When Rick Buker asked me if I would write a few articles for PenguinPoop, I was both thrilled and scared at the same time. I was scared because I knew that someday, sometime, there would be a topic that I was so passionate about, that I could not ignore it and would have to write about it honestly.
There are times in life you should just keep your mouth shut and ignore the situation. This is one of those occasions Pens fans, but I simply cannot.
Please forgive me before I start. The spirit of this article is to inform people and not to insult them. Be forewarned. It will be a critical article because there is no simple way to tell the story. It is a very important story. One we must all understand if we truly want to three-peat next year and look down the road to see the future problems we as Pens fans may have to endure.
What is it in hockey terms? The farm system is the minor-league development arm for every National Hockey League team. Hence the term growing our NHL talent down on the farm. Just like growing food on a real farm. Same analogy.
As there are 31 different NHL franchises to date, it can be easily argued that there are 31 different types of player development systems that exist in the NHL today. Some teams spend a lot of money on their farm system while others do the bare minimum. It’s easy to spot the difference.
To be successful in the NHL, you have to invest in your future. It all starts with scouting. In the old days, the good teams had a Canadian scout, a Quebec French-speaking scout and a part time American college scout. Keeping in mind, in those days 80 percent of the players in the NHL came from Canada.
When the league grew from the Original Six to 12 teams in 1967 to 31 teams today, scouting changed significantly. No one who witnessed it can ever forget the Miracle on Ice in 1980, when a group of United States college kids beat the greatest hockey dynasty ever built, the fearsome Soviet National Team.
U.S. college hockey had arrived. It continues today even stronger.
Now all teams scout U.S. college teams as well as the three major junior Canadian hockey leagues. Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, Russia, Germany and even Switzerland are now being scouted for elite hockey talent as well.
That has changed our game for the better. Today all successful NHL teams must employ scouts in these countries to find the new hockey talent so vital to their team. Some NHL clubs even help co-sponsor hockey teams in these various European leagues to keep an eye on future stars.
Case in point: the Detroit Red Wings. They made the Stanley Cup playoffs 25 straight seasons and just missed out this past year. A primary reason for their success? Drafting key players in the later rounds. A feat made possible by the fact they spent the most money on their scouting system. No short cuts.
Speaking of Detroit, do we all remember Steve Yzerman? Hall of Famer. Eighteen years as a player. Now he’s the general manager of Tampa Bay…has been for the past few years. According to the latest rankings of the 31 NHL farm systems, the Lightning are ranked No. 2!
I’ll bet GM Stevie Y learned a few tricks while watching Detroit GM Ken Holland during his playing days.
Where do our Penguins rank? I’ll save you all the trouble of reading any further. We’re ranked 30th out of 31 teams. Next-to-last!
We have no real farm system in the true meaning of the word. Yes, fellow Pens fans, we are in trouble. More analysis on this point later if you wish to read on. It’s a very challenging and detailed story to tell in a few words, so I apologize to the reader in advance for the length of this post. Today’s installment is Part I of a series, with more to follow in the coming days.
The second part of a farm system is the minor-league development teams. The American Hockey League has done a great job of becoming the top developmental league for the NHL. Many NHL teams sponsor AHL teams. In some cases, two NHL teams co-sponsor an AHL team. Then there is the East Coast Hockey League, which sits a rung below the AHL on the hockey ladder. In recent years, the Swedish Elite League and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) have funneled talent directly to the NHL, bypassing the AHL altogether.
Lesser European leagues have also provided talent for the NHL. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Auston Matthews, played in Switzerland instead of Canadian junior hockey because he wanted to play against men instead of 18-year-old kids.
It worked for him. Many NHL teams have invested considerable time and money into these various European teams all in an effort to secure the next Pavel Datsyk.
The final area of farm-team activity is the U.S. college program and the USHL. Because of the explosive growth of American hockey, NHL teams now are looking to more home-grown talent to stock their farm teams and eventually the NHL itself. I cannot stress this point enough. American hockey has progressed so far and so fast that there is no other region on the planet (except maybe tiny Finland with a population of about 9 million people) that can boast of so much NHL success.
The third part of the farm system is coaching, along with money spent on a minor-league player’s development. Coaching is crucial! Good coaching costs money. Great coaching pays big dividends. Without great coaching, you cannot determine how an 18-year-old will develop into an NHL player by the age of 22. He needs constant development and he must progress at his own rate. If you push an 18-year-old kid too fast to play against 25-year-old men, you can risk losing your entire investment.
Many organizations fail to take the time, or invest the money and the effort to see what will happen to their prospect. Everyone develops at their own rate. Push too hard and you’ve lost your prospect!
We have had that happen many times in Pittsburgh. Derrick Pouliot? Beau Bennett? You can fill in the blank with other names I’m sure. The truth is we simply do not develop first- and second-round talent as we should have. Other NHL teams do a much better job than us because they make it a priority.
So that is a very elementary explanation of the minor-league farm system in the NHL. Scouting, minor-league teams, and great follow-on coaching with lots of money spent all are key elements in the developmental process.
But we are missing the final and most important ingredient. The players!
I’ll discuss them tomorrow in part 2. Stay tuned!
The Penguins agreed to terms with Brian Dumoulin on a six-year contract extension today. According to terms of the deal, the 25-year-old defenseman will earn $4.1/year through the 2022-23 season.