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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.