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Discussion Fodder: On NHL Prospects, Rushed and Ripened

There are many different reasons prospects are wherever they are at a given moment. As fans, we use all of them. And we make millions on the stock market.

In the shadow of greats, they're on their way.
In the shadow of greats, they're on their way.
Mike Stobe

In the recent THN Future Watch issue, which we talked about some in this post, there was another article of interest by Matt Larkin that offered a little management perspective for impatient, prospect-watching fans. It has to do with the many routes to the NHL a prospect can take.

The overriding question, contrasting Alex Galchenyuk (drafted last summer), Jonathan Huberdeau (a regular a year after his draft) and Mark Scheifele (returned to juniors a second post-draft season): Why do some highly regarded prospects make the jump immediately, while others take a year or more?

Every fan of every team wants to think their prospects should be ready -- and now -- especially when they look at the best examples on other teams. But you know the reasons for these varied paths are many. Among them:

  • Draft Day projection does not always match that player's progress at a given point in development (e.g. A reach, a bust, a surprise, an injury, a hole in his game, etc.)
  • Some skill sets are more apt than others to serve NHL purposes while the prospect rounds out the rest of his game.
  • The team sees a role for a prospect he is not yet ready to fill.
  • Simple asset management and shuffling of spots on the roster. (e.g. "Could this kid fill role X now, while filling role Y later? Yes. But we already have a guy filling role X.")

To the perception vs. current progress argument, THN paraphrased one exec: "A 22-year-old, drafted out of junior as a teenager, is considered slow-developing, whereas a 24-year-old out of college is often viewed as a great young find."

The article quotes Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff emphasizing: "People have to realize, as does everyone, that each individual develops differently."

But the anonymous executive quote I found most relevant of all to the never-ending prospect-gazing we do as fans:

...sometimes it doesn't matter what the front office thinks of a prospect. If the player doesn't do the little things to earn his coach's trust, he won't play. "You can explain to them as many times as you want that this kid is ready to play, he's mature ... but until your coach buys in and believes it, the kid really has no opportunity to play because you're not on the bench with him telling him which situations he should be playing in."

Just food for thought. Prospects remind me of stocks, because at any moment in time -- though particularly in their draft year -- there are varying opinions of a prospect's (or stock's) present and future based on a mix of conventional wisdom, aggregate "principles" or best practices, and insider information that may or may not have filtered out to the public.

Last year we saw Nino Niederreiter, compounded by two injuries, never earn his coach's trust. This year we saw Ryan Strome never get that chance beyond the abridged training camp. Next year we'll likely see both of them bidding for full-time work, no prospect strings attached. (Fittingly, Nino's bad and unlucky rookie year was a perfect storm of all of the themes mentioned above.)

This topic is on the mind in the wake of the Sabres deciding to return Mikhail Grigorenko to his junior team -- a controversial decision since they'd already kept him in the NHL long enough to "burn" the first year of his Entry Level Contract.

But really, if the Sabres have now decided he's better suited to play out 2013 in juniors, it shouldn't matter that the ELC has already kicked in. That's a sunk cost regardless.

Meanwhile, after Lindy Ruff's firing in Buffalo, Grigorenko's ice time dropped considerably under the new coach. Whether this is an example of the above quote -- "until your coach buys in and believes it, the kid has no opportunity to play" -- or simply the whole Sabres organization re-evaluating where Grigorenko stands, the end result is the same: The Sabres think he's best served back in juniors. Doesn't mean he won't be a good NHLer. Doesn't mean his growth has stalled. Just means the organization thinks this move is best for him and them at this moment in time.