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Patience Pays With Prospects

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby took the league by storm in 2005-06, leaping to the NHL as rookies and playing starring roles for their respective teams. Ovechkin came from the Russian professional ranks; Phaneuf and Crosby both made the jump from the Canadian junior hockey system. But those three and others who jump directly to the NHL without first toiling in the minor leagues are the exception, not the rule.

Fewer than half of the players chosen by NHL clubs in the league’s annual Entry Draft will go on to play in the league and only about a quarter of them will go on to play regularly for as many as a few hundred games. The road from being drafted as a 17- or 18-year-old to carving out a niche for oneself in the NHL is more often than not fraught with stops and starts, trials and tribulations. And more often than not, that road leads to a dead end.

In 2003-04 Boston goaltender Andrew Raycroft won the NHL’s Calder Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top rookie. Montreal winger Michael Ryder was the runner-up. Both players were chosen by their respective teams in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft and both endured a lot in the six years between the draft and the recognition.

Raycroft was a fourth-rounder (135th overall) who had three separate trials ranging from one to 15 games with the Bruins before he finally stuck and went 29-18-9 with a 2.05 goals against average in 2003-04.

Ryder was an eighth-round (216th overall) crapshoot pick out of the Quebec League whose pro career included a couple of brief stints in the ECHL. Clearly, patience was virtue in the cases of both Raycroft and Ryder.

“It takes time to develop as a hockey player at the NHL level,” says Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig, who should know. He was drafted in 1989 but did not become a regular until 1997-98. “When kids come up at 18 and they have semi-breakthrough seasons it’s because there are no expectations on them, and they don’t put any pressure on themselves. I experienced it my first year. I just wanted to come in and make an impression, and I accepted going back to juniors. It takes three or four years for guys to go through the highs and the lows and know how to keep everything on an even keel and prepare yourself the same for every game, win or lose. If you do what you believe in and work hard in practice, you become a more consistent player. Obviously mental and physical maturity are keys, too.”

Other members of the Class of ’98 have been playing in the NHL for years with varying degrees of success. Top picks Vincent Lecavalier (nearly 500 NHL games) and David Legwand (nearly 400) both debuted in their draft years, while others such as Vitaly Vishnevski and Alex Tanguay debuted later but have been thriving in the NHL for a few seasons.

Several late first-rounders from 1998 are paying handsome dividends for their clubs and have been for quite some time. Robyn Regehr (19th), Simon Gagne (22nd), Jiri Fischer (25th) and Scott Gomez (27th) are all proven NHL commodities, although Fischer’s career is now in doubt because of a heart ailment.

Still others have underachieved and may never pan out as expected. The Islanders drafted Michael Rupp with the ninth overall pick in 1998. They were unable to come to terms with him, and New Jersey chose him 76th overall in 2000. He has played for the Devils, Coyotes and Blue Jackets, totaling 15 goals and 26 points in 123 NHL games.

alt Carolina chose Jeff Heerema with the 11th pick; he is now playing in the AHL and is with his fifth NHL organization. Heerema has played 32 NHL games. Edmonton selected right wing Michael Henrich 13th overall. After four underwhelming seasons as a pro in North America, Henrich is now playing professionally in Germany. He is the only one of the 27 first-rounders from 1998 who has not played at least one game in the NHL.

Raycroft and Ryder aren’t the only late bloomers from 1998, and more may be uncovered as the years pass. Most of these players are only 26 years old and a few could yet establish themselves belatedly as players like Nolan Baumgartner (Class of 1994), Jon Sim, Brian Willsie and Fernando Pisani (Class of 1996) have recently.

San Jose’s Jonathan Cheechoo (second round, 29th overall in 1998) came into his own with a 28-goal season with the Sharks in 2003-04. Mike Ribeiro (ironically, a junior hockey linemate of Ryder’s) debuted in 1999-00 but didn’t spend a full season in the league and establish himself as a bona fide NHL player until 2003-04. Ribeiro was drafted in the second round (45th overall) in 1998.

Caps coach Glen Hanlon coached against Cheechoo in the AHL and notes that the San Jose sniper needed more AHL seasoning even after enjoying a 32-goal season at that level.

“Cheechoo scores 32 in Kentucky and 21 in Cleveland,” Hanlon recalls. “After his 32-goal year, he still didn’t make the National Hockey League. You have to be even more patient now. It is a hard thing to do. In our situation here [in Washington], you might look at a 23-year-old player and say, ‘Is he going to help us win tomorrow night more than a 31-year-old call-up from the American Hockey League?’ You have to stick to your guns. Thank God our two defensemen [Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger] have made that an easy choice for us because they have played so well. If they weren’t succeeding and we were still trying to develop them, that would be a hard call.”

Dmitry Afanasenkov, Francois Beauchemin, Brian Gionta, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Shawn Horcoff, Trent Hunter and Ales Kotalik are among other 1998 draftees who have either had a few stops and starts to their pro careers or have climbed to another level several seasons into their careers.

