The Kids Aren’t Alright

When they were young, their future was so bright; the old
core was still alive.  And every prospect
in the whole damn club was gonna make it big and not be a bust.

But Tony Gallagher said something the other day that I had to
agree with, which is funny since I don’t often find myself agreeing with the man, certain people around here call “Skeletor,” very often; mostly because I rarely read any of his work.  Needless to say, Gallagher had some concerns
on the ice time and development of prospects down in Utica, a similar train of
thought I’ve been having since covering the team closely last year.

Let’s dig into it some more shall we!

After last Saturday’s game against Detroit, Gallagher ominously predicted doom and gloom in the future of the Canucks, as he has often been one to do. One of his key quotes was as follows:

Brendan Gaunce is
destined to disappoint this management group because he’s somewhat like Zack
Kassian in many ways.  He’s a big body that doesn’t hit anyone and even
though he has a great set of hands, they’re going to want him to be bouncing
people around and that’s simply not his game. And given the kids don’t seem to be getting major league ice time down
in Utica — Hunter Shinkaruk has been scratched a couple of times and Nick
Jensen was announced as a scratch Saturday night but was most likely injured,
you wonder if anyone is going to develop down there with journeymen enjoying
the coach’s favour.

If the lack of ice time for Canucks prospects is true, then Gallagher’s words are something that should be concerning both
for Canucks fans, and for the team itself.  Now AHL Time on Ice (TOI)  is not publicly available, but we can estimate it using on-ice goals for and against.  Let’s have a look at the estimated TOI (eTOI) for the Utica Comets below.

2014-2015 Forwards

201415 forwards

2014-2015 Defencemen

201415 defence

With eTOIs, you want to mostly focus on the rank of the
players rather than the exact numbers used for their estimated minutes per game.  This method estimates ice time based on the
percentage of goals a player is on the ice for per game.  With only half of the AHL season played so far, you may see some funky numbers due to weird shooting percentages that have not yet
regressed.  

Special Teams can also affect
the overall times, but we have the ability to break that down into its components to compare PP, PK and ES on-ice
goals for/against.  Top end players typically
will be over-estimated, in terms of how much ice they see, and bottom-players are generally under-estimated – nonetheless this is
still a good indicator of who is being played the most.

When looking at the forwards and comparing it to what I have
seen at Utica Comets games, Cal O’Reilly and Dustin Jeffrey have typically been Utica’s first and second centres.  From the
prospect perspective, Alex Grenier and Nicklas Jensen usually float in the
middle-6.  Hunter Shinkaruk, Ronalds
Kenins and Alex Friesen typically are fixed on the third line, though Friesen has
been a healthy scratch similar to Mike Zalewski and Darren Archibald.  Brendan Gaunce is a fixture on the fourth
line with Wacey Hamilton and Carter Bancks, but that line seems to work well
together.  

Defence pairings get mixed up a fair amount, though Bobby
Sanguinetti and Alex Biega are usually on the top pairing.  Canucks prospect Frank Corrado is usually on
the second pairing, while the remainder of the defencemen are rotating in and out of the top-4.

Obviously, this is not a good sign as Vancouver’s prospects,
including their first round picks, are not getting heavy minutes from Travis Green.  If you believe that players will only improve with more ice time, this would indicate that the Comets could be developing Vancouver’s players more slowly than they should be. But, this tendency to lean on AHL vets could be a result of just one half season of data.  We can go back
and look at the 2013-2014 season to see if this is a pattern under Green.

2013-2014 Forwards

201314 forwards

There are similar issues here with Grenier, Jensen, and Archibald in middle-six roles, seeing occasional second line time.  The rest of Vancouver’s prospect forwards are in the bottom-6.

2013-2014 Defencemen

201314 defencemen

The defence corps was much weaker last year, so Corrado
actually spent more time on the top pairing with Biega, while the rest of Vancouver’s defence prospects were among the bottom-4 guys.

