Within the span of four days, two vastly talented hockey players find themselves riding the buses in the American Hockey League at different stages of their careers.
On December 29th, the Philadelphia Flyers placed Sam Gagner on waivers and sent him down to Leigh Valley the following day after Gagner cleared. Fast forward to January 2nd, and it was announced that the Tampa Bay Lightning were sending the third overall pick from a draft two years ago, back to the AHL for conditioning, which prompted Drouin’s agent, Allan Walsh to announce that the player and agent had demanded Steve Yzerman, the GM of the Lightning move Drouin where he could play in the NHL regularly.
The two situations are different, but the end result is the same, selfish thinking, that has resulted in stunted development of both of these players.
First, take a look at Gagner, the sixth pick of the 2007 NHL Draft to the player development slaughter house of Edmonton. The Oilers, who a season after going to the Stanley Cup Finals and coming within a game of winning it all, had a horrid 2006-07 season which resulted in the picking of Gagner.
Rushing 18 year old kids to play in the NHL wasn’t something exclusive to the Oilers. It happened to many teams in the NHL looking provide a quick turnaround to increasingly frustrated fan bases after a poor season. So the long term future and stability of the players was abandoned in hopes of placating the fans.
Gagner, an immensely talented forward, drafted out of London in the OHL, had a huge season for the Knights, notching 118 points in just 53 OHL games. Therein lies the problem however: only 53 OHL games. A player, at 18 years old, no matter what his point totals in junior, rarely deserves to make his NHL team right out of his draft year, unless he’s a prodigal talent like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. As good a player as Gagner was in junior, he couldn’t hold a candle to those two names.
But unfortunately, business came first for the Oilers and to put more butts in the seats, Gagner was given carte blanche. Despite putting up 49 points in 79 games, respectable numbers for an 18 year old, it was clear that Gagner was over matched by the size of the opposition in the Western Conference and the maturity, as evidenced by his abysmal -21 rating with Edmonton.
After nine NHL seasons, three NHL teams (with a brief layover in Tampa) and never once improving on his totals from his inaugural season, Gagner is in the AHL, a place where he should have been as a 20 year old, six seasons ago after finishing two more years with the Knights in Junior.
Which brings us to the case of Jonathan Drouin. The Lightning, who were just a season removed from going to the Cup Finals saw their team fall into the draft lottery again and pick third in 2013. That 2012-13 lockout shortened season was an anomaly for the Lightning who expected to be competitive again the following season, so unlike the 2007-08 Oilers, they played it smart with their prized prospect and sent him back to Halifax of the QMJHL.
It takes a lot of courage to send a player down to juniors after being a lottery pick, but the Lightning saw this as an opportunity to grow with a good team in the Q instead of toiling third or fourth line minutes and struggling to find their place in the NHL.
You run the risk of alienating your relationship with the player because his agent is busy building up delusions of grandeur in the minds of their impressionable young clients and their parents who have put in hard work getting their kids to this moment. And lo and behold, just two years after being drafted, this is exactly what Allan Walsh has pulled on Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning, revealing a trade request put in all the way back in November.
Yzerman is well within his rights to tell Walsh to go stick it where the sun don’t shine and that the player belongs to the Lightning and they will bring about his development the way they see fit. And here’s hoping that is what happens in Tampa Bay. If Yzerman deals Drouin, he runs the risk of creating a playground, where entitled agents are hiding behind their 18 year old clients and saying play us, or move us. That is not somewhere the NHL wants this to go.
Walsh will tell Drouin and his parents that he is acting in the best interests of his client, just as the Oilers would have sold Gagner and his family the same thing back in 2007. But lets face it, they’re not. They’re representing themselves and putting the kid’s futures at risk by doing so. If I’m a parent or player, I look at teams and agents and say, lets do what is best for my career so that I do not flame out at 26 years old like Gagner, or a Rob Schremp before him. To have a long, successful NHL career, taking your time and playing in the minors can only help, not hinder a player’s development.
Take the New Jersey Devils in the late 80s and early 90s for example. The Devils consistently drafted in the top five of the draft in those years but rarely ever rushed their players to the NHL because Lou Lamoriello wouldn’t allow it. Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias, all multiple Stanley Cup Champions spent time in the minors, as well as in junior before being brought up to the big club. If you ask those three players how important spending time in the AHL or Junior Hockey was, they’d tell you that it was the best thing for their careers. Each played over 20 years and were never in danger of flaming out.
Drouin would be wise to tell his agent to shut up and let him go down to Syracuse and dominate down there before being ready to be called up to the NHL. There are openings in Tampa Bay around the corner if Steven Stamkos decides to cut bait and leave in the off season, leaving Drouin open to compete for a top six spot.
And if Stamkos does re-sign with the Lightning, Drouin can always force Yzerman’s hand into dealing another player because they need to keep Drouin, or move him to another team that has openings in their top six where Drouin will eventually find himself, but only after using Gagner as a cautionary tale and not before.
It’s time for the players to wise up and put themselves first and foremost to ensure a bright future for themselves in the best league in the world.