A common refrain among fans of all stripes, and probably in all sports for that matter, is the need to “play the kids”. In this same vein comes a theory that’s espoused by a whole bunch of people, a theory that works something like this:
If a team has an obvious hole and the only options to fill it are either under-qualified veterans or unproven prospects, it’s in the organization’s long-term interest to give the job to the prospect.
There’s nothing obviously wrong with that statement. Clearly, wasting a roster spot on a veteran who can’t keep up is a worse solution than investing it in a player on the upswing of his career; both players will make mistakes, but only one player is going to come out of it better.
The unmentioned third option is acquiring a veteran who can clearly carry the load. It’s probably unsurprising to people who read me with any amount of regularity that I strongly feel that the unmentioned third option is almost always the right one. Sometimes, it’s simply not possible (cap/budget constraints, too many holes, holes that are too big, etc.), but as a general rule, I think it’s the way to go.
Moving out of the abstract, let’s look at the Oilers’ situation in particular (i.e. the third line centre position). Oilers blogger Sean (of Puck Donkey) framed the question rather nicely on Lowetide’s site yesterday:
Pouliot or Brodziak might be capable but it’s gonna cost something. At the same time you can’t develop them without putting them in those situations. Are we in development mode or win mode?
I think the answer to that last question should be clear, despite the trade for a player like Cole (in the last year of his contract, impending UFA): the Edmonton Oilers are still in development mode, because the roster is clearly a step behind the contending teams. Despite that, I think the best solution is to acquire a capable veteran (say, Manny Malhotra, who is both plausibly available and did a good job in the role last season). I think this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it will not harm the development of forwards such as Kyle Brodziak and Marc Pouliot.
The reason that it wouldn’t harm the development of Pouliot/Brodziak is that rookies should not receive elevations in role until they prove capable of handling them – and for now, Brodziak hasn’t proved he can play above the 4th line, and Pouliot has yet to prove he can play regularly in the NHL. When they show they can handle more responsibility, injuries and slumps will ensure that they get it.
Let’s use some examples from last season.
This is an excerpt from the September 29th, 2007 Edmonton Journal (preserved in Lowetide’s archives):
Between now and then, there are three avenues for the decision-makers. The Oilers will either carry eight defencemen, find a trading partner, or send Ladislav Smid to the minors. It is not the most probable course of action, but Smid is on a two-way contract.
Tom Gilbert, despite his standout play, will likely start the season in Springfield. He is the only other candidate who can bypass waivers on the way down.
The eight defensemen ahead of Tom Gilbert on the depth chart entering training camp:
Where could Gilbert possibly slot in? We know what eventually happened – Smid started in the minors, and the Oilers risked Mathieu Roy on the waiver wire. Tom Gilbert had a standout season and was rewarded this summer with a 6-year, 24-million dollar contract.
How did that happen? Tom Gilbert earned a spot. He played head and shoulders above some of the other options in training camp, and early in the season established himself as one of MacTavish’s most reliable options on the blueline. Pitkanen, Souray and Greene all suffered injuries and missed a bunch of time. 94 NHL games were handed out to players who didn’t make the team on opening night (Smid, Roy, Rourke, Young, Peckham). Over the course of the season, opportunities always come along; there’s certainly no need to leave a glaring hole on the roster (in this case, top-4 defenseman) simply so a prospect can get a shot at the role – he’ll get a shot at the role at some point anyway, and if he makes the most of his chance, he’ll keep moving up the depth chart.
Up front, Kyle Brodziak’s 2007-08 season shows again that a player doesn’t need a slot created for him. Here are the forwards in contention for jobs entering TC last season:
Hemsky, Horcoff, Penner, Stoll, Torres, Moreau, Reasoner, Nilsson, Pouliot, Sanderson, Jacques, Thoreson, Brodziak, Stortini, Cogliano, Schremp, Trukhno, Gagner
Three players behind Brodziak (Stortini, Cogliano, Gagner) ended up playing major roles on the team, with both Cogliano and Gagner cracking the roster on opening night. Thoreson was waived, Jacques was hurt/sent down, and there was the usual run of injuries (Horcoff/Torres/Moreau/Sanderson). Thus, despite incredible seasons by players behind him on the depth chart, Brodziak played in 80 games and played a key role on the team, notably on the penalty-kill.
That takes us back to the present. Brodziak is much higher on the forward depth chart this time around (i.e. he has not only a job but some distance between himself and the end of roster players); even with the acquisition of a veteran like Malhotra, he’s all but certain to play in the top-nine at some point this coming season. It boils down to a key statement that I feel comfortable making:
A prospect who succeeds in a given role will continue to be elevated up the roster as circumstance (slumps, injuries, etc.) always creates holes that need to be filled.
As for the idea that certain players (be they Brodziak/Pouliot or other prospects) need holes created for them, or special treatment granted to them, I don’t think I’m off when I call it baseless. If they’re good enough to play in the NHL, they’re good enough to play in the NHL, and if they’re good enough to play a certain role, they’ll get a shot at it – period.
– Willis is the smartest person on Earth with the following exceptions: Einstein, Lowetide and JC Chasez formerly of N*Sync. Read about his genius at Copper and Blue.