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Pre-Season and The Pitfalls of Skipping Developmental Pathways

One more day until Ducks hockey

Max Jones: Already hoisting silverware

I’m as excited about the current crop of Anaheim Ducks prospects as anyone. It’s been fun to see what the young kids can do, and I can't wait to be free of the old man retirement contracts given to Antoine Vermette, Kevin Bieksa, and Francois Beauchemin (although I am glad that Beauch has come home to retire a Duck). I can't wait to see them replaced by Sam Steel, Jacob Larsson or... well, literally anyone. Throwing up and comers like Max Jones in the mix with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell, amongst others, rings the cup contender bell in minds eye.

The question however, is why do certain segments of the fan base, commentators, and in some cases coaches and team management, feel the need to rush prospects from junior hockey to the big club? Is it the result of the Ducks conference final playoff run? Do they think that these prospects will make that difference from conference finals to hoisting the cup? That they will help the Ducks win a playoff round against a genuine contender instead of getting knocked out by the first good team they play? In the case of fans, it is easy to see that it is excitement from the prospect (see what i did there?) of getting a shiny new toy. From management’s side, the prospects cheap contracts can paper over some of the more expensive poor ones they have given out, and provide a ready made excuse when results don't go the right way. But is this the best approach?

From a purely developmental perspective, in some cases it very well may be. On a rebuilding team that has traded away all their veteran players and overall talent in a bid to rebuild (cough-tank-cough) a more competitive team, a prospect may be able to slot into a role that allows them to succeed. If said prospect is a generational superstar, they may be able to force their way into such a role over a more veteran player. But we’re discussing the Ducks. The general consensus is that the Ducks are stacked on defence, and with Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen scheduled to miss very few games, that blue line is starting to look awfully crowded. Sure a prospect who's coming off a good camp could play over a veteran such as Bieksa, but how does a prospect’s development get helped by playing ~10 minutes a night in garbage time? This scenario is similarly seen in the forwards. Someone like Max Jones is unlikely to play in the top 6 forward group, thus the question is whether his development be best served playing 9-10 minutes a night maximum?

Babcock makes great points. Points, seemingly, that Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman follows. Going back a few years, the Lightning told at-the-time recent #3 overall draft pick, Jonathan Drouin, that they didn't believe he was fully ready for the rigors of the NHL. Instead, they determined another year in Halifax would most benefit the player. There obviously was a lot of commentary about this decision, but in hindsight we have to say that it was for the most part a good decision. This past season Drouin has come into his own and become a force putting up a solid points total and doing it in a defensively responsible manner. He is also free of major injuries. Similarly former #3 overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau has said that the decision to send him back to junior has already paid dividends, this despite being the Panthers leading scorer in 2011 preseason competition.

The closest comparable for the Ducks is Max Jones, who is likely the face of the future offence. If he makes mistakes in the NHL he’s likely to be benched, or placed in different roles. The Ducks are also coached by Randy Carlyle and “managed” by Bob Murray. Both men prefer defensive play, or at least “two-way,” 200ft play. This often means that incoming players are required to earn their chops on the defensive side of the puck before being given greater latitude to score. If Jones was to be put into the team he's most likely going to be given 3rd line minutes and in a less offensively orientated role - in training camp this season he was given Vermette as a linemate, which may suggest he's not going to be used in a prime offensive role straight off the bat. Jones can still go back to junior hockey and will likely be a top line, or at least top 6, option. With these much bigger minutes and opportunity (most likely special teams as well), he can improve of his attacking game but also work on the defensive skills that he’ll require stepping into a Carlyle coached team.

Even if the Ducks were to decide to bring up Jones or Steel, that is no guarantee that they will improve the Ducks as a team. Both players have shown impressive play so far in camp, which is about the time “he’s got nothing left to prove in junior” is heard. Sure, the pathway from junior to pro ranks are broken, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the prospect has proven they can play in the NHL. This development camp/ preseason play can fool a lot of people in to thinking both of these players are ready for the NHL right now. But, there are other things to consider. One is that in the preseason, teams only play a handful of NHL regulars in most of their games. On most nights, Jones and Steel aren’t playing against full time NHL players. They are playing against NHL hopefuls like themselves who are trying to make their respective teams out of Juniors, AHL and fringe NHL players. This is quite different from when the regular season starts and every NHL team’s rosters will have all NHL regulars on them.

But can these prospects be to too good for junior hockey? I hate to circle back to Hextall yet again, but it doesn’t appear that he really believes in that notion. “I think any player can be the best player in junior hockey,” he says. “We want all of our players to be better than they were last year.” Hextall has over numerous interviews expressed a desire to determine whether the player is NHL ready, and not to worry about the level of competition. “He’s got a pro/NHL body,” is often the catch cry of those plumping prospects. However, this is most often based on how they play against kids within their peer group, and is almost never based on analysis. How strong or powerful are these prospects, both in pure terms and comparatively to NHL players? Anaerobic threshold is often considered to a differentiating factor in successful athletic performance, but do we know how these prospects rate? Defencemen typically play longer shifts and require higher VO2max (the maximum rate at which the heart, lungs & muscles can effectively use oxygen) which in many cases improves over time. Would the player be better served playing a lot of minutes, and using the games as a training regime? As outsiders to the team we fans can't possibly answer these questions that sometimes even those in the know get wrong.

