After the draft winds down and the excitement of free agency wears off, hockey fans will turn their attention to the upcoming season with an eye to the future of their favourite team. Across the league, all 30 NHL teams hosted their development camps where everyone from top prospects to free agent invitees were invited to show off their skills in hopes of making a good impression for the rookie and/or main camps or quite simply to earn a contract. Some of the hockey world’s brightest prospects dazzled, sowing the seeds of hope into their team’s fan base that they are future stars in the making.
Warning to NHL GMs: Dont Rush the Kids
But the dazzle comes with expectations and sometimes too much too soon. Discussion has surrounded the 2014 NHL draft class regarding the top ten specifically. There are many promising players in that group of ten but when you look at Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl, Sam Bennett, Michael Dal Colle, Jake Virtanen, Haydn Fleury, William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and Nick Ritchie, it makes you wonder which ones are truly ready, who will surprise, or who will be rushed. The two players I fear are in danger of being rushed are Edmonton’s Draisaitl and Toronto’s Nylander.
Draisaitl who was drafted third overall by the Oilers, is a big bodied centre (6’1″ 209 LBS. according to Hockey’s Future) who can put up big numbers. His size is desperately needed down the middle for the Oilers and that’s what makes me worry he will be rushed. Having a strong 1-2 punch down the middle is important for any team, especially in the very tough Western conference. With the trade of Sam Gagner, the second line centre position is open, a place where Draisaitl could slot in. If the Oilers envision Draisaitl matching up against the likes of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf, David Backes, and Joe Thornton on a nightly basis for example, it might be for the best for him to return to junior, pack on some more muscle and continue to mature as a player.
In Toronto, they have a history of rushing players, throwing them to the wolves in the intense spotlight that comes with playing for the Leafs. Some scouts think Nylander just might be the most talented player in the 2014 NHL draft, as he has great speed and slick offensive skills. Along with current Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, Nylander has franchise player potential, as he is easily their best prospect. However, while his skills are NHL-ready and he has decent size at 5’11”, that body needs some more muscle and bulk. While he did play against men in Sweden, it’s a different game. Unlike some other prospects, Nylander has more options than most when it comes to where he could play next season. He could play for the Leafs, and since he was drafted from Europe, he could play in the AHL. The Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL own his rights as well, or he could head back to Europe where as a free agent, he has a host of places he could conceivably play.
The NHL is rife with players who jumped to the big leagues too soon such as Kyle Turris, Sam Gagner, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Josh Bailey to name a few. In the case of Turris, he has seemingly found his footing as a top two centre in a new setting in Ottawa while injuries are Bogosian’s biggest hurdle. Gagner has the chance for a fresh start in Arizona and it will be interesting to see how he responds. Even Buffalo prospect Mikhail Grigorenko was in danger of being one of those players after starting the last two seasons in Buffalo and struggling mightily before being sent back to junior. With a new regime in Buffalo where young players will take their time, Grigorenko could conceivably spend the majority of next season in AHL Rochester as his junior eligibility has run out.
Players today are more skilled and more physically ready to play in the big leagues than ever before. But as much as the NHL is a skill game, the mental maturity has to be there too. As much as these players will dazzle in the pre season and training camps, teams can’t let that fool them. They have to ask themselves, are these kids ready for the physical demands of an 82 game regular season with the possibility of playoffs? How will they respond to slumps that come their way? Are they ready to match the effort and compete level when the season ramps up? In the end, it’s hard to name a player who has been hurt by more development time in lower leagues and there is no shame in playing in the minors. As good as these kids are, most of them need the time to become the player they are projected to be.
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