Developing young players is hard.
When we look back at a player’s career, we often treat their success (or lack thereof) as an inevitability. The truth is much more complicated. There are so many variables to consider that go beyond talent or even hard work, and analytics haven’t come close to cracking the code beyond simply looking at which statistical profiles have been conducive to player success in the past. Player development is the great unknown, and until more research is conducted on the topic, it feels unwise to question the wisdom of coaches and executives, at least in most cases.
That’s why, up until recently, the way the Canucks have handled their young players has made sense, at least on the surface. The team signed a high volume of low-risk veterans this offseason to create competition, and only gifted roster spots to the players that earned them. It’s far from exciting, but it’s allowed the team to be selective about who makes the roster. While most fans would love to get a closer look at some of the team’s prospects, it’s good for the team to not be backed into a corner and forced to play youngsters that aren’t ready for the grind of an NHL season.
It’s a model that’s worked in the past, too. The 2015-16 Leafs iced a veteran-heavy roster to keep the kids in the AHL, where many learned to compete as a group. The popular opinion was that it was wise to keep the young players away from a losing environment, and while the importance of a “winning culture” is up for debate, there’s no arguing with the results.
That’s why I wasn’t upset when Nikolay Goldobin was assigned to the Comets, or when Jonathan Dahlen returned to Europe. Let them develop, whatever that means.
Brock Boeser is a different story, though. We’ll get to why that is in a minute, but first, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Yes, it’s only been two games. Boeser could play the next 80, in which case none of this hand-wringing will matter.
Yes, it’s possible he’s not at 100%, in which case sitting him is the right thing to do.
And yes, there are other reasons why Boeser sitting every once in awhile might make sense. He’s not used to a full schedule. Maybe Travis Green wants to give him favourable matchups. Hell, maybe he just couldn’t justify taking anyone out of the lineup after a decent showing in the home opener. Some fans have pointed out that Boeser struggled as teams began to ice fuller lineups towards the end of the preseason, and rightfully so.
But when I heard Boeser would be sitting again against the Senators, my mind went back to something Shane Malloy said about development in an interview with our own Ryan Biech on the Game Time Decision podcast. He was talking about Casey Mittelstadt, but I think the concerns he expresses are applicable to many other players looking to make the jump to the NHL:
“The concern I have is his lack of games played against elite-level talent. When you look at development models, games played matters…. If you add up the two years that he’ll play in college before making the jump, even if he plays international competition, he might only have 120 games before he turns pro against elite-level competition. That’s a really low number; and my concern is not that he doesn’t have the skill, it’s that he won’t have enough development games played before he turns pro; and will that impact him? Will that push him from being a number one centre to a number two centre because he didn’t get the time he needs? … Some guys are outliers and don’t require that, but historical[ly], if you look over the last 12 years, games played matters.”
This brings us to the heart of the issue with Boeser sitting in the press box. For a kid who had 5 points in 9 games to end the season last year, he’s surprisingly green.
Since 2013-14, Boeser has played 65 USHL games, 74 NCAA games, 9 NHL games, and 7 games at the WJC. That makes a grand total of 155 games played against what Malloy would call “elite-level competition”. It’s higher than the 120 he was concerned about with Mittelstadt, but it still qualifies as limited experience.
It’s entirely possible that this is all part of some master plan to develop Boeser in the best manner imaginable, but I think there’s a recent historical precedent for the Canucks handling their young players poorly. In their rookie years, you could argue none of Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen, or even Bo Horvat really should have been on the roster, and you’d have a strong case. The team has consistently wanted to be seen integrating young players into the lineup, but they’ve rarely been willing to accept the ups and downs that come with it. What’s different this year is that they finally have the depth to keep young players out of the lineup if they desire.
They also have a history of being out of step with their coach. The times the team acquired players for a specific purpose only to see their desires ignored by Willie Desjardins are too numerous to count, and it’s possible the front office and Green may already be at odds about Boeser’s readiness.
There are only a few ways to make sense of the Boeser situation, and none conclude with him sitting in the press box. Either he’s an elite player, a rare outlier who doesn’t need to worry about getting reps in, in which case his skill level should necessitate him being in the lineup. Or he’s not ready, and he needs to get acclimatized to the grind of an 82-game pro season, in which case he should be in Utica, waiting to earn a call-up. Sure, maybe they’re trying to mitigate fatigue, but why do that against NHL competition? He’s going to have to get used to the 82-game season at some point, wouldn’t it be better to lighten the load if he isn’t ready?
That’s the real issue. When fans become fixated on a young player’s inability to crack a lineup, the focus is so often on that player’s upside compared to someone else on the roster. That’s not really the problem here. The team has been okay through the first two games, and maybe Boeser just isn’t ready. But he needs to play, if not here then in the AHL, for the reasons Malloy stated above. Games played matters, and Boeser needs to get his reps in. Most fans are very eager to see Boeser in an NHL uniform this year, but they’d also probably agree that he’s better off getting top-six minutes in Utica than rot in the press box in the NHL. There’s only so much a player can learn from watching.