When the Stars called up Tomas Vincour in early February, I don't think many fans turned their heads at the news. Dallas was short on healthy bodies at the time and basically had a revolving door at the forward position for AHL call-ups. It's the kind of debut any player hopes for: no expectations, no pressure to immediately excel. Just come into the lineup and play your role until people get healthy.
Yet Vincour has done more than that. You won't find him on the scoresheet, but he's passed the eyeball test so far. He's shown great instincts in all areas of the ice, creating plenty of chances for his linemates while playing a defensively responsible game that is rare for a 20-year-old rookie. Remember that this time last year Vincour was playing in the WHL, and he has little more than half of a season's worth of experience in the AHL. He's playing a kind of quality hockey not many prospects play with with so little experience.
And it brings up an important question: what does this mean for his development? Should he stay with the big club for good, or could he benefit from more seasoning in the minors? It's far too early to tell at this point. But the Vincour call-up itself did surprise Alvin Chang of ESPN.com's NHL Draft Blog (note: requires ESPN Insider to read):
This is remarkable because, historically, the Stars are extremely patient with their prospects. On average, Stars prospects have had to wait 3.3 years to make their NHL debut after being drafted, making Dallas the most patient team in the NHL (the league average is about 2.6 years). However, Vincour made it in just 1.5 years.
So perhaps second-year general manager Joe Nieuwendyk is playing by different rules than his predecessors.
This is something I don't know if many fans are aware of. I definitely wasn't. But off the top of your head, try to name the rookies that've stuck with the Stars roster without significant AHL playing time. Jamie Benn comes to mind, as do Fabian Brunnstrom and Matt Niskanen. But compared to the rest of the NHL, that's a very small sample.
So the Dallas Stars tend to take their time developing prospects, more so than any other team in the league. Is this a good strategy? Or have the Stars been hurting themselves by being too patient?
Before we dive into the issue, a few facts from Chang:
1. Mathematically speaking, patience is usually a good thing. There is a strong correlation between how patient a club is, and how often they make the playoffs. It's partly because better teams don't have to rush prospects to fill holes.
2. The Stars promote players at a similar rate as the NHL average -- about 35 percent of drafted players play at least one NHL game.
3. The Stars find NHL contributors (minimum 82 games played) at a higher-than-average rate -- about 23 percent of drafted players.
The caveat to that last one, as Chang points out, is that the Stars haven't had many players contribute in their draft year, indicating that Dallas hasn't drafted "elite" prospects in some time. The reason for this is simple: the Stars have been consistently winning, so their draft picks have been later in the first round more often than not. They haven't been in a position to draft the Taylor Halls and Tyler Seguins of the world, so the players they acquire aren't quite ready to jump into an NHL lineup yet. So, naturally, the Stars have been extremely patient while developing prospects.
But they didn't have to, not if they had adopted a different strategy in the draft. The players they were able to pick in those later slots would've needed some time, yes. But perhaps they should've targeted players who could be rushed through the minors.
I'm not advocating speeding up development. The Stars saw how that approach affected Matt Niskanen. Niskanen was a late first-rounder in 2005, with less than a full season in college hockey under his belt. He made the decision after his sophomore year to turn pro, but it was the Stars who gave him a roster spot after only 13 games in the AHL. Niskanen didn't play another minute in the minors after that. Deprived of the necessary experience, Niskanen's growth became stunted and he never fully reached his potential in Dallas.
On the other side of the coin is Mark Fistric. Fistric was brought along slowly through the system, playing nearly two full seasons with the Iowa Stars before getting called up to the big club. Though he played some during the playoffs that year, it was clear he needed more work and was sent back to the minors for 35 games before being called back up. Some of his experience was by chance, but Fistric has benefited from a slow development in ways Matt Niskanen could not.
So clearly the slow method can work. But there are some cases where getting rushed through the system can benefit a player. Jamie Benn blossomed given the chance, and Tomas Vincour is currently playing well enough to stick around for awhile longer.
I guess what I'm saying is the Stars can't just stick to the "we'll bring 'em along slowly" method every time. Sure, it's safer. Imagine the trouble Dallas would be in if Fistric or Loui Eriksson had suffered the same fate as Matt Niskanen. But perhaps taking the risk and throwing a player on the big stage quickly more often will yield more and more Benns or Vincours.
On a final note, the Stars could make it easier on themselves in the future if they specifically targeted players in the late parts of rounds that they know could handle a quick jump to the pros. They did so with Jamie Benn and Tomas Vincour in the fifth round...what's to stop them from doing so in the early rounds?
As for Vincour, I'm in the camp that wants to see him stick around with the big club for good. He's already played well in his first stretch in the pros, and perhaps a return to the minors would be taking a step back. You never know though with prospects.
Anyways, it's an interesting thing to think about. What are your thoughts?