Rookie or Veteran? On the Wings and their development timeline
“The tie goes to the veteran.”
A classic hockey adage in the same vein as “We like our team” or “kicking tires” that Wings fans have a nearly-autonomous reaction to. It’s been used to shove a lot of questionable hockey decisions down our throats over the years and, in its various iterations, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
Is it so bad though? Commenter AndrewNalian asked in a recent Quick Hits article for us to go more in-depth about how the veteran-vs-kid matchup decision gets made.
There are two schools of thought here: the tie going to the veteran, and the tie going to the rookie. Let’s elaborate more on each:
Tie Goes to the Vet
The job of a hockey player is to develop their skills and play their best game. The job of a hockey coach is to guide the players’ development and win the hockey game in front of them. The job of a general manager is not only to put those pieces into place but also to slide them into time.
Sometimes, juggling a team of 50 contracts, a contention window, and the constraints of the modern game means playing the long game. This can lead to teams trusting consistency over unproven effort.
Sometimes the decisions about how to juggle a bunch of future contract negotiations involve what essentially equates to hitting the brakes before turning to maintain a level of cost control that an ill-timed all-out run could endanger.
Sometimes you simply don’t have the organizational depth to reasonably handle even a moderate slate of injuries and you’re a team in position to develop without expectations of a run and having what are essentially disposable NHL-level talent can insulate a team at a fragile part of a rebuild.
As more a follow-up to that last point than one of its own, with certain prospects, there’s a very fine line between being put in a position to learn the hard way and being left out to learn how to come to accept losing. There’s also the fact that nobody coming from juniors, Europe or even the AHL has ever played an 82-game NHL season. Physically their bodies should be able to handle these rigors, but the mental exertion it takes to adjust to this schedule and “be ready” every night can really slow down the learning process.
And sometimes, you’re still in the late stages of a rebuild and you need some other team’s deadline rental to showcase why somebody would have to spend a draft pick to get them.
Give it to the Yoots
Sometimes, playing it safe can come at a cost. The NHL is the highest skill level in the world of hockey. The fast-paced, high-intensity game can deter many general managers from throwing their prospects into the fire. After all, look at the 2012-13 Edmonton Oilers — a team full of young, highly talented players that floundered when left on their own. But the same can be said about the opposite strategy.
Take Tomas Jurco, for example. Once considered a high-ceiling prospect, Jurco was left to “overripen” in the AHL before receiving fairly limited opportunities at the NHL level. What could have been a very promising NHL career was derailed by delayed development. Imagining what Jurco could’ve become while learning the speed of the NHL is an exercise in frustration. When your prospect pool contains high-potential players like Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider, you don’t want to over-marinate them; you want them to learn the speed of the modern game and adapt to it.
In addition, the Red Wings of today are different from the ‘12-13 Oilers: they’ve got a solid core of veterans. Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and even Filip Hronek shoulder the heaviest burdens of the roster. These tried-and-true NHL players will be the ones who handle the tough assignments. They’ll be the ones to face off against the Auston Matthews and Adam Fox types. This season should be the one where rookies get the chance to learn from their mistakes. Yzerman said it best himself — the winning record this year doesn’t matter.
The rookies won’t be left out to dry. They should have the chance to try and fail and try again as they develop into who they’re meant to be. If they’re not ready, sure, it’s fair to send them down. But you never know who could surprise you. Placing trust in the hands of your youth is how you kick a rebuild into high gear. Tampa Bay’s done it, Colorado’s done it, and now the onus falls on Detroit to do it.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to building a contender. The hardest part of a GM’s job is to trust that the entirety of the organization below them can guide them to the hard decisions on a player-by-player basis to gauge whether it’s best for the team and the player to get a contract, get assigned to the minors, get left in Europe, or get traded.
General managers don’t always get it right. In Detroit, giving the tie to the veteran ended up being a byproduct of an intense misalignment between what the Red Wings’ front office was trying to accomplish and what was best for their long-term chances of success.
There’s a time and a place for the tie going to the veteran. It’s just much harder to swallow for where the Red Wings are at right now.