There’s often a lot of talk about fixing the development system but not a lot about what that would entail. Without having worked in a NHL organization, it is tough to know the exact options and barriers for doing such. But there’s certainly several areas in which opportunity for improvement can be explored and it’s time to try and outline what those could be.
Elevate Director of Development
First order of business to revamp the development system would be to say good bye to the long tenured Director of Development David Oliver and begin search for a replacement. This candidate should come from an organization with a long track record of development success, a forward thinking individual and someone who will take on a large role with a hands-on approach and relocate to Colorado.
Creating a list of candidates would take a lot of due diligence and research. Examining personnel in organizations where they have had continued development success without many top picks such as Anaheim, Nashville and Pittsburgh would be a priority.
With the new Director of Development there would be a lot of delegation and leaning on their expertise but someone who will provide a lot of information, communication and be held accountable. They would need to select a development staff, have a bit of input on the coaching staff at the AHL level and also a hand in scouting. This person should be an advocate for the players but who also passes along the organizational messages and acts as a liaison between the parties.
From there craft a developmental plan both long and short term from the organization and both collectively and individually for players. Surely the the new director would have ideas and techniques that have been successful for them and their prior organization but several thoughts in mind are:
Increase Skill and Competition Work
Hire individual skills coaches who will work with the players at the AHL level frequently. Such areas of focus could be faceoffs and shooting. Skill development isn’t just for kids and all players can benefit. With the reduced 68 game schedule as the Colorado Eagles transition to the AHL there will be more opportunity for practice and time set aside to do these types of things on a regular basis.
Have a competitive component to development camp. More on-ice situations especially for those NCAA and European players who that might be their only time of the year with the organization. Obviously summer hockey brings a different set of expectations but these players are training and ready to be evaluated any time they are in front of the organization.
There are already several ideas the Avalanche have already implemented which should remain in consideration. Retaining a skating coach on staff such as Tracy Tutton has already shown improvement in many prospects and continued work with her year-round will only bring more benefits. Organized summer work-out groups for young professionals and prospects is another good idea which should remain as it helps fortify the organizational objectives and build camaraderie.
Then with a plan in place, the organizational philosophy must emphasize and prioritize development at the AHL level. It will be understood that playing time and roster space will go mostly to prospects. Fully believe in that winning and development are not mutually exclusive.
This is not to say a prospect will be handed everything and won’t be held accountable. There’s plenty of room to earn more ice time, roles in special teams and greater leadership responsibility. The understanding that prospects were signed to NHL contracts and brought into a minor league system is for the purpose of developing and ultimately graduating players is critical. They need to be on the ice and in key situations for this to occur.
There also needs to be a development plan and path for each prospect. What does their transition to the NHL look like and what work needs to be done to get them there? Not everything should be based on winning a job in camp but more an entire plan of how to transition players into NHL roles and opportunities.
Speaking of opportunity, there is an old theory that members of the Avalanche organization have expressed in that past a prospect isn’t ready for the NHL until he’s played in at least 100 games in the AHL. Of course there’s exceptions for phenoms and the highest of draft picks but for the most part a player who needs development has to put in his time and receive at least a minimum’s games worth of experience. In theory it is an appropriate principle to not rush prospects and get them fully ready for the next step. But how much is too much? Is spending too much time in the minors leading to stagnation and missed opportunity?
In the Avalanche organization getting to 100 AHL games played signals the window of opportunity might have passed. There’s few examples of players who have spent a significant amount of time in the minor league system and gone on to become regular members of the Avalanche, even as role players. Improving the system as a whole might provide greater returns on long term development in the minors but in general around the league if a young prospect is going to make the jump to become an impact player at the next level it happens within the first couple years they become professionals.
There needs to be consideration to ongoing roster spots and minutes given to prospects to come up to the NHL level and have an opportunity. With the AHL level Colorado Eagles just miles away there’s a lot of different ways to bring prospects up on a more frequent basis and to keep using roster space on them instead of defaulting to AHL veterans or the waiver wire when holes come up. It is a delicate balance to focus on winning at the NHL level while also still giving ample opportunity and a steady stream of prospect infusion at the highest level. The “youth movement” isn’t just something to try after a bad season and going into a year with no expectations. Rather a full commitment must be made organizationally to plan, prepare for and execute a full development system which includes experience on the NHL club.
Complimentary Roster Construction
Careful consideration must be made for which veterans are the right ones to help the young group along and primarily those who have been with the organization for several years who can help impart and maintain the organizational identity and philosophies to the young developing players. No more mercenaries and paying for points which were scored on stacked teams in another conference. A willingness to spend is on AHL talent is a good step but identifying and investing in the right complimentary veterans is key.
A more proactive approach to signing prospects earlier rather than waiting as long as possible would be nice to see as well. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as they eventually get paid but any gains made in turning the attitude and culture around in showing that there’s importance and value in the prospects in the organization and all it costs is giving out a signing bonus a couple months earlier should be considered. Adding more youth on AHL contracts and upgrading them to Entry Level Contracts is another avenue other organizations have found competitive advantages in getting more options in the system as well.
The Time is Now
Changing the development system won’t happen overnight nor will it provide perfect results. There will be a period of adjustment and lessons learned. The most important thing is to make improving and utilizing the development system a priority by placing a lot of focus and effort to yield better results long term. It has to happen now before more years are spent waiting for changes.
A feeling out process to see if just moving AHL operations to Colorado changes things isn’t enough. There’s opportunity for better and perhaps some renewed vision and attention on the youth but there must be action. Every year that goes by is another year of a very small window of opportunity for the talent in the organization that is spent. Improving the talent base through better scouting and signings will raise the capacity for the system but wasting more talent would be an even greater failure.
Good news is the capacity and ability to make change is available. The gains made at the NHL level in these areas should help to reinforce the vision and commitment to the youth movement. A stable of better available talent should open the door wider for NHL opportunities. Having the AHL team just up the road should bring the partnership and system synergies together. If there’s a willingness to change then all things are possible.
Credit to San Antonio Rampage for the photo