Islanders Recall Joensuu; More on Aaron Ness Leaving Gophers

As suspected when he wasn't in the Bridgeport lineup last night, Jesse Joensuu has been recalled and was skating on a line with Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey in practice today. (Matt Martin dropped back to the fourth line.) Seems we bring this up every time a Finn Named Jesse makes his return, but he has often been open about having three years to make a go of it here, and we are nearing the end of Year 3. His ELC ends this summer, after which the Islanders can elect whether to qualify the RFA.

This is debatable, but to me Joensuu's shown marginal progress just about each time he's returned -- albeit with natural fits and starts -- so I hope he gets regular reps next to Comeau and Bailey for one more look now that the lines have stabilized. It's not that I think he's some dynamite power forward-in-waiting, but I do think he might still become a useful NHL player, and I don't advocate the casting away of cheap, useful players.

Our resident Scandinaviophile David Hanssen made that case more passionately back in January, but in short: I think three years is sort of a false and short deadline for the development of a big-bodied 23-year-old. (He turns 24 in October.)

More on Aaron Ness: Thoughts from a College-Following Isles Fan

After the jump, please check out my exchange with Adam Wodon, a writer for the New York Hockey Journal and managing editor for College Hockey News, about Aaron Ness' game, his decision to leave college, and on the development route of college in general.

Seems any time the topic of a college player comes up here, I end up exchanging thoughts with Wodon, who covers college hockey and happens to be an Isles fan, too. (Here are his recent NYHJ pieces on Andrew MacDonald's "warrior" mentality and on John Tavares liking Long Island. He was also the author of that piece I referenced earlier this week, an interview with Don Lucia on developing players. So that's a window into his perspective.)

Personally, as someone whose hockey radar is about 95% focused on the NHL, I take a very utilitarian view of college hockey: I want it to be healthy overall and I sympathize with major juniors teams picking off its players, but when it comes to Islanders prospects I just want what's best for the Islanders and their prospects. A three-year contract is not an insignificant investment in a player, no matter what his projection. So when a player like Ness signs my question isn't only, "Is he ready?" but also, "Is this the right investment for the Isles?"

Anyway, because this topic always brings out a lot of opinions from a lot of different corners, I thought I'd pin down Wodon for some focused thoughts from the perspective of someone who thinks the "Minnesota holds you back" camp is off the mark, to say the least.

Note: These questions were exchanged via email. I have edited them to make us both sound like upstanding members of society.

LHH: First, your credentials sir: How much have you watched Ness play?

Wodon: I've seen him most weekends, because all Minnesota games are on TV -- via the dish.

 

LHH: Do you think he's ready for pro hockey?

Wodon: It depends on which level. I think he's more likely to spend time next season in the ECHL than the NHL, let's put it that way.

 

LHH: So you think he should have stayed in school?

Wodon: Absolutely. If a player is not ready, or almost ready, for the NHL, he should stay in school. There is no harm to staying in school, and it will probably benefit you. But there is a lot of harm that can come from leaving too soon. Ness has actually come a long way since his freshman year. You can't see it in points, but he's certainly improved. His game simply didn't translate from high school to college like many thought it would. At some point, it has to be about Ness, not whether Lucia "developed" him properly.

Remember, the Islanders drafted Ness after the Kyle Okposo thing. If they thought Lucia was that bad, they wouldn't have done that -- and they wouldn't have let him stay for two more years.

The NHL has a lot of people trying to do the right thing, but they see if from their lens. College players now are a very cheap way to fill out AHL rosters. All sorts of people are in the ears of college players telling them pie in the sky things about their future. Very few, if any, are telling them to stay in school. I don't say this because of academic reasons or some polyanna notion of the value of education..

---LHH interjection: Hey! It's not just polyanna about education! It's about the parties, and the girls, and putting things on YouTube that will never go away, and eating poorly while the body still feels indestructible -- everything in the strange four(ish) years where life is some alternate reality adult summer camp...--

Wodon continues:  ...I say this purely from a hockey standpoint. I don't buy, and never will, the idea that the AHL is a better development ground than NCAA hockey. The "more games" myth has been disproven time and again -- there are tons of 4-year college players who were undrafted who are now in the NHL making an impact. You learn, and there's something to be said for the leadership skills you gain by being a senior.

LHH: Examples...?

Wodon: Bobby Butler and Colin Greening are two very good examples of 4-year NCAA players who have jumped to the NHL this year and done well. There are many more. On the other hand, history is riddled with players who left too soon, never to be heard from again.

 

LHH: Fair enough. History is riddled with prospects who don't pan out, period, but I get your point. And really that's why if I were in the shoes of a very-much-might-miss prospect, I'd probably default toward finishing college.

Anyway, for those who say Lucia or "the program" is holding him back, can you explain why you think that's not right?

Wodon: I think this is absurd. In addition to my college hockey duties, I'm a lifelong Islanders fan, but I believe Garth Snow was wrong to have called out Lucia as he did when Kyle Okposo left. I understand why he did it -- he did it in reaction to what Lucia was saying at the time. But Lucia was only trying to defend Okposo from a lot of mad Gophers fans by putting it on the Islanders. So the whole thing was screwy.

Is it possible that, in the last few years, Minnesota's assistants are not as strong as they once were? Maybe. I don't know enough about Xs and Os and the inner workings of the program to know.

What I do know is this ... Don Lucia won 25 games per year at Colorado College without blue-chip talent. When he got to Minnesota in 1999, he completely rejuvenated the program by getting rid of the country club atmosphere that pervaded when he got there. He mixed enough lunchpail guys in with the blue chippers, and molded it together into a two-time national championship team.

Obviously, the Gophers have tailed off the last three years. But Lucia didn't all of a sudden become dumb. The "chatter" from the NHL side about Minnesota is nonsense -- and the same kind of nonsense that the Kings said about Red Berenson at Michigan. Lucia certainly didn't hinder the "development" of NHL defensemen like Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski.

What I do think happened - and certainly you can criticize Lucia for it - is Minnesota got caught with its pants down in the changing landscape of the new NHL collective bargaining agreement. Suddenly, all those blue chip players they used to get -- they'd come and go much more quickly.  Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Okposo, etc... They were in and out.  Having the pick of the litter wound up hurting more than it helped. Minnesota needs to change the kind of player it brings in -- at least somewhat.

But Lucia a bad coach? Bad at development? No.

*  *  *

Thanks to Adam for that. You can agree or disagree with any of the above. But since as with juniors and prospect talk there is always a range of opinions based on limited actual exposure, I thought it would be fun to get an angle from someone who follows the college game very closely.

By the way, it sounds like Ness' parting from Minnesota was amicable. Here is part of Lucia's statement:

“Aaron made tremendous strides this year physically and in the defensive part of his game," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "He was a terrific leader and you could count on him to be the hardest worker in practice and he competed hard in every game. At 20, he has a bright future ahead of him. We will miss Aaron, but appreciate all he did for Gopher hockey.”

And here is some of what Ness said [Star-Tribune] after his decision was announced:

"I had a great three years," Ness said. "And realistically, if I had to do it all over again," Ness said, "I would do the same thing. I had great coaches, great fans. Everything is put on a platter for you to succeed. I would have wanted to do better in the playoffs, to go further, but it happens."

And here is a little more from both at TwinCities.com, including a note about Ness' physical development.

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