Something has been bothering me ever since the Canucks made the decision not to send McCann and Virtanen back to Junior for another year.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but then it finally hit me like a crushing, open-ice hit murder by Virtanen.
It’s not this year that’s the problem. It’s the next two.
Other than elite talents like McDavid or Eichel, or perhaps draft picks with elite teams, who have enough talent in the line-up to shelter their prospects and ease them into the lineup, the best place to develop players is in the AHL. And by putting both of these kids on the NHL roster, the Canucks have made it that much harder to send them down to Utica next year or the year after.
So the problem isn’t how they develop this year. It’s how they develop over the next three years.
It’s true. They probably wouldn’t have learned much back in Junior this year. But at worst it would slow or moderate their development, and certainly wouldn’t set it back. Playing with the pros helps them get accustomed to life in the NHL and what it takes to compete. But there’s also the very real risk of hurting their development by having them out there getting buried by the opposition every night.
And by the way, despite the great start to the season, that’s exactly what’s happening to them right now. Here’s McCann trying to keep his head above water over the last two weeks while getting crushed every night:
And before he got hurt, Virtanen wasn’t much better, other than a nice stretch against teams that aren’t very deep and thus he could see some easier competition:
If one of the reasons that Benning and Desjardins wanted them in the NHL was to give them a chance to learn how to be winners, they are failing miserably at providing them with the right learning environment.
Perhaps they were influenced by the surprising season that Bo Horvat put in last year, but even he could probably have used a season or two in the AHL. Instead, he’s now out there carrying a huge load on his shoulders every night, and struggling in an environment that doesn’t provide much of an opportunity to actually succeed.
It’s ok to challenge kids and ask them to stretch and grow in their skills. That’s how they are going to improve. But it has to be done in an environment where they have at least some chance to succeed. This team, at this point in time, is not it.
And the problem with having both McCann and Virtanen on the NHL roster this year, is that now they are basically locked into keeping them on the roster next season as well. Look around the league and you’ll see that the kids that the high draft picks that skip that year in the AHL are rarely sent down there the following year. Because once you’ve told them they are NHL regulars, you don’t want to shake their confidence by demoting them.
As a result, what they’re missing out on is a chance to gel in a less pressure-packed environment, much the same way the previous core came together with the Manitoba Moose a few years before starting to have an impact at the NHL level. I am fairly certain that McCann and Virtanen would learn much more going through a season and playoffs like last year’s Utica Comets than they will struggling through the grind of a pointless season in the NHL. Figuratively, if not literally at times:
So even setting aside the contract issues with burning a year on their ELC or even starting the clock on unrestricted free agency, there are long term implications to this decision that go well beyond whether they were better served by being in the NHL this year. What the Canucks have done is trade a year of risky development for two to three years of seasoning.
And when it comes to successful recipes, a little seasoning goes a long way.
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