without the spirits or nutrition — and also without the acrimony and certainly any lasting rupture — this reminiscence otherwise describes the Capitals’ digital family of bloggers and team officials and other hockey media convened on Twitter yesterday morning: A week early we had a holiday food fight. The source of the upheaval? Oh, a certain concern I may have articulated about a certain young Swedish center prospect (not Anton Gustafsson), in a little old low-production OFB video.
A quick summary of the kerfuffle: I am not seeing and appreciating the full impact of Marcus Johansson’s solitary point on the season, my Twitter chums in Capdom alleged; additionally — notwithstanding appearances to the contrary — he is actually developing in the big league quite nicely; additionally, I’d forgotten that one Nicklas Backstrom got off to a conspicuously slow start his NHL rookie season and well didn’t that adrift ship get route-righted alright (he earned Calder votes, you see); and for good measure, I’m a hater of MJ90 by virtue of my unbridled enthusiasm for the pivot prospect he displaced at training camp, Matty — MP85 in Twitter-speak.
No matter the dispute between us I genuinely love my Washington hockey family. Occasionally, though, tough love — via machete — must be administered.
The players involved in yesterday’s e-melee: Japer’s Rink; the Caps’ Mike Vogel and Nate Ewell; Comcast Sportsnet’s Corey Masisak; the Washington Times’ Ted Starkey; OFBers Andrew and Lis; my favorite Russian-American, Dmitry Chesnokov; and yours truly. Russian Machine forsaked the courage of its namesake and went Euro-pansy on me, staying far away from the fray. Or, they actually met the obligations of their professions during work hours.
My adversaries Thursday were quick to preface their counter-arguments against my call for MJ90’s assignment to the American League by claiming no bias against, nor elitist sensibility toward, our developmental professional circuit . . . before embarking on precisely just such attacks. There is of course nothing wrong with the American League, they intoned, though large point totals often accumulated there are seldom replicated upon promotion.
I have many thoughts — all flattering — about the American League, and foremost among them is this: it is a bus and Holiday Inn league, and as such has an intrinsic way of humbling those well-pedigreed hockey players who perhaps arrive to it a bit big in their britches. I needn’t remind you of Gabby’s affinity for the circuit; when on a couple of occasions this season he’s been asked by media about his pampered players perhaps being fatigued from consecutive nights’ exertions, he quickly and derisively reminded: In the ‘A,’ it’s three games on weekends, with little-frills travel between each . . . don’t talk to me about fatigue.
As a matter of principle then, borne out of a conviction that the most humble hockey players make for the best hockey players in a room, I support a formula that posits that, give or take a few, approximately 45 of every 50 players an NHL team drafts and signs ought to apprentice in the ‘A.’ Not your lottery-elite like Ovi or Nicky, but absolutely the vast majority of your prospects. Including even Captain America. Call it initiation, call it a rite of passage, but the AHL almost since its formation has had a durable and unassailable role in forging quality-career NHLers.
It is never a bad thing to assign a player there. It is hardly a black mark upon a player’s career. It is not a colonoscopy curiously administered to 20-year-olds. Moreover, in weighing whether or not to assign, say with respect to an especially gifted young prospect who’s otherwise physically mature enough major pro hockey, I say err on the cautious side of affording him additional development shifts in the world’s greatest development league. History shows: he’ll thank you for it later.
To be clear: my position as articulated on OFB TV after the Buffalo game wasn’t that MJ90 was already a dismal failure or doomed to an underwhelming career here. Rather, I expressed (1) a sense that his was an aberrational development path to the big league, relative to those taken by the overwhelming majority of Capitals’ prospects on George McPhee’s watch, including more than a few (like say Alex Semin) drafted with widely acknowledged expectations of surefire stardom; and (2) that there is grave risk in short-circuiting this traditional path, in illustration of which I alluded to Dainius Zubrus.
In a dispute it is always wise to seek out areas of consensus. As it relates to the development of a pro hockey prospect, I think we might all agree that the shortest route to the NHL is enjoyed by what might be termed your Tier I prospects: Typically, your lottery picks. Tier Is are also represented by those players who occasionally slip out of the lottery and are often diminished in the eyes of scouts by virtue of the league they skate in. So for instance John Carlson I’d identify as a Tier I prospect despite his being lodged well down in round one when the Capitals selected him. Had he skated for the London Knights instead of in the USHL his draft year he most assuredly would not have fallen out of the top 10.
Carlson is particularly apt in this discussion. When he skated on the Bears’ blueline in the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs scouts and writers were uniformly of the opinion that he was then an impact talent for the parent club. Still the Caps cooked him in the ‘A’ an additional season.
Prominent in both the OFB TV segment and in sentiment articulated by the family in my corner on Twitter yesterday was the theme of the importance of confidence in a young hockey player. The downside, such as it is, of “overcooking” a prospect in the ‘A’ is that at some point he rises well above his competition and hogs the league’s scoresheets. (Perhaps, you might say, like with Matty this past Sunday night.) What a problem for a prospect and his drafting club to have. I’m quite certain that in the Swedish Elite League Marcus Johansson skated with and against outstanding competition. I’m also quite certain he did not commonly share ice with players the caliber of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Steven Stamkos. Moreover, he groomed his outstanding game on a sheet of ice appreciably larger than those of North American pro hockey. Capitals’ management this past offseason seemed uber convinced that a few passes around Kettler in late summer and some NHL exhibition games ought to afford the kid experience enough in that transition. I wonder.
Again, the family argument here isn’t one of Johansson’s looking laughably out of place; instead, it’s whether or not he’s polished enough a pro to assume the rights and responsibilities of skating 15 minutes a night with a Stanley Cup contender. It is with that contender status observation in mind that I appreciated this sentiment articulated in my corner of our family dispute: growing pains associated with the lottery pick Backstrom might have been appropriate on that 2008 Capitals’ club, regarded by no one in hockey as a Cup contender; but should there be a conspicuous apprenticeship on a 2010-11 club — who should they fail calamitously again next spring will occasion actual hurled knives at our summer reunion?