Discussion

So yes, it does look like Canucks prospects are not getting
key ice time in the AHL.  The AHL is a
development league, and while some clubs are privately owned and want to win to
make profit, this is not the case for Utica. 
The Canucks had this issue in Chicago where their prospects were not
being played over key veterans, (i.e. Matt Climie over Joe Cannata) and this is
why the left that affiliation to buy their own club.

This is where things start to become more opinion – we can quantify who is getting what ice time,
but the question becomes: is giving bottom-6 ice time to prospects, while veterans see heavy minutes, the best way to grow your prospects?

In a development league, prospects should be given ample time
to develop into NHLers.  The NHL idea to play
the better players more often shouldn’t necessarily follow in the AHL because the main goal for an NHL parent club is to use their farm team to develop,
not to win.  This looks to be the
opposite of what coach Travis Green is doing. 
Discussing this with other AHL observers, it seems there are a number of coaches who
do this; they give cushy ice time to the AHL veterans, over the prospects, to allow
them to win.  It is in Green’s personal best interest to win, as it will likely earn him a coaching ticket in the NHL faster
than losing but excelling in developing young players. If you need a close-to-home example, just look at how Willie Desjardins got a job after coaching up the Texas Stars.

Intuitively, it seems the best way to develop a player is to
give them as much ice time as they can handle. 
In order to grow, you need to constantly be challenged, but not be so
deep that you can’t deal with it.  By
giving your top prospects more ice time in a professional league, they are being played in more
situations across a larger variance of competition – both of which should help
challenge and grow a prospect.  Can you
do that with less ice time?  It seems possible, but the results may not be as good or come as quickly.

One person suggested to me that you should be developing
your prospects by playing them in the role they will eventually be in.  If Brendan Gaunce, for example, is to become a 4th
line forward in the NHL, then he should be played as a 4th line forward in the AHL.  The problem here is two-fold. First of all, the NHL is simply a way better league, and the competition level is extremely high.  In order to even play in the league, you need to practice against the toughest competition you possibly can.  Secondly, the purpose of your fourth line and your first line are the same at the core: help your team out-score the opposing team.  At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how this is accomplished, so long as it is accomplished, so whether or not a player plays a “fourth line style” or a “first line style” really doesn’t matter.  If they are good, those skills will translate to the NHL no matter their role.

One counter-point to the notion, that prospects should be given ice time to develop, is that ice time is something that has to be earned through merit, and Canucks prospects simply do not merit significant ice time.  At the end of the day, the AHL is still a development
league, and the Vancouver Canucks prime directive is to win a Stanley Cup.  For that, they need the best NHL players n years down the road. If a prospect is not “earning” AHL ice time, then that may just mean that they need more development.  It is NHL ice time that should be allocated based on merit, as NHL championships are the ones that matter the most.

When looking around the AHL, there is no definitive pattern to what other organizations are doing, so Vancouver is not a clear outlier.  Teams are using their prospects in various roles, from top minutes on the first line, to the middle-six like in Utica, or in purely bottom line roles to allow the veterans the plush time.  Prospect deployment is unique team by team and seems to vary depending on a number of factors and preferences.

When I saw this issue pop up last year, I didn’t think much
of it.  Vancouver has traditionally been poor at acquiring talent through the draft, and last year’s crop of Canucks prospects in Utica was hardly inspiring.  As it’s happening again with a more talented prospect crop, and
members of the mainstream media are commenting on it, I think the issue may be larger than I initially thought.  Turning prospects into NHLers is a two-sided coin with talent acquisition on one side and talent development on the other.  We know that acquisition has been a major issue, but development is much harder to pin down since it’s harder to determine what successful teams do and what poor teams don’t.  

With Vancouver purchasing Utica, with the express intent of giving more ice time to their top prospects, one would
think the Canucks would be managing their AHL club closer and correcting
this, unless their philosophy has significantly changed before last season, which is doubtful seeing as the same patterns have appeared under two different management regimes.  Yet, the more I work with
analytics in this sport, the more questionable decisions I see coming from management that seem to stem from the lack of knowledge or awareness of potential issues.

