Hockey

Arrested Development

As the Hawks call up yet another d-man who isn’t Adam Boqvist, for some reason I’m thinking about Kris Versteeg.

I know that sounds strange, but come with me. When Versteeg “retired” from the Icehogs a couple weeks ago, he cited the far more physical nature of the AHL. Because it is filled with guys trying to get noticed, and there are far too many people on both sides of the discussion who think getting noticed means throwing your body and fists around like you’re caught in the Oz tornado, it simply was too much for Versteeg. He said it was in a lot of ways “easier” to play in the NHL. We’ve heard this about the A for eternity.

Well…why?

If the idea of the AHL is as a developmental league, why wouldn’t more teams want their farm teams to play the way those players will play when they’re called up? This was a big question in the last years of Joel Quenneville‘s reign here, as the Hawks prospects and fill-ins were playing one system in Rockford and it was little secret why they looked a touch lost up here.

The only comparison is baseball, which has its own established developmental system (I recognized the NBA does too but that is for more fringe players). And yet I don’t believe Dylan Cease was being instructed to throw at everyone’s head when in Charlotte or Javy Baez was told to take any shortstop out at the knee trying to break up a double-play (don’t tell me Sox fans wouldn’t have loved it if he was though). Both baseball front offices in town have talked endlessly about instilling a way to play throughout the entire organization. Why do you never hear this in hockey? Is it because a lot of players don’t even enter it, coming from college or Europe? That would seem a tad flimsy.

I ask this because the I don’t get the impression that Adam Boqvist is going to learn much about the NHL game in Winnebago County. I’m not sure anyone does. And the longer the Hawks keep him there, either they’re souring on him, or they’re putting off any Seabrook decision as long as they can, or he’s going to just plateau in a game that doesn’t reflect the one the Hawks eventually want him to flourish within.

While there’s certainly a physical element to the NHL game, teams are much more concentrated these days on being fast and carrying the puck in whenever possible. The real skills Boqvist needs are gap control and angles, things which he actually already is pretty decent. Yes, there are times he’s going to have to learn how to retrieve a puck in the corner and not get massacred, but he also can’t emulate NHL speed at the AHL either. And he has to do that far more often in a league that seems only to care about hitting and grinding. It’s just not the NHL game.

I ask these questions, not because the Hawks called up another plodder in Dennis Gilbert (though that’s part of it), but look around at any good d-man under the age of 25 and see how many games they played in the AHL. I was watching Carolina last night, and Brett Pesce and Jakob Slavin–the anchors of that blue line on a very good team–played a combined 21 games in the AHL. We know the current two best rookies, Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, never stepped foot there. The argument is that Makar had two years of college and Hughes one, while Boqvist only had one year of juniors. College probably is a touch higher, and maybe even more so, which would lead one to wonder why more teams don’t steer their prospects to college but that’s another discussion.

Jacob Trouba never played in the AHL. Hampus Lindholm half of a season. Seth Jones came out of junior and never stepped foot there. Neither did Ivan Provorov, who came from juniors as well. Brandon Carlo played seven games there. Mikhail Sergachev never played there either. Neither did Miro Heiskanen. Samuel Girard played six games. The Hawks might say that Jokiharju spent a half season there and now he’s flourishing with the Sabres, or at least playing well, but that won’t make you or me feel any better.

I’m not saying Boqvist has already missed the boat here. A couple of these guys played 30-40 games in the AHL. And even if the Hawks keep him there all season simply because they’re too scared to sit Seabrook long term, or Maatta, or are waiting to buy either of them out in the summer, it doesn’t mean Boqvist will have turned. The Hawks could get away with it.

It would simply be a waste of time. He’s not learning that much there, and a lot of what he could be learning doesn’t apply to the NHL. And that’s if you trust the Hawks developmental system in North America, which in recent seasons has given them…um…hang on I’ll get this….Phillip Danault? Yeah…that was four seasons ago. If you want to find the last defenseman…well, we’ve had that talk and you didn’t like it the first time.

It seems the Hawks are still counting on their Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy path (something about guys named Nick). As we know, Hammer spent about half or more of the 08-09 season with the Hogs after getting a brief look in 2008 before coming up, pairing with Brian Campbell on the Hawks run to the conference final and was entrenched therein. The Hawks gave Leddy a sampling in the AHL after bringing him straight from The U., but he got a bonus half-season there thanks to the lockout and was something of a different player when he returned to the ’13 team.

But that was an awfully long time ago, and though the Hawks’ front office hasn’t changed, the game has. Remember all this when Dennis Gilbert is staring down David Pastrnak tomorrow.

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