So when I write about player development, as we kick off "draft week" in the National Hockey League, I am offering a very unsophisticated view of that term. As a hockey layman, I simply mean that there is more to that term, in my mind, than drafting a guy, stuffing him in the minor for six weeks or six months and then expecting him to be “a pro”. Somewhere along the way really good organizations (and really good coaching staffs) must somehow know how to continue the teaching/development process with young players.
With so many young athletes in all sports a lot of whether they succeed in the conventional sense has to do with their natural skills and their work ethic. But I also have to believe, based on my own personal life experience (and experience in and around sports over many years) that the ability to continue and actually extend the education process with young people that have various degrees of potential can and should be a crucial component of helping them to reach that potential.
In simple terms, can an organization not only draft someone with character, skill and a strong work ethic, but also provide the little things that help that young person on and off the ice to become all they can be?
I know the Leafs have a seemingly checkered history in this regard with young players. I mean, I have memories of young Maple Leafs going back to the late 1950s. Why do some “make it” and some don’t? (I’m not talking about the young players the Leafs have traded away in my lifetime and went on to become stars elsewhere, that’s a topic for another day…). Today I’m simply asking VLM readers if they believe the Leafs have, in very recent times, done an adequate, poor or very good job of taking the talent they’ve drafted or acquired and developing them into the kind of NHLers they could and should be.
Jake Gardiner hasn’t played 300 NHL games as a defenseman, and that’s an evaluation demarcation point for a lot of hockey assessment experts. But have the Leafs truly developed him, I wonder, to bring him to where he should be as an all-around player? (And I simply raise Gardiner’s name as an example. He has only played a little over 160 regular season NHL games- about two regular seasons worth of games.)
There are so many things that go into development. It’s teaching the nuances about the position the youngster plays; it’s also about helping with positioning. It includes effective communication, being able to clearly show what you want from the player, understanding their current limitations as well as patience and discipline. We can probably throw in establishing realistic roadmaps and expectations along with proper and timely feedback.
And when does this all stop? Are the Leafs still developing Dion Phaneuf, for example, or is he so far along in his career that true growth is improbable? Do good organizations help make even mature (but willing) veterans better?
Would Phaneuf be an even better player by now in a different environment (even setting aside whether he is truly a first-line defenseman or has the right partner)?
I read with interest a piece a few days ago, quoting former NBA great Jerry West. I remember watching West as a youngster play for the LA Lakers in the 1960s. (Talk about a guy who could play.) I don’t follow the NBA closely any more, but I know a bit about what’s going on as a casual observer. West, a Hall-of-Famer with talent, smarts and a great work ethic as a player and NBA executive, marveled at how well the San Antonio Spurs “develop” their young players. If guys have weaknesses, West suggests they are able to reach down and help those individuals become better than expected.
I can’t verify West’s claim, but the Spurs haven’t high a high draft pick (they’ve been a top team for 15 seasons or more) in ages, I don’t believe, and yet they have continued to be a tremendous team. Like the Detroit Red Wings in hockey, they seem to know how to identify talent and character through the draft, trades or free agency. It doesn't mean they’re never wrong. Every team makes choices and decisions that don’t move the needle. But they are progressive, classy organizations with a strong management structure, employing legitimate leaders that don’t have to talk about creating a winning culture as much as simply act it out.
This all leads to my point. Maybe West is on to something. There are organizations that “teach” and develop better than others. I’m not suggesting this is news, but even in this high-tech world of player assessment where everyone should be on a level playing field, a select few organizations still seem to stand out over prolonged periods of time in their respective sports. And it’s not always about who has the most money.
These clubs hire the right executive and management people, surround them with the administrative and assessment tools (as well as the human resources talent) they need to thrive. And eventually it falls on the chosen coach, his staff and the players that management provides them with. And that dynamic—between coaching staff and players—either works or it doesn’t.
When it comes to really and truly developing players, I’m not saying some organizations and some coaches have it and some don’t, but some seem to get it right more often and more consistently than others.
Some observers think the Leafs have a lot of great young prospects. Others aren’t so sure. Some believe Dallas Eakins, a fine coach, was outstanding at developing players with the AHL Marlies, though that development skill may be in question after a season behind the Oiler bench where he coached some of the most gifted youngsters in the game and saw the team fall far short of expectations.
But I’m not so much questioning whether the Leafs have young talent at the Junior or minor league (or even on the projected Leaf roster) level, but are they doing what they have to do to make those players better?
My guess is a core of Leaf supporters will suggest things are better now than they used to be when it comes to development, but I’m not sure I’m seeing the proof, as in a number of solid, two-way NHLers who can contribute in important situations all over the ice. Yes, some of these players are really young and I have always recognized it takes time to properly develop talent, but I'd be more comfortable if the Leaf history was proven in this area.
The culture of an organization has to provide something when it comes to development and expectations. The coaching staff certainly has a significant role. And the players have to bring the right attitude, embrace organizational objectives, work on their flaws and be genuine team guys while embracing what’s asked of them.
It’s a two way street.
Where are the Leafs?