On Saturday night, TSN’s Bob McKenzie interviewed Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli. We’ve had a number of posts on this site hitting on what was said because the wide-ranging conversation gives us a glimpse into the mind of the man tasked with reviving the Oilers.
Among other points, Chiarelli gave us a glimpse into his philosophy regarding young players, specifically Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl.
Asked whether Draisaitl and Nurse might start the year in the minors owing to developmental imperatives even if technically NHL-ready, Chiarelli said this:
It’s possible. I think an argument can be made either way, that they can be on the team and develop with the team. For a defenceman there’s more responsibilities so Darnell may have a steeper climb there; then we’re talking about Leon centre/wing it might be easier to make that switch in the minors, so you can make an argument for both cases. It’s easy to get these guys in and let them develop, it’s harder to put them down there and tell them to be patient. There is certainly a strong cast of forwards that would make it easier to send Leon down. At the end of the day, Bob, the play ramps up in every 10-game segment. What you see in training camp, the level of play, the pace, is far different from the first 10 games, it’s far different from the next 10 games. What people will see is both those two competing in the lowest level of competition across the season, so you’ve got to be careful when you make these decisions.
It’s an answer which in many ways mirrors what Chiarelli said during his July 1 press conference, when he was asked a similar question about Nurse and Draisaitl:
You want competition and not hand anything to anybody. We want to progress, we want to be better. If there’s a spot to be won and one of these young players win it, then they’ll win it. But training camp is different from the first 10 games, and the first 10 games is a lot different from the next 10 games. It’s a progression. Just because you can fill in a phantom roster without those [young] players doesn’t mean they won’t be on the team.
Chiarelli’s answer to McKenzie is agnostic on the idea of uber-patient development in the mode of the Detroit Red Wings. That’s a fair stance; while the strategy has certainly worked well for the Wings we’re not at a point where it’s possible to conclusively show one way or the other that the reason their players have developed so well is that approach (as opposed to something like generally superior coaching, drafting, etc.).
His answer does suggest two other items, though, one working for and one against the rookies.
First, he isn’t an absolutist about development; he takes into account the needs of his team when making decisions about demotions. That may seem obvious, but it’s certainly possible to concoct a scenario where long term goals would easily trump actual team need (i.e. ‘Anton Lander really should start his North American career in the AHL, but he’s clearly a better fourth-line centre/penalty-killer in the here-and-now than Gilbert Brule). In other words, if Nurse or Draisaitl are deemed to be ready, they can file off the rough edges in the majors.
Second, it’s not as simple as an open contest in which players are on an even footing. This won’t be a shock to anyone, but established NHL’ers aren’t necessarily going to go through a wall to win a preseason game the way they would during the year. Chiarelli’s repeated comments that play ramps up (he made them in a July 7 interview, too) as the season progresses suggest strongly that the rookies don’t just have to make the team out of camp, they have to be head-and-shoulders clear of the cut line. It’s not enough to be better than the established players; the rookie needs to be definitively better.
It seems that Nurse’s challenge is going to be to prove that he’s polished enough defensively to crack the team; his physical skills are clear but defencemen generally take longer than forwards because there’s simply more to learn defensively and mistakes can generally only be covered by the goalie. Draisaitl, in contrast, will have to displace a forward to claim a spot. It’s not a sure thing either makes the team out of camp; if I had to guess I’d say that Draisaitl’s chances of earning a spot on the wing are pretty good and that it’s going to be awfully difficult for Nurse to play well enough to win a spot in the lineup for Game 1.