Monday, April 21, 2008
Winning vs Development
One debate I've seen being hotly debated on various message boards recently has to do with the role of a farm team. Depending on who is arguing, some people believe the primary reason the farm team exists is for long term player development while others feel the goal is the same at any other level, to win.
Personally I think the answer is pretty obvious but for the sake of being thorough and trying to see things from all angles, here's a list of all the possible reasons for having a farm team that I can think of and the argument that goes with it.
1) Player Development - The AHL, and to a lesser extent the ECHL, is the league directly beneath the NHL and the destination for players not good enough or ready yet for the top league in the world. It provides NHL teams with a place for them to assign players to prepare and improve their game so that when they do get called up to the NHL, they are ready to contribute. It also provides an avenue for European players to make an adjustment to North American rinks and style of play, although it's an option that few Euros deem beneficial compared to playing professionally at home. Development takes precident over winning.
2) To Win the League Title - The Calder Cup is the prize at the end of the AHL playoffs, the Kelly Cup for the ECHL. The object of sport is to win and win at all costs. The team owes it to the fans that buys the tickets to ice the team that has the best chance to win games, regardless of who those players are.
3) Furthering Hockey - The minor leagues provide the NHL with an opportunity to spread the gospel of hockey to non-hockey markets.
That's about all I've been able to come up with and I think you can eliminate #3 as potentially being the primary reason farm teams exist. So it comes down to one of the first two and in my mind it's painfully obvious that #1 far outweighs #2.
Fans in Manchester or Springfield or Stockton might disagree with me but lets be honest. Winning is great but it better not be coming at the expense of the development of an organization's top NHL prospects.
"Development is the number one thing, Guy" said a NHL executive when I asked the question, "Especially in today's game when you look at the young players who are stepping in and contributing, you need to have a good feeder system for those guys."
That doesn't mean that winning isn't important but it is definitely secondary. The best case scenario is that a championship team is made up of top prospects so that there is a ton of development going on while the fans and minor league affiliate can celebrate the victory. The Hamilton Bulldogs (see photo) are a perfect example; defending AHL champs that had several players who are now with the Montreal Canadiens this year including playoff MVP Carey Price.
"That's why [farm] teams have the veteran players that they do down there," said the NHL exec., "Those vets understand what their role is, not to put the screws to the young players but to be leaders and role models and stuff like that."
To take the argument a step further... from the NHL organization's perspective would winning with career minor leaguers be worse than losing with the players you draft and want to see develop into future NHL players?
"You want your players to get the playing time," came the answer, "You hope you do a good enough job putting the puzzle pieces together because you want to win, every coach and player wants to win, but at the same time you want to make sure your players get better. They don't get better by sitting in the pressbox or playing on the fourth line [in the NHL.]"
So if winning with your youth is the absolute best thing that can happen, losing while your prospects don't play would have to be considered the worst case scenario because then nobody benefits.
I'll leave you with this thought: Ryan O'Marra dressed for just 2 games combined in March and April during Springfield's playoff stretch drive. A former 1st round pick, although not one Edmonton made, who is deemed to have a NHL future did not receive valuable development time during pressure situations in the last month and a half of the AHL schedule.
Was Ryan O'Marra handled properly in 2007-08?
That will be adressed in a blog entry in the near future and the answer is a lot more complicated than you might think.