Relationship between physical qualities, training load and injury risk. Gabbett, 2016

As for insiders in the know, who can forget Ducks General Manager saying that he couldn’t see goal tending prospect John Gibson in the AHL, back in 2014. Today we have a goaltender, that saw that same General Manager, criticize for being injured. Or rather not taking his conditioning seriously. This preseason then saw him give Gibson the backhanded compliment (as well as pumping new back-up Ryan Millers tyres) of “finally working on his hips and groin.” However, how plausible is it that, Gibson being brought up before getting a solid grounding in the AHL contributed to that condition? Hockey is a game which refuses to consider the long-term consequences of the cumulative toll it takes on a human body. More than this, it's still a game that actively discourages admitting that there is a toll taken at all - an attitude that only increases as the level gets higher, the hits get harder and the danger of long-term damage increases. It’s a game that actively promotes playing through injuries to show “toughness,” “grit,” and “heart.” Old school Coach and old school General Manager, most certainly think that being hurt is part of the game. We saw it in Murrays most recent interview when discussing Kesler’s injury. “That’s just Kes being Kes,” Murray swooned, “you know how he is.”

There is a clinical understanding that increasing in loading increases the risk of injuries occurring, in some cases increasing risk by up to 70%. Loading can be described as anything that physically impacts a player, and can range from game time to lifting weights and everything in between. Other aspects such as stress or lack of sleep can also increase injury risk. That said, there should be an understanding that NHL athletes work harder than junior athletes, and that the risk and incidents of injury increases as the level of competition increases. Further that junior players are more likely to be injured during games, than training. Which leads to players being sent home after training camp to develop their attributes in safer environments.

Injury risk vs Training Load. Gabbett, 2016

Most likely if you're over the age of 30 and have played any sport, or even if you sit at a desk all day, you've come across an over-use (or under-use/over-use) injury, which has arisen from doing less and suddenly doing a lot more. Building into this “more” is a key way to reduce the risk of injury occurring. In most cases the desire is to increase loading by ~10-15%, as greater increase subsequently increase risk (see figure above). Consider that a typical professional athletes pre-season day is similar to the following: conditioning session, weights session, rehab/physio, team meetings, lunch, skills training, conditioning/weights. That, I think we can all agree, is a big jump from that which is performed at a junior level and certainly greater than 10% extra. Additional years in junior hockey, and indeed in the AHL, allow a slow build between the two, with less stress. Additionally, there is strong evidence in the literature that previous injury is a risk factor for re-injury of the same type and location. Meaning that once an injury has occurred its more likely that the person will sustain further injuries in the future. In the case of soft tissue injuries, re-injury is likely to occur within the following year in 12-48% of cases. Obviously this is true of concussions and other impact injuries. The mechanism to an increased risk of future injury may be by the initial injury contributing to muscular weakness and imbalance, impairment of the ligaments, and a fear of re-injury that could cause the athlete to use altered muscle recruitment strategies and lose focus causing an inability to maintain attention to appropriate visual cues. It’s unlikely that these considerations are made by managements bringing players along as soon as possible.

Ironically, in sports, injuries don’t just cost wins, which they do. The biggest predictor of winning a championship across most team sports is injury time lost. In a generally comparative league, the team that can play its first choice team the most has the greatest chance of taking home the chocolates. However, injuries also cost money. By one estimate in 2013, teams across MLB spent $665 million on the salaries of banged-up guys and their replacements. NBA teams lost $358 million, with $44 million alone by the Los Angeles Lakers. And in that year in the NFL, where the average salary was about $2 million, starters missed a record 1,600 games. Not all salaries are covered by insurance, and even insurance costs money. The more claims, the more expensive it is. This should be a concern for a typically budget conscious franchise.

So is this injury risk, and the risk of lowering the development ceiling worth it? Well, NHL teams are allowed a very small window to make these potentially career- and franchise-defining decisions. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for nine games at the start of the regular season during which a player on his entry-level contract can be evaluated. The player can be returned to his junior team without his contract kicking in at any point before the player dresses for his 10th game. If the player skates in more than nine games, he still can be returned to his junior team, but the first year of his entry-level contract goes into effect and the player could reach free agency at an accelerated pace. For a budget team like the Ducks this could rob them of elite talent right at the age that the prospect is peaking. Plus, once sent down after the nine-game mark, he can't be recalled during that season, except under emergency conditions. In terms of making a decision at training camp, in preseason, and prior to this 9 games being up, Ron Hextall (2016) has made an allowance that a strong season in junior tends to help a player’s chances and affords them a longer look. But he says so with the following caveat; “a tryout is not two weeks long, It’s not a fair barometer, and quite honestly to make a decision on a week or two, how smart would I be? Not very.”

As fans, we should take all of this on board and cool our jets. No matter how much we want to see the future, it will arrive sooner than we think whether we like it or not. Patience is a virtue and though it may tough having to sit and wait for these guys to be ready, it will all be worth it in the long run. Until then...