If the Canucks wish to give their prospects the best chance
of developing, and follow their own goals they outlined upon purchasing the Peoria Rivermen, and relocating them to Utica, then guys like Hunter Shinkaruk and Brenden Gaunce should be getting more ice time.  Are bottom-6 minutes the best way develop Vancouver’s
first round picks?  I lean towards no,
but there is still much debate at this point.

  • Britts94

    Another aspect is what happens to a team when a player sees icetime he clearly does not deserve.

    I watch a lot of games and Shink and gaunce has by no means deserved any more icetime. Can the dressing room handle that a lesser player gets PP time? How will a prospect react to getting ahead of a better player and will it give him a false idea of his own abilities?What reputation will this give the canucks?

    I tend to think that a prospect that cant outplay an AHL veteran may not be as good as we want him to be and has nothing to do in the NHL
    Jensen has played himself into a first line role and so can the other kids if they are good enhough.

    Is 3d line minutes in ahl better that 1st line minutes in ECHL?

  • Britts94

    As much as Josh’s prospect reports are some of the best pieces on this blog, I pretty much skip through the stuff about how well Utica is doing from a possession standpoint each week.

    I could care less about Utica winning.

    There are only a handful of “prospects” on the team – and I use that term generously.

    I really only care about how they perform.

    “Vancouver has traditionally been poor at acquiring talent through the draft, and last year’s crop of Canucks prospects in Utica was hardly inspiring. As it’s happening again with a more talented prospect crop”

    I will forgive the delusion since it must make one crazy to write about Canuck “prospects” every week…

  • Fred-65

    To become an NHL player one aspect you must aquire is becominmg a Pro. Look at Kassian who’s frankly drifted into the league on questionable skills and an expectation that he “deserves” to play at this level He doesn’t and frankly it’s going to take a lot of effort to develop this player in to a Pro style game. I think the terminology for what’s happening is “tough love” and best candidate for this is probably Corrado. I thought he was a shoe in to play with the big boys…..last season never mind this season. He had shown earlier he could handle the game at the NHL level. Yet here he is back in the AHL trying to make an opportunity for himself, play consistent and pro style game. They don’t want a guy come up and still make AHL plays and lack of consistency they want a guy that is ready and hungry. I hope the propspects are looking and learning and understanding what they need to do to become a consistent Pro in the NHL. By all accounts they have the skill but are not ready physically or mentally

    Out of interest I looked at the stats for Manchester team ( LA ) and their top pts producers were primarily the 21-22 age group where as in Utica it’s 25-27 age group that puts up the numbers ?

  • elvis15

    I’m not a stickler for our prospects always getting the most minutes before anyone else. Certainly for younger prospects in particular I’d like to have them learn from more seasoned players and get opportunities in games where they’re excelling. There’s no need to rush them in all situations in case it hurts their confidence.

    Besides, it’s Gallagher…

  • orcasfan

    Nice job “Creating” a story with made up and inaccurate TOI stats that do not exist for the AHL.

    When I read “Hunter Shinkaruk has been scratched a couple of times and Nick Jensen was announced as a scratch Saturday night but was most likely injured” I knew the article was meant to create a reaction at the expense of facts.

    The facts (if you took 60 seconds to verify) is that the Comets have played 36 games. Shinkaruk and Gaunce have both played 35, They were both a healthy scratch on Dec 13 in a game against Syracuse. Green was quoted after the game that he had planned on giving them a night off at some point and decided that would be a good time because he expected a physical game against Syracuse…..Message sent.. Gaunce responded with a couple goals in the games after Dec 13…..Message delivered.

    Green doesn’t just had out preferred ice time to rookies no matter what round they were dratted in. Ice time is earned and the best way to earn it is by playing hard in all three zones….exactly what will be expected from them in the NHL!

    • orcasfan

      Agree. This article is based on dubious, creative stats (AHL eTOI), and a few words from the great hockey mind of Tony G!! Gaunce and Shinkaruck are both rookies in their first pro league. They need to learn some basic lessons about being a pro. Spoon-feeding them with unearned ice-time is certainly not going to get them the message!

