The game of hockey continues to evolve and sports fans everywhere are getting more of what they love every year. This undeniable truth lies in the stories of each and every young prospect, beginning from the moment they step on the rink, to the moment their name gets called at the NHL Entry Draft. Once stardom breaks loose, the tales of their every move are recorded, commentated and glorified, but it’s the journey between pain and power, that’s rarely ever told. Let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?
Hockey last year is different than hockey now and hockey now will be different than hockey next year. Thanks to the technological advances that face the world, this beautiful sport is gaining momentum from coast to coast and now, overseas. That being said, keeping up the pace with such change isn’t an easy job. Winning the championship once doesn’t create a blueprint to win it again and winning it twice, requires a brand new strategy. Amongst these changes, includes differing management structures, player development systems and European styles-of-play.
In a nutshell, running a successful franchise involves a lot of moving facets, including the production of positive operating profits. To achieve this though, franchises are turning athletes into assets and it all starts with their scouting department. We already know what their function is; to accumulate assets for management - and so their only hope of achieving sustainability, is if they can scout players at an exceptional rate. The solution is a player development system that produces high-calibre talent consistently.
All general managers have a different method for building their personally chosen roster. Obviously, the end goal - besides winning the Stanley Cup, is profiting. A player’s projected value can be derived from a number of factors and the end result is never known for sure, but rather, it’s predicted. The skill of predicting how a player will pan out is a learned skill, gained through the combination of experience and a keen eye. For clubs to get the most bang for their buck, players needs to reach asset-labeling qualifications as soon as possible.
For players who are starting to consider which path to take in their pursuit to the NHL, they need to look at the potential benefits to be gained, for each differing route.
Taking the Major Junior route gives players an opportunity to get drafted to the NHL in two years, whereas the College route requires four, before they can become draft eligible.
In terms of projected value, players taking the NCAA route are already at a disadvantage, compared to their Major Junior counterparts because of this two-year difference and here’s why. Let’s take a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets for a moment. One of their objectives over the next few years is to add defensive depth, so they drafted six defensemen from five different countries at the 2015 NHL Draft:
1. Zach Werenski is an American player and one of two 17-year-olds to play for the USA U20 team at the 2015 World Junior Championship. He also played for Team Grier at the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
2. Gabriel Carlsson is a Swedish player who currently plays for Linköping (SHL) and played in 17 games for them last year. He also played for Sweden’s U18 team in the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and the 2015 World Junior Championship.
3. Sam Ruopp is a Canadian player who played for the Prince George Cougars (WHL). As the team’s Captain, he became the second-leading scorer amongst defensemen and racked up 140 penalty minutes last year. He was also a re-entry pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.
4. Veeti Vainio is a Finnish player currently playing for the Blues (JCWC) and played for their U20 team last year. He also played on Finland’s U18 team at the 2014 Hlinka Memorial tournament.
5. Vladislav Gavrikov is a Russian player who currently plays for Kokomotiv, Yaroslavl (KHL) and was a re-entry pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.
6. Markus Nutivarra is another Finnish player and re-entry pick at the 2015 NHL Draft in his fourth year of eligibility.
When the Blue Jacket’s General Manager, Jarmo Kekäläinen was deciding on which defensemen to select, he weighed the benefits each player brought to the table and youthfulness was a major one. Why? Players under the age of 25 have an improved ability to take hits without incurring injury. During the 2014-15 season, the hockey club stacked up 15 injuries amongst 12 players (not including goalie injuries) and 83 percent of them happened to guys 25 and older.
How can this information benefit players in the Draft War Room though? Guys who get drafted at the age of 18 have seven years before we can expect them to start racking up injuries and this provides the added benefit of a decreased likelihood to get injured during their prime years. This is a window of opportunity for both the player and the team.
Every player on the roster serves a specific purpose and each player is assigned a specific role. Quite often, players are assigned a role to play, based on their individual abilities.
Therefore, players who take the Major Junior route have an additional two years to play in roles that are prone to getting body checked. Consequently, general managers are more likely to invest time, money and resources into developing these players into such roles, because statistically speaking, they’ll last longer in them.
For the player, this diversifies their skill-set and in turn, increases their value over the long haul; it gives them more opportunities to aspire within the National Hockey League and therefore, when Jarmo was considering who he wanted to draft this year, age was of the essence.
Getting Ready To Play With The Big Boys
Zach Werenski was an easy pick for Columbus. Yes, getting the first fruits of the draft selection are no-brainer choices, but for Werenski, he had to think over some of his choices first, before he landed that eighth overall spot at the Draft. Zach fast-tracked his way through high school and graduated a year early, so he could become eligible to play for the University of Michigan (NCAA) in the 2014-15 season.
As you can see though, three of Kekäläinen’s picks weren’t the youngest of the crop (Sam Ruopp, Vladislav Gavrikov and Markus Nutivarra), yet Jarmo chose them anyways. Of these three prospects, none of them took the College route either, so if youthfulness wasn’t part of their benefit package, then what was?
Last year, the Prince George Cougars played a total of 72 regular season games and Ruopp played in 64 of them. Gavrikov played for Russia’s U20 team in the 2014 Subway Series, the 2015 World Junior Championship and 11 games with HK Ryazin (VHL), a minor league. For Nutivarra, even though he may have only played in 35 regular season games as a 20-year-old rookie with the Liiiga champion Karat Oulu, he was one of the few youngsters to get significant ice-time with a roster filled with veterans.
General Managers in the NHL want players who are ready for the professional leagues. Otherwise known as ‘NHL-ready’, these players have accumulated the most amount of experiences possible, that mimic the experiences they’d receive in the NHL. Playing a lot of games, against physically mature guys, who possess the world’s most adept hockey skills, are the benefits that matter to NHL general managers these days and thus, players need to build such experiences into their resume. When GM’s are about to make a pick at the Draft, they’re looking directly at the available options to them and the most viable ones become the ones with proven track records.
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