The struggles of the Comets rookies this season have been well documented. Two in particular that have drawn attention are Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich, selected by the Canucks in the second round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, at 33rd and 55th, respectively. Lind went on to have a fantastic draft-plus-one WHL season with the Kelowna Rockets, prompting Jim Benning’s draft day comments on Lind (“Why isn’t anyone taking Kole Lind?”) to go viral on a routine basis throughout the 2017-18 campaign. Lind worked himself into a conversation of second-round steals. While Gadjovich’s draft-plus-one season in the Ontario Hockey League wasn’t quite as strong (he dealt with a myriad of injuries throughout the year), he still looked like a promising prospect.
This season, those perceptions have taken a bit of a hit. Both Lind and Gadjovich, who have late calendar year birthdays and thus were allowed to join the American League in the draft-plus-two seasons, were assigned to the Utica Comets to start 2018-19 campaign. Since then, they have just four goals apiece (including one each in last night’s drubbing of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and while both have dealt with injuries at points, those numbers are still very disappointing on a per game rate considering pre-season expectations.
Running the Numbers
As is my usual modus operandi, I ran the numbers to find out just how common this is. As it turns out, we are not overstating it – these junior-to-pro conversion rates are in fact below average for forwards in this situation. In a worrisome twist, however, they are pretty normal for the Utica Comets.
The following chart plots the goals per game rates (one year to the next) of forwards that made the jump from Canadian junior leagues to the American League between 2014 and 2019. Only forwards with 20 games played in each season were considered. A trendline slices across the plot, showing an unsurprising positive correlation between the two rates, and signifies an approximate average. Anyone above that line had a higher-than-expected junior-to-pro offensive conversion rate. Anyone below that line had a lower-than-expected conversion rate. You’ll notice that almost all of the Canucks prospects listed fall below that line, though a few players are nestled right up against it.
Lind and Gadjovich have among the most disappointing conversions on the list, and they’re joined down there by a couple of other former Canucks prospects in Cole Cassels and Michael Carcone. Cassels, once the tongue-in-cheek antidote for McDavid that was predicted to usurp Brandon Sutter as the team’s defensive centre at some point, is now playing in Europe after several underwhelming seasons with the Comets (notwithstanding a late push that wasn’t enough to get his contract qualified). Carcone picked his game up over the following seasons, and has since been turned into Josh Leivo, which is a clear win for Benning and Co.
Meanwhile, three Canucks prospects sit up near the trendline: Brendan Gaunce, Alexis D’Aoust, and Zack MacEwen. Gaunce is still toiling away in Utica, but played just three NHL games in a season in which the Canucks were riddled with injuries at every position, suggesting that he isn’t in the organization’s long term plans (although good luck convincing me that Gaunce can’t give you what Tim Schaller gave you for half the cost). D’Aoust, who I was a fan of, was never signed to an NHL contract and thus wasn’t technically a Canucks prospect, but he was someone who consistently attended prospect camps and Young Stars tournaments, and played for Utica on an AHL contract. He has since left to join the Manitoba Moose, splitting this season between the AHL and ECHL to modest success.
MacEwen is Utica’s shining example of developmental success at this point, and deservedly so. The unheralded, undrafted forward affectionately known as the Big Fella has had two strong seasons in Utica (and a cup of coffee in the NHL) after Vancouver signed him as a free agent out of QMJHL Gatineau. As impressive as his American League rookie and sophomores seasons have been, however, you’ll notice that he’s still only just barely touching the average in terms of junior-to-pro goal rate conversion.
Not included in the above chart is Hunter Shinkaruk, who was actually the Comets most successful rookie to date in terms of goal scoring. Shinkaruk’s career has taken a sharp downturn since then, but the Canucks did manage to turn him into Markus Granlund before that happened. The table below lays out each of the CHL-to-AHL forwards that played at least 10 games in each league.
|Name||Jr Season||Jr League||GP||G||Pts||G/GP||AHL Season||GP||G||Pts||G/GP||G/GP Retention %|
If we start looking around the league at other prospects and other organizations, we can see a wide variety conversion rates. The gold standard this season is Tampa Bay’s Alex Barre-Boulet, who scored 33 goals this year in his rookie season with the Syracuse Crunch. Ottawa’s Drake Batherson is a distant second with 22 goals for Belleville. There are more than two dozen other such forwards with more than 10 goals. In fact, altogether there are 47 CHL-to-AHL rookie forwards that have more goals than Lind and Gadjovich do.
A closer look at those 47 rookie forwards with more goals than Lind and Gadjovich reveals some unsettling observations:
- Of that group, 12 are undrafted, including the aforementioned Barre-Boulet.
- Of the ones that were drafted, 20 were taken in the third round or later.
- In their 2017-18 seasons in junior, 28 had fewer than Lind’s 39 goals with the Rockets, and ten had fewer than Gadjovich’s 25 goals with the Attack.
There are also eight CHL-to-AHL rookie defencemen that have put up more goals than Lind and Gadjovich, including Cale Fleury, who was selected in the third round in the same draft as the two Canucks prospects. Fleury has tallied nine goals in 57 games with Montreal’s affiliate, the Laval Rocket.
Games played are always a factor to consider, and by rate it only gets worse. Gadjovich, who played 40 games with the Comets this season, is 48th in goals per game in our sample. Kole Lind, with 49 games played, is 55th. Only a handful of forwards remain with fewer goals per game: the most notable being Cliff Pu, a third round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2016, who has just two goals in 53 games respectively.