      At the same time, creating a winning culture in an organization is hugely beneficial for those young guys. Green, I’m sure is handling them correctly at this stage.

  • andyg

    Promising young players should only have to “earn” ice time in the NHL. To an NHL franchise the AHL is a FARM team, a place for player development. I consider in-game experience far more valuable than team practices, I could care less if Utica looses as long as it churns out NHL players. People act as though if we give these prospects “undeserved” ice-time they will take it for granted, but they wouldn’t be at the level if they didn’t have some serious drive. Interesting article and thank you for using your knowledge of hockey stats to best predict Utica ice times.

  • andyg

    Josh this article smacks of simply looking up eTOI stats and not looking more closely into performances of our prospects in Utica, or watching them consistently.

    Shinkaruk especially, and Gaunce to a lesser extent, have simply not deserved a greater amount of ice time than they are already receiving. Both are now showing signs of trending in the right direction.

    I don’t think this article is really strong evidence of anything, especially seeing as your numbers have Jensen, Grenier and Corrado getting a lot of ice time. So is it Canuck prospects you don’t think are being played enough as a whole or just Shinkaruk and Gaunce?

  • Vanoxy

    Let me add to my previous comments for clarity.

    Two things jumped out at me when I first read this article….

    1) The eTOI figures just didn’t pass the eye test. I am a Comets season ticket holder and have seen every home game in person the past two seasons. I also watch almost every road game on AHL Live and while the stream quality is not the greatest I still get a good indication of who is playing and who is not. The eTOI stats for many of the players just don’t match whet I am watching on the ice.
    2) The Hunter Shinkaruk statement about being scratched a couple of times is the only part of the article that is in bold font. The reason obviously is to catch the reader’s eye and to support the hypothesis of the statistical analysis by the author that the prospects are being short changed on ice time. It goes along with theme of the title of the article “The Kids Aren’t Alright”.

    The problem is the quote in bold is not accurate and it literally takes less than 60 seconds on Google to realize that. Yes the author is using that quote from another source which he references with a link but sloppy journalism on Gallagher’s part doesn’t excuse the author for not fact checking something that is so easy to verify and something that he plans on using as a central part of the story.

    Since the author didn’t take the time to fact check this portion of the article I have to question the reliability of his entire statistical analysis. What is the margin of error for the eTOI statistics since they are not based on actual observed TOI? I would think that a margin of error would be easy to estimate by correlating his methodology to real TOI as reported by NHL teams.

    To quote Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli there are three types of lies. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

  • Vanoxy

    Regarding this quote from the article….

    “Hunter Shinkaruk, Ronalds Kenins and Alex Friesen typically are fixed on the third line, though Friesen has been a healthy scratch similar to Mike Zalewski and Darren Archibald.”

    Facts on Alex Friesen. Alex was hurt in the first game of the season and missed just over a month as a result. Upon his return Alex has been a scratch exactly one time which was the weekend of Jan 1,2,3 when the Comets played three games in three days. The Comets are carrying a few extra healthy skaters and Green mixed in as many fresh legs as possible with a number of guys getting one of the three games off.

    Facts on Darren Archibald who has played in 32 of the 36 Comets games. Archie was suspended 3 games by the league for an illegal hit to the head of a player in Albany. Green also sat him for the game that he was eligible to return. I don’t know the details but in addition to the extra game that Green sat him Archie was also stripped of his “A”.

    Facts on Mike Zalewski. Mike has been in and out of the lineup with both injuries and healthy scratches. Mike is a local kid growing up 5 miles from the Aud where the Comets play. I really think if Mike wasn’t a local kid he would be in Kalamazoo right now as his level of play doesn’t warrant him being in the AHL. This is just my opinion and I would like nothing better to see a local kid succeed and make it to the NHL someday.

