It’s been a relatively busy off-season for Steve Tambellini, who has shunned the pursuit of big names in favour of a slower, more long-term rebuilding work. The one place where he has made significant changes is at the bottom of the NHL roster and to the makeup of the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.
Every so often on the Nation, we post articles about a minor move – the signing of a J-F Jacques, the trade of a Cody Wild, the departure of a Ryan Stone – and we get negative comments, which generally revolve around a single point: WHO CARES???
There is some merit to the point (although I always wonder about people so wildly indifferent that they’re forced to make comments) in that these aren’t moves that in and of themselves matter all that much. So before I get into Steve Tambellini’s AHL additions this summer, I’d like to take a few moments and explain why I think adding fringe NHL’ers matters to the future of any NHL team.
The first reason is straight forward enough: development. Every AHL team boasts some significant prospects, players who at some point in time will be on the NHL roster. But while the AHL isn’t as tough a league to play in as the NHL, it can represent a significant hurdle for even a highly touted prospect. We’ve seen future stars like Jason Spezza (minus-5 on a plus-32 team), Zach Parise (73GP – 18G – 40A – 58PTS, -11), Ryan Kesler (three goals in 33 games in his first AHL stint), Mikko Koivu (67GP – 20G – 28A – 48PTS, -1 in his only AHL season) and others either fail to hit the ground running or outright struggle. It goes without saying that lesser prospects – even future NHL’ers – can face a pretty steep learning curve once they enter the professional ranks, even if they are only playing in the American League.
That is why it’s helpful to surround these players with AHL veterans. That way, coaches can ease them in, giving them the shelter of a line-mate who has had success in the league before, or letting veterans handle the toughest opponents while the rookies start off against lower calibre adversaries. Not only can these veterans be good examples to the younger players, but they can help keep their confidence intact – which isn’t always an easy task when a Major Junior star suddenly has difficulty keeping his head above the water with an NHL farm team.
Linked to development is our second reason, competition. Handing a prospect a roster spot before he even enters camp is an invitation for him to give less than his best. During the season, an underperforming player might feel very little reason to try much harder if he knows that there’s nobody underneath him who can take his spot away. Competent AHL players – with or without experience – can provide powerful motivation to players on the NHL roster. No player on the team should ever feel he can slacken his effort, or that his job is safe: there should always be someone below him pushing him, keeping him hungry.
An understated reason for signing good AHL players is actually rather obvious: it makes the farm team better. That’s good for a lot of different reasons. In the case of the Oilers, where the parent franchise owns the AHL affiliate, it helps their bottom line: a winning farm team is generally a profitable farm team, an asset rather than a liability the NHL club forced to carry out of necessity. It builds fan interest, which ultimately helps the NHL brand. Perhaps most importantly, it gets prospects used to a winning culture, to an environment where they have confidence they’re being used correctly, that the team is well run, and where they know the specific role they have to play to help their team win games. Attitudes and morale improves, and of course advice from a successful coach has more weight than from a coach running an also-ran – even if it isn’t his fault.
Finally, the fourth reason is that some of these AHL players are going to spend significant time on an NHL roster. Back in May,I looked at how many players the average team used in 2009-10 and determined that for the average team, two AHL’ers would be fairly regular members of their parent NHL club, and that six other AHL’ers would spend at least some time in the show. In other words, for the average NHL team, the expectation is that five forwards and three defencemen who start the season in the AHL would be playing NHL minutes at some point. It’s nice if those guys can put in respectable performances; it’s even nicer to have reliable fill-ins when teams get runs of injuries, something that every fan knows is going to happen at some point.
That’s why I feel all these little moves matter. It’s the reason I’m disappointed when Steve Tambellini lets Ryan Stone walk, even though he’s not getting much money (or even a one-way deal) from his new team. It’s the reason why I smile when I see solid veterans added to the team; and in fairness to Tambellini he’s added quite a few. On the blue-line, Shawn Belle and Richard Petiot are exceptional players for Oklahoma City: both have NHL experience, and both have had success in the AHL. Up front, players like Brad Moran – who has spent the last couple of years putting up solid numbers in Sweden, has an unimpeachable AHL record and also owns NHL experience – and Alexandre Giroux – another guy with an NHL cup of coffee, and who has 110 goals, 200 points and 29 playoff goals over his last two AHL seasons – are welcome additions to the team, because they do all the things I pointed to above.
Individually, the moves aren’t make-or-break deals. Ultimately, the long-term success of the Oilers isn’t going to rest on Brad Moran or Shawn Belle (or Ryan Stone), but taken together, those sort of moves can build or undermine a successful organization.