Youthful exuberance mostly, well, just exuberance

Jonathan Willis
September 10 2008 08:37AM

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort—to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires—and expires, too soon, too soon—before life itself. —Joseph Conrad, Youth

Conrad is an interesting fellow. His Wikipedia entry does a decent job of describing (in brevity) his tumultuous life and some of his writing. Youth is based on his experiences as second mate of a small ship, the Palestine, bound for Bangkok.

In Youth, the principal (and somewhat autographic) character Marlow describes his odd reaction to a set of increasingly insurmountable obstacles, lamenting that his since-departed youth was what enabled him to not only endure, but thrive in such a situation. In the story, Marlow comes across as having an almost-stupid optimism, optimism that only exists because of his young and naïve excitement.

It’s funny to think about, but youth continues to induce naïve and almost-stupid optimism, and not just in the young. Reading various sportswriters and fans, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that youth is the magic bullet—that the greatest good a coach can do with a struggling team is “just play the kids.”

Listening to fans gush about young prospects, one would think that every junior player good enough to earn an entry-level contract is going to someday be an everyday player in the NHL. I still remember people projecting Jean-Francois Jacques (2+ years ago) as “Ethan Moreau, except with more scoring ability” (forgetting of course that Ethan Moreau was the original “Ethan Moreau, except with more scoring ability”).

I think it’s because prospects are like a blank canvas; the majority of fans have a basic idea of what kind of game they play from publications like The Hockey News, as well as their draft position, but not much else, and thus they can project their own optimism and biases on to these young players. Besides that, there are plenty of examples (let’s use Zetterberg, because it’s an obvious one) of these players drastically outperforming the expectations of the experts, so the future is still very much in the air.

The important thing to remember is that the majority of prospects end up plying their trade in the SEL, the RSL and the AHL. Even those that do end up playing full-time in the NHL are often changed players; I mentioned Moreau earlier, but guys like Marty Reasoner and Manny Malhotra were also once considered big-time offensive players.

A lot of it is luck. Injuries can destroy or alter promising careers, and have claimed many prospects that otherwise probably would have enjoyed success (Doug Lynch is a fine example here). Maturity, character and opportunity also play major roles in where players eventually end up.

The really important thing to remember is that the key to long-term success isn’t just playing a bunch of players whose major attribute is their youth. It’s finding the quality players and putting them into positions where they can gradually adapt to the NHL game. Even then, the players don’t always turn out the way they should (Tom Poti fits this description).

Gradually increasing the responsibility of players in this way also means that a team can’t run with just young players—someone needs to be doing the heavy lifting on the roster. That’s why (aside from a desire to, you know, keep his job by winning the occasional game) Craig MacTavish burned out players like Reasoner and Stoll in nasty situations last season, allowing undeniably talented prospects like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano to play in situations where they could enjoy some success.

As the year went on, these players improved to the point where they could take on more responsibility (Gagner in March was a much better player than Gagner in November), and I think the management and coaching staff in Edmonton thinks they’re ready for another jump in October. It’s part of the reason Stoll and Torres were dealt in the off-season, and why Marty Reasoner was allowed to depart as a free agent this summer.

They could be right, although we won’t know until the team has played a bunch of games. I’d say the odds are probably in the 60–40 range that one of Pouliot, Brodziak or Cogliano is ready to take on a much less sheltered role with some quality wingers (Fernando Pisani is to this group what Steve “Training Wheels” Staios has been to Ladislav Smid for the past couple of years). Those aren’t odds that I’d be comfortable betting my team’s performance on. I’d much rather play an established veteran with a clear track record and clearer expectations than counting on big steps forward from a group of yet-to-be-proven players.

That’s the thing about veterans: they aren’t blank canvas, and barring a year where everything goes right (à la Dave Lowry) or everything goes wrong (à la Jarret Stoll) there aren’t a lot of surprises, good or bad. They aren’t as interesting as prospects, and there’s a lot less reason for optimism about them. They are, however, a safer bet, and if a manager doesn’t wager too much money on them, they aren’t that difficult to trade away if a young player steps up to the plate—particularly when other managers have spent their summers hoping that their respective prospects can fill a role they may not be ready for. It’s certainly easier to unload a superfluous veteran mid-season than it is to acquire a necessary one.

—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 1011011
September 10 2008, 09:09AM
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I saw Kelly Buchberger playing Men's League hockey once and he had the sickest hands I had ever seen. And that's KELLY BUCHBERGER - not exactly Joe Sakic. He scored the odd goal here and there in junior and even scored 20 in a season for the Mighty Oil, but the bilk of his time in the NHL was spent playing two-way/solid physical presence type hockey.

There are lots of players playing defensive roles that were scorers in Junior. You are quite right, good article Willis

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#2 David Staples
September 10 2008, 09:27AM
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Nicely done and well put, Jonathan, as I find my own optimism for the coming season in need of some squashing.

Did you read that Joseph Conrad short story in high school? I still remember it well and have been wanting to read it again.

I agree with you that it's madness to go on youth kick where you rush the kids too much. Of course, another kind of madness is to hold on to veterans too long, well past their best before dates, in the vain hope they will repeat their previous peak performances.

