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Opinion: It’s Time for Jim Nill to Trust His AHL Youth

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If not now, then soon. Spamming depth can have unintended consequences.

Montreal Canadiens v Florida Panthers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Before the 2016-2017 season started, the Stars had a can’t-miss forward lineup. To support the group, Jim Nill went out and grabbed some depth, signing Adam Cracknell, Jiri Hudler, and Lauri Korpikoski to take over in the event of injuries.

Before the 2017-2018 season starts, the Stars have a potentially can’t miss forward lineup. To support the group, Jim Nill went out and grabbed some depth, signing Brian Flynn, Tyler Pitlick, and giving R.J. Umberger a flyer for training camp to help take over in the event of injuries.

That sounds very chicken little, but it’s the dreaded summer doldrums.

When Dallas struggled to deal with injuries, suddenly Lauri Korpikoski was playing with Jason Spezza, and Antoine Roussel with Tyler Seguin. If injuries strike Dallas again, will Dallas ice Flynn with Seguin, and Pitlick with Spezza? Naturally, the justification is that the prospects hardcore fans know and love are “not ready”. Dallas needs a veteran lineup that has “been there” to compete. I, respectfully, disagree.

“Depth Players Have NHL Experience”

Calgary Flames v Toronto Maple Leafs

This is the most common refrain against letting the kids play. By signing depth players with NHL experience, Dallas ices a more experienced lineup. Except you want to ice the most talented lineup. To that end, do these signings do that?

Travis Yost decided to look at what “experience” is really worth. If we measure experience in age, then older players should fare, if not better then similar, defensively, to much younger players. Except they don’t. The margins between groups are dramatic. Yost broke down shot attempts against per hour by age bracket.

“The takeaway here should be obvious – no age-group has suppressed shots better than our 18-22 year-olds, guys truly limited on experience but likely in possession of those critical physical skills that get the job done against the most talented players in the world.”

Yost found that the same was true of younger players minimizing goals against per hour versus NHL veterans.

There are a lot of potential explanations for why this might be, and the conclusion isn’t that young = good, and old = bad. Rather, experience has the same value as potential - nothing on their own unless the player has shown that these variables are part of their broader value. Flynn, whose shot generation and shot suppression stats are actually below average for a 4th line winger over the last four seasons, has not shown this.

Nevermind the circular logic of it all: valuing experience in players who have it, and the lack of experience in those who don’t.

“Prospects Need to Earn Their Shot”

Dallas Stars v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

When you go back and look at last season’s healthy lineup, there was no room for Devin Shore. It was a master (cruel) stroke of luck he even made it. Yea, I know. Chance favors the prepared mind (or more accurately, the open mind). But without the injuries, there’s just no logical way Shore gets a shot unless he was scoring hat tricks in training camp.

Part of my issue with this argument is that it assumes an ideal state: that the cream rises to the crop, and the best players play. Except we know this isn’t always the case. Just look at some brief waiver wire history. New York’s Tanner Glass horror stories. Or Dallas’ own.

This argument assumes no bias.

Justin Bourne, once Backhand Shelf’s proud leader and recently the Toronto Marlies video coach, wrote a fascinating inside look into the difference between AHL and NHL players. There’s no riddle when it comes to development. The difference between both players is equal parts arbitrary, valid, and political:

For the players along the fold, there are many factors in determining what makes them millionaires and what doesn't. Those factors include: Being drafted or not (the bias of being drafted in the minds of management is bizarrely powerful given the low success rates of late round picks), the late bloomer versus junior “name player” and player familiarity to a GM with a roster hole. That's not even taking into account things like salary, age, character, playing styles, team needs, off-ice habits and more. If enough of those boxes are checked for a team with a specific need, it can supersede hockey ability.

Bourne’s piece is interesting because their rival, the Syracuse Crunch, played Yanni Gourde, who terrorized the Marlies. Gourde had been foundering around the AHL since 2011. His talent seemed to speak for itself despite his AHL status. It was odd to Bourne that Gourde couldn’t crack the NHL roster. Eventually, he did. But only last season. When Tampa Bay was (wait for it) decimated by injuries. He scored 8 points in 20 games. He’s now signed, and projects to be an impact player to the delight of Lightning fans.

I don’t disagree with the general sentiment - challenge your prospects, and they’ll make it eventually as long as they’re good enough. But are you actively maximizing your current roster? Remi Elie and Gemel Smith were on pace to beat Flynn’s career high in point totals. It’s not like we have no idea what these players will look like in the NHL.

“Top Line Minutes in the AHL > 4th Line Minutes in the NHL”

I prefer to ask: do you want your depth players to play up the lineup? Or down it?

A younger, more talented player in 4th line minutes isn’t merely keeping the bench warm. They’re getting used to the speed of the NHL. They’re meeting their teammates, forging chemistry, and most importantly, they’re getting acquainted with the system their future coach is running. The other benefit is that if a top six player goes down, someone with top six potential can take their place.

There’s a reasonable argument concerning what a prospect system should actively do: forming a successful environment is one even I endorsed (admittedly I go back and forth). But any team that wants a crack at the Stanley Cup needs its best iteration. It’s a matter of immediacy; is the team maximized for efficiency? Spamming depth just feels like roster standardized testing on a hamster wheel.

There’s always the chance that these prospects falter, underperform, and in the absence of that, having NHL ready players is nice backup. But what are the chances that Hintz, Elie, Dickinson, Gurianov, and even older prospects like Smith and Dowling all can’t adjust to the NHL speed?

There are plenty of great stories of young players performing above and beyond. Matt Murray, Jonathan Drouin, Jake Guentzel, Kevin Fiala, and even Pontus Aberg just to name a few in recent memory. When it comes to NHL readiness, maybe it’s just the case that sometimes trying to discover proof is more motivating than revisiting it.