  • Larionov18

    Not sure what is going on with Virtanen either. He looked awful and disinterested in tonight’s game against Brandon. Was benched in the 3rd in the gold medal game. I heard it suggested shoulder problems again on the broadcast. not sure if I hope it is or not. If its not it looks like we drafted another Zack Kassian. Chasing Bert has been a disaster with this franchise. Bert floated mostly as well but had a few good seasons. We should be chasing Naslund or another Linden.

  • Larionov18

    I don’t know which is the worse baseline to start with, eTOI or Gallagher’s paranoid rants…

    Thanks to UticaHockey for the much more useful insights than long-distance speculation provides. The knock on Utica last year was that it was thin due to the combination of poor AHL vets and the Canucks bare prospect cupboard, with the additional knock that the losing atmosphere was not a good environment for young pros. Now we have an AHL team with a number of prospects having their first (or early) pro-experiences and the organization goes out and brings in some AHL talent to help bolster their wins and suddenly this means that we’re not developing properly? Ridiculous.

    The Canucks have had an abysmal track record in developing talent over the last decade — this management however seems to have taken some concrete steps to improve it AND we have a far better prospect pool than in a long time. But yet we remain dissatisfied…

  • Vanoxy

    Benning has made a couple of trips to Utica to watch games and obviously is in touch with Travis Green. I assume coach Willie D is also keeping in touch. (Which is a nice change from Torts’ hands waaaay off approach.)

    I’m sure the Nucks are happy with the way it’s being run.

    They understand the need to develop prospects while also developing a fan-base in Utica by putting a winning, entertaining team on the ice.

    If the prospects are being outplayed by the AHL journeymen,they need to step it up and prove that they are the more skilled guys. Gifting ice-time to a young guy just breeds complacency. Ask any Oilers fan how that worked out when they guaranteed Schultz a top pairing spot.

  • Vanoxy

    I haven’t been paying too much attention to the lines as the season has progressed, but it seems to me that they’ve been pretty intentional in pairing prospects with AHL vets who can help mentor them and stabilize their play.

    If I remember correctly, Corrado spent a lot of time paired with Huskins last year, Jensen started this year playing with O’Reilly and Shinkaruk with Jeffrey. Gaunce was on a line with Hamilton and Bancks to help develop the physical side of his game. I’m not sure how well they’ve kept this up, but I thought it was a good strategy.

    They could play a first line of Shinkaruk-Gaunce-Jensen 20 minutes a night, but I imagine that strategy would just doom all three to fail together.

  • Vanoxy

    Not overly concerning. The only prospects you’d expect much from are Jensen, Shinkaruk and Corrado. Jensen is on the top line and Shinkaruk is playing his first season in the AHL after a year of lost development. Corrado is the biggest disappointment. Benning seems to think he’s NHL ready so it’s odd that he’s not getting 1st line minutes in Utica.

  • Vanoxy

    1. I think building a winning environment is a good way to develop prospects. Yes, you want to develop these guys, but you also want to simulate NHL game situations for them, with the same considerations going into them.

    2. On that note, the Canucks are also (I would argue) making an effort to build up Utica into the awesome AHL market it has been so far, and generate interest in the team, to help foster the winning environment above.

    3. Since the TOI estimates really just form a ranking, it’s possible the differences in absolute terms aren’t actually that pronounced.

    4. The Comets’ lines and lineup, I understand, have been quite fluid across the board (especially because AHL games are so clustered together and you need more squad rotation). Green, like Desjardins, has been rolling four lines without designating them too strongly.

  • Vanoxy

    As a fan of the Ontario Reign, it boggled the mind as to why the Canucks pulled up Cannata to be their third goaltender in Utica.
    After being the clear #1 in Ontario (he’s the ASG starter for the ECHL), they brought him up for about a month to Utica, where he proceeded to play one game on 11/29, then did not see the ice again until they dropped him back down to Ontario to start a game on 12/27.
    Why do this?
    Are practice minutes in the AHL more valuable than starting minutes in the ECHL?
    Is the goaltender coaching at the AHL level that much more a factor in a prospect’s development, moreso than actual live game experience?