Win, Lose, How You Play: It All Matters

Winning is good business for an NHL team, but when it comes to their minor league affiliates, does winning matter, or is the important thing how you play the game?  Both matter, according to Brad Treliving, NHL Coyotes Assistant GM and AHL Portland Pirates GM. Success is an important part of the development process for a player.

This week, Treliving described the role that his AHL team plays:

We look at the American Hockey League really primarily as a development league. So we try to put as many of our younger players down there as we possibly can, and expose them to … playing a lot, you know, getting into critical situations … You see in the American League in some cases … there are some veteran players and we try to have a couple of those guys for leadership and whatnot. But primarily it’s our young players playing in key roles and key situations and learning how to play against men and learning how to play the pro game.

The Phoenix Coyotes have exclusive affiliations with the Portland Pirates of the AHL and the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL. Exclusive affiliations with NHL teams give AHL and ECHL teams easier access to top prospects while expanding their role in preparing those prospects for the next step. In many cases, the team is tasked with teaching the players specific systems they will need to compete on a particular NHL team. Coyotes left wing Chris Conner talked about making the transition in the Coyotes’ system:

I think they do a really good job. The systems, as far as being the same, being able to come right up here, you know what’s going on because you kind of run the same thing down there. It makes the step a lot easier. And obviously I think we have a really good team down there. It helps all around. I mean obviously the better the team does, the [more success] all the guys in the room have…

I think you always want to win, you do what ever you can to win. Everyone has a better time when they’re winning games.

With so many objectives, does it matter to the NHL team whether their AHL or ECHL team wins? Does the success of a team influence development, in terms of habits or attitude? Treliving believes it does:

Number one, you want to be in the playoffs, you have to be a winning team to get in the playoffs. … Playing games when there’s a lot on the line you see how people respond, how they deal with pressure, how they deal with intensity, how they deal with the scrutiny. All those types of things … If they have a tough night, how do they bounce back the next night? So I think we …. prefer being in a winning atmosphere, you know, learning those habits. How do you win? Winning doesn’t just happen … I think it [plays] a big role.

Everyone agrees then, that winning is better than losing, but there is more to it. There’s that second part of the old adage: how you play the game. That matters a great deal for a team that is preparing prospects to move up the ranks. Treliving explains:

How you win and with whom, I think is also important. We don’t go out there and sign ten or twelve veteran players to carry it and just have our younger players sort of on the fringe. We want to have success but we also want to do it with young players playing key roles in crucial situations. So when there’s a big faceoff with a minute to go, we want to make sure that it’s a young player taking that, so he’s learning how to be in that situation, … When it’s a power play situation at a key point, we want our young players out there experiencing those types of things. So I think it’s a little bit about your team makeup, but yeah, we like to have success at that level and we think it bodes well. Success breeds success and we’re proud of the fact that both our American League team and our ECHL team made the playoffs this year… those are key things for us.

The Gladiators advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated. The Pirates were eliminated in the first round after three games. (The AHL uses a best of five playoff system.) Three players (Alexandre Bolduc, Michael Stone and Chris Conner) were sent down after the Coyotes’ season ended. How do players benefit from being sent down in that kind of situation? Treliving explained that competing in playoffs at any level is a valuable experience:

Everything is more intense, more physical. Every shift, every play matters. So any time you can expose your players to that environment, … just playing in that environment, against a really good team, … I think it serves a real purpose from a development standpoint.

The ECHL is a younger league than the AHL. Some ECHL teams have no NHL affiliate, some have more than one. Their role in the development process is, for lack of a better word, developing. Many players still make the jump from juniors right to the AHL, but a growing number of NHL teams are recognizing that an intermediate step can be useful, especially for goaltenders. Treliving explained how the Gwinnett Gladiators have contributed to the development process so far:

We’ve got a lot of young players. For instance, our goaltending situation. We had three first year goaltenders that turned pro this year. We also signed a veteran guy who served as our third goalie here. So when you look outside the NHL, there were four goalies for basically two nets, one in Portland, one in Gwinnett. We had our three young goaltenders Mark Visentin, Mike Lee and Louis Domingue. We wanted them all playing and playing a lot. …

[It is] no different than here, we’d rather [not] have a young player … sitting out … in Phoenix. We want them in Portland playing a lot. Same thing with Gwinnett. Rather than having a player sitting out in Portland, we want them playing a lot in Gwinnett and learning and developing … So Gwinnett plays an important role with us.

If a team’s purpose is to prepare players to move up the ranks, one has to ask how many of this year’s AHL or ECHL players will be attending NHL training camp next season. As Treliving explained, that question is more complicated after a lockout-shortened season:

There will be a number of guys going … well, all the players who were in Portland that will come back to us next year. It was a funny year … in that respect,  especially your young players with the lockout. We have a lot of rookies that never got to experience an NHL camp this year because there really wasn’t one… Just the way it went, it wasn’t a normal year where you bring everybody and you have three weeks and you kind of get some exhibition games. [The] lockout got settled and you [had] four days to get your team in order … So a lot of guys just didn’t get to camp, they’ll get that opportunity next year. We’ll have players that played both in Portland and Gwinnett at that camp.

The competitive success of the Coyotes’ AHL team is magnified by the fact that so many of their players are rookies and young prospects. Treliving explained that it has taken the Coyotes some time to stock their roster with such players. The affiliation is only two seasons old:

We’ve finally reached a stage … where between last year and this year … the majority of our players in the American Hockey League are first and second year players, and players that we’ve drafted. It’s taken some time … from when we got in here… Once you draft [players] it can take anywhere from one to four years before they turn pro. [That]‘s been a process for us, just getting our players drafted and turning them pro.

The Pirates and the Gladiators have been successful in leagues that are not exclusively populated by rookies. There are AHL and ECHL teams that have several veterans on their rosters, or players who have been with the team for several seasons.  Predictably, those teams tend to win a lot. In that light, a team that stays competitive with mostly rookies on the roster is probably winning the development game too. It bodes very well for those prospects as they move up the ranks of professional hockey, and for the NHL teams that will receive them.