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#3 Jonathan
September 10 2008, 09:35AM
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Did you read that Joseph Conrad short story in high school? I still remember it well and have been wanting to read it again.

Coles had a "3 Classics for 10 Dollars" sale, so I picked up some Conrad short stories (incl. Heart of Darkness), Picture of Dorain Gray, and The Odyssey. I've always liked Conrad, and wanted to introduce him to my wife.

I agree with you that it’s madness to go on youth kick where you rush the kids too much. Of course, another kind of madness is to hold on to veterans too long, well past their best before dates, in the vain hope they will repeat their previous peak performances.

That's the thing- the veterans should be good veterans. If you have a choice between Wayne Primeau and a kid, go with the kid. A maybe is better than a clear miss.

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#4 Wanye Gretz
September 10 2008, 09:56AM
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"I’ve always liked Conrad, and wanted to introduce him to my wife"

Did Willis just say that he is married!?!? You learn something new every day.

Don't worry 3 female fans of the Nation. Your ol' Pal Wanye will never marry and shall remain the uncontested sex symbol of the OilersNation for years to come.

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#5 Rick
September 10 2008, 10:07AM
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If the point is that more veterans would make this team better, there is little debate.

If the point is that we should temper our excitement because the league is littered with players who were never able to translate their scoring touch from Jr/college to the NHL then I just want to point out that guys like Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson have, in just their rookie seasons, put up better scoring numbers than both Moreau and Reasoner did in their career years.

Who knows if the rest of their game will come around sufficiently enough but from an offensive perspective I think being optimistic about this group of kids is alright.

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#6 Jonathan
September 10 2008, 10:12AM
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If the point is that we should temper our excitement because the league is littered with players who were never able to translate their scoring touch from Jr/college to the NHL then I just want to point out that guys like Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson have, in just their rookie seasons, put up better scoring numbers than both Moreau and Reasoner did in their career years.

Gagner is a special player, and I think both Cogliano and Nilsson are going to develop into above average NHL'ers.

The point is that we can play a ton of kids all we want, but if we want to make the second round this season, then the right veteran or two would make a big difference.

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#7 Fiveandagame
September 10 2008, 11:03AM
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Great post....and a total bummer at the same time. It's SETEMPBER!!! It's the time for wild and unbridled optimism! Come November our teams weaknesses will be more than evident and the free and clear optimism we feel today will be replaced with reality.

I refuse to grow up! September is Never Never Land and I for one want to believe (at least for the next 4 weeks anyway) That Cogliano is the second coming of Zetterberg and that Brodziak will score 25 goals and that the Oilers, the mighty mighty OILERS will bring Lord Stanley's cup home this summer to enjoy a Beergarhita at Pidgeon lake.

Come on Willis, we have all season to be realists, don't make me wake up and smell the statistics just yet....

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#8 Fiveandagame
September 10 2008, 11:04AM
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see in my dream world you spell September like "Setember".....

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#9 bebop
September 10 2008, 11:10AM
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Excellent post but I believe that we have enough veterans at every position to not have to worry too much. Optimus Prime, Fernando, Sheldon, Steve, Horcs and Cole are quality teaching guys or all very reliable. Don't forget that Hemsky is being pushed into a greater leadership role as well (which is making his game sicker every year). The departing 'vets' are essentialy being replaced by all the injured guys from last year.

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#10 Jonathan
September 10 2008, 11:23AM
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Great post….and a total bummer at the same time. It’s SETEMPBER!!! It’s the time for wild and unbridled optimism! Come November our teams weaknesses will be more than evident and the free and clear optimism we feel today will be replaced with reality.

I understand what you mean, but I'm generally trying to be objective with my blogging - i.e. write more like an unbiased observer and less like a fan. It's a work in progress.

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#11 Kent
September 10 2008, 11:37AM
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That’s the thing- the veterans should be good veterans. If you have a choice between Wayne Primeau and a kid, go with the kid. A maybe is better than a clear miss.

Hey! On behalf of Flames fans, I take umbrage to your assertion that...

Wait. That's what I've been saying too. Nevermind.

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#12 Jonathan
September 10 2008, 11:42AM
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Wait. That’s what I’ve been saying too. Nevermind.

Why did you think Primeau's name lept to mind? I'm a fan of objective Flames fans ;)

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#13 Sean
September 10 2008, 12:19PM
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I feel like that post is directly at me ;)

Ok so I'm optimistic but there isnt much left other than Sundin or via trade. Otherwise your left with Tony Amonte, Stephan Yelle, Adrion Aucion, Wayne Primeau, Owen Nolan and Todd Bertuzzi

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#14 Chris.
September 10 2008, 01:21PM
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The beautiful thing about hockey is that anything can happen after they drop that puck! There is a youth movement...no denying it. There is also a new management team, new vetrans, a new more balanced shedule, and weaker divisional opposition. I'm with Fiveandagame; don't wake me up till September ends!

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#15 Ed
September 10 2008, 01:51PM
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I think the thing that will help the Oilers most is the weakened division like Chris. said. They are somewhat better but everyone else sucks.