Even if we focused on the brighter prospects, the contrast to the rest of the NHL is readily apparent. The high water mark for Comets CHL-to-AHL rookies was set by Shinkaruk, whose 16 goals are 35th among CHL-to-AHL rookies in that half-decade comprising the Comets existence. The next two Comets rookies on the list are Jordan Subban and Brendan Gaunce, whose 11 goals have them 96th.
During their five-year existence, the Comets have gotten 82 goals out of CHL-to-AHL rookies, which by my rough calculations sits at 20th in the NHL (this is exercise is a little tricky because of the frequency with which AHL franchises switch affiliations). In that same time frame, the Tampa Bay Lightning/Syracuse Crunch have 196 goals from CHL-to-AHL rookies, including nine players than hit double digits in goals in their first pro season. Some of the other top teams include Arizona (193 goals), San Jose (173 goals), Carolina (146 goals) and Columbus (142 goals) – a set of four playoff teams and one near miss. Six more franchises collected 100 or more goals from CHL-to-AHL rookies in the last five seasons.
It wouldn’t be fair, however, to penalize the Comets for raw goals, as teams will get widely varying amounts of games for rookies coming from Canadian junior – just one of a number of potential streams for incoming players. But once again, accounting for per-game rate does the Comets no favours, as their CHL-to-AHL prospects have had the third worst goals-per-game rate among all organizations in the last five seasons, with a goals-per-game rate of 0.11 (82 goals in 742 games). Only Nashville and Washington have performed worse in this regard.
The big question for Jim Benning and the Canucks will be: why is this happening? Is there an issue with their development process? Or with the way the prospects are being used on the farm? Or were they just not ready for professional hockey this season? None of the above are comfortable questions, as each of them reflect unfavourably on the Canucks and their handling of their prospects.
There has been no shortage of criticism of Trent Cull’s deployment of prospects this season, and while I don’t intend on piling on, there are key differences between Utica’s philosophy and that of other organizations that have cropped up recently. Patrick Williams, who covers the entire AHL, joined TSN’s Rink Wide program a few weeks ago and discussed just how unusual Utica’s deployment of prospects is.
“Generally players that come in as top three round draft picks get a lot of leeway and a lot of opportunity, and they have to prove that they can’t play. I was surprised to see the some of the playing time, and some of the struggles that some pretty solid prospects had to go through this season in Utica.”
Even more recently, Calgary GM Brad Treliving spoke about how much more important development is than winning when it comes to the minor leagues. Treliving called the AHL team record “somewhat irrelevant”, as was quoted as saying the following to Ryan Huska, published in this article by Darren Haynes on the Athletic:
“When I interviewed with Brad (Treliving), Connie and Brad (Pascall), they made it very clear that priority No. 1 is developing guys and making sure they’re ready to play in the NHL,” Huska said. “Tree even said it one time. I don’t care if you guys go 0-72, as long as guys develop. Then he stopped and caught himself. Well, maybe not 0-72.”
Contrast that against the winning environment and winning culture touted by Utica GM Ryan Johnson and others, and you have two very different philosophies. The winning culture argument is an admirable one, and it’s easy to see the logic behind not wanting your players to spend time of a team mired in constant losing. That said, Treliving and Huska made no explicit mention in that article about the importance of winning (in fact, Treliving is reported as saying the opposite), and how is it working out for the Flames? Andrew Mangiapane had a 20-goal rookie season in 2016-17, while Dillon Dube (Kole Lind’s former Kelowna teammate), Matthew Phillips and Glenn Gawdin scored 15, 13, and 11 goals this season, respectively, each as a rookie.
These may simply be two avenues to the same destination, and maybe it’s unfair to judge the focus on a winning environment on just these two teams. Where Utica’s philosophy has really fallen apart, however, is that the winning itself has become a rare occurrence. Prior to last night’s stomping of the Baby Penguins, the Comets had lost five of their last six, and 14 of their last 16 games. In combination with horrendous dry spells for prospects and vets across the board, it’s hard to find positives when the team isn’t winning and the prospects aren’t producing. Hopefully last night’s rout is a sign of things to come and not just a blip.
The success of a player like MacEwen, who has continued to develop in leaps and bounds in his second pro season, in conjunction with the struggles of Lind and Gadjovich as well as the exits of Jonathan Dahlen and Petrus Palmu, raises some questions as to the type of player that Utica’s philosophy and staff is built to develop. A hard-nosed player like MacEwen seems to be responding well in that system, but he projects are more of a bottom six depth contributor at the NHL level, while a myriad of skill players with middle or top six aspirations struggle to get traction.
It’s well established at this point that different players learn in different ways. It behooves modern sports franchises to adapt their development strategies to the players they have, rather than forcing the same strategies on all players, as this method has the unintentional consequence of artificially limiting the types of players that the organization is capable of producing. From the outside looking in, this appears to be a problem that the Utica Comets are currently facing.
Prospects are integral to any team’s future, and it has been shown in this space and others (most recently in a Province article here by Canucks Army alumni Patrick Johnston) how the success of an American League team can forecast the success of the NHL club, particularly when that success is driven by younger players.
Whatever the reason is for the consistently low totals of the Comets rookies, the impetus is on Canucks management to fix the problem. While the Canucks themselves are currently being buoyed by elite talent that has bypassed Utica altogether, their overall scoring has been the lowest in the NHL over the last four combined seasons. It would go a long way toward turning that trend around if the prospects down in Utica started posting some loftier totals. If they can’t figure out a way to make that work, they’re going to need to continue drafting talent that can make the jump straight to the NHL. One has to wonder about the long term success of a plan like that though – and what that says about your minor league club when having prospects stay away from the farm starts looking like a prudent development strategy.