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#16 Ender the Dragon
September 10 2008, 03:20PM
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"everyone else sucks." - Ed

Be careful how broadly you phrase that, Ed. While it's true that the division is weaker this year, the other teams aren't ready to forfeit every game just yet. The Wild actually look pretty good this year. Calgary isn't on par with Edmonton in terms of depth, but if their team is healthy it's a rough and skilled crowd that can bury you on any given night. Colorado is hurting in their own end but the return of Sakic heralds a solid and dangerous (if aging) offense. Even Vancouver is going to win some games in the division this year, especially if Sundin decides to put up some numbers for them. Luongo is capable of stealing a few games all by himself. Don't count a whole bunch of divisional chickens just yet, Ed.

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#17 Ed
September 10 2008, 03:31PM
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Fair enough Ender. I was more meaning that in years past we would sit back and say wow the northwest is hands down the hardest division in the NHL. It isn't that the Oilers are bad the division is just that good. I don't think this is the case this year. Fair enough on all your points though.

First time anyone has commented on my comment on here!

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#18 dubya
September 10 2008, 04:35PM
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I still remember people projecting Jean-Francois Jacques (2+ years ago) as “Ethan Moreau, except with more scoring ability” (forgetting of course that Ethan Moreau was the original “Ethan Moreau, except with more scoring ability”). ... Gagner is a special player, and I think both Cogliano and Nilsson are going to develop into above average NHL’ers.

People also tend to forget that Todd Marchant had 78 points in two season in the NCAA. Hence, Todd Marchant was the orginal "Todd Marchant, but with hands." If Cogliano turns into as good or better a player than Marchant, I'll be happy.

Not necessarily at the exact moment Cogs fires the puck directly into the goalies pads for the third consecutive time of his three breakaways in a tie game, but almost all of the rest of the time.

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#19 Jonathan
September 10 2008, 04:55PM
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Hence, Todd Marchant was the orginal “Todd Marchant, but with hands.” If Cogliano turns into as good or better a player than Marchant, I’ll be happy.

I was thinking that too, but I honestly think tat Cogliano is going to be a clearly better player than Marchant over the duration of his career.

Jason Chimera, who was the middle "Marchant with hands" probably won't be much better offensively, though.

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#20 dubya
September 10 2008, 05:04PM
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I was thinking that too, but I honestly think tat Cogliano is going to be a clearly better player than Marchant over the duration of his career.

I think he'll score more points, and I hope he becomes the two-way player people envision. Just not sure whether he sees himself as that type of player yet...kinda like when Pouliot bristled at a comparison to Carbonneau. He'll also learn how to take and win a faceoff.

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#21 dubya
September 10 2008, 05:09PM
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Should say "He'll also have to learn how to take and win a faceoff."

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#22 jdrevenge
September 10 2008, 07:42PM
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Fair assessment in the hockey rabid ournation but I really think that about 50% are going to show us more next year and 50% are going to show some decline.

Nilsson - is a way better defensive player than most people gave him credit for. Brownlee already took me down on this but I'll wager that he will increase his plus minus into the green this year.

Pouliot - really does have sick hands as LT stated. He's not going to be Guy Carbs as his d game is lacking a bit but he'll keep his head above water. He's 4th line but plays a stint on the third line when the goals arent coming.

Garon - not a kid but he's starting to emerge and he's gonna be a keeper...

Grebs - confidence started to show at the end of the year and he has major effort which was showing the benefits of some great coaching at seasons end. Risk Reward. He'll be looked at on par with Gilbert after the season.

Brodziak - smart as hell with the heart to boot. Second coming of Pisani or Horcs?

Gilbert - will fall back to earth a bit. Playing with more consistency but less adrenaline dropping his pts down and dissapointing us a bit. He's a top notch player but can he really put up more points?

Cogliano - is a bit like the kid on Mighty Ducks 2 or 3 in that he can skate but he looks a bit out of control at times. He won't shine as bright this year.

Gagner - people are gonna start taking runs at this kid and it wouldn't suprise me given his weight class that he sustains an injury that keeps him out for a part of the season. Or he scores 60 pts with a broken hip.

Schremp - ?

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#23 Fiveandagame
September 10 2008, 09:02PM
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JONATHAN-

I humbly respect your need to be objective...I bet after a few Grasshoppers ( Or maybe a Pinot Noir judging by your Conrad readings with Mrs Willis) you're fanly optimism rears its youthful head and you start making the same predictions of lofty Oiler expectations:)

Seriously is there a better time of the year when the puck isn't on the ice than September?

GOILERS!!!!!!

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#24 Sean
September 11 2008, 10:59AM
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Jonathan. You must cringe when Lowe says this in his recent interview with Tencer.

"If these guys play really well we might have to move a veteran hockey player and we're not opposed to doing that at all."

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#25 Jonathan
September 12 2008, 05:26PM
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“If these guys play really well we might have to move a veteran hockey player and we’re not opposed to doing that at all.”

You bet I cringe. Who are the vets these days?

Horcoff Hemsky Penner Cole Pisani Moreau

That's it. If I need to trade one... Moreau. Then Penner.

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