Most draftees never make it to the NHL, and those who do generally take a few years to develop and mature before they are ready to make a contribution at the NHL level.

If the 1998 draft class blossomed in 2003-04, it would be reasonable to expect the same occur with the Class of 2000 in 2005-06. From Washington’s standpoint, it did turn out that way. Each of Washington’s top two choices in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft – center Brian Sutherby and left wing Matt Pettinger – had a career year in 2005-06, and both established themselves as legitimate NHL players.

“They are playing better than they ever have,” said Caps general manager George McPhee during the 2005-06 season. “You can probably attribute it to their maturation, the way they are being coached, and their respect for the coach. And maybe just the direction we are going in with a younger group. They are no longer just a couple of young players on a team full of married, older players. Most of their teammates are their age. It is probably a more comfortable environment for them.”

Sutherby and Pettinger are suddenly veterans in Washington, where both rank high among seniority in a Washington sweater. Pettinger debuted with the Capitals in 2000-01 and Sutherby the following season. Only Kolzig has been with the Capitals continuously since the two forwards came into the league with Washington.
“It’s kind of weird because I am 25 and this is the only team I have been with,” says Pettinger. “I have been fortunate. I have had a GM who has stuck with me and a coaching staff that has stuck with me. Not many players after five or six years can say that they have been with the same organization.”

The Capitals’ patience with Pettinger was rewarded in 2005-06, his third full season in the NHL. The left wing netted 20 goals and finished sixth on the team in scoring. Washington recently reached an agreement on a contract that will keep Pettinger in Washington for three more seasons. If Pettinger figures right, he’ll be spending the prime years of his career here in the District.

“I think if you look over a guy’s career and see where his prime years were, I don’t think most guys get them until they are 26 to 30 [years of age],” he declares. “Those are most players’ prime years.”

alt Pettinger will celebrate his 26th birthday this Oct. 22. He is proof that patience with young players can pay, but he also knows it’s difficult for teams to wait for their young talent to blossom.

“It’s tough because teams nowadays have to draft kids at 18 and take risks with players,” he accedes.  “Obviously if you take Alexander Ovechkin first overall, it’s not a risk. But when you start to get into the third, fourth, fifth, sixth rounds, at 18 years old, who knows what they are going to be like in two years let alone from 18 to 25 like I am now? That’s seven years. That’s a lot of money invested by teams and a lot of patience. It’s tough, but I think you have to do it. Very rarely do you have these kids coming out of juniors now who step into the National Hockey League and are top point producers. Most kids nowadays spend time in the American League, and it’s a good hockey league. I’ve had 150 games in that league, and I think it’s done a lot for my career.”

As Pettinger noted, teams do spend a lot of money on scouting and player development, but it is a very necessary and integral part of the business. McPhee realizes that, too.

“We are doing everything we can to make these players better and then it is up to them,” says McPhee. “We have provided all the things we need to provide to help them raise their game to different levels, whether it’s conditioning, or nutrition or video sessions. We’re trying to be as sophisticated as we can and to give them all the right information.”

Sutherby spent parts of three seasons in the AHL, playing the equivalent of nearly a full season at that level. A year and a half younger than Pettinger, Sutherby’s development was hampered by a serious groin ailment that spanned over multiple seasons. He got that squared away and spent his first full season in the NHL in 2005-06. Sutherby centered Ben Clymer and Matt Bradley on what was an effective shutdown/checking line and also chipped in with 14 goals and 30 points at the other end of the ice.

Growing up in Edmonton, Sutherby witnessed young studs such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and several others lead the hometown Oilers to five Stanley Cup championships in a span of just seven seasons.

“In Edmonton, they had Messier and Gretzky blossoming at a young age, and there are players like that,” says Sutherby. “But usually they’re guys who were top five picks [in the draft]. You get guys who are middle-to-late first-rounders and second-rounders and later, and you don’t see many of those guys come in at 18 or 19 and make huge impacts even though they were high picks. You definitely have to be patient with them. They are still young kids who are growing and developing. Physically, you are not yet mature. It definitely takes a few years for it all to come together.”

With so many promising young players currently in the Capitals’ system, Washington hopes a couple can emerge each season going forward, much in the same manner as Sutherby and Pettinger did last season. If the Caps can continue to be patient and develop players at that rate, and if players like Sutherby, Pettinger, Eminger, Morrisonn and others can continue an upward career arc along the way, the Caps will be competing for a Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future.

“That’s how teams become successful,” says Kolzig. “You don’t get successful through trades, you’ve got to develop your own players. Whether you draft them or trade for them when they are very young, it’s how you develop them. Essentially, that’s what you’re building your future on, that young, core foundation. That’s what they’re doing here, and it’s great to see these guys starting to blossom into legitimate players and it’s great for the organization because they’re going to have these guys for a long time.”

Every NHL team is aware of these realities, but patience is harder in practice than in theory. General managers and coaches are often under pressure to win now, and feel like they must depend on veterans rather than taking a chance on unproven youngsters. If an organization is willing and able to be patient with its young players, and is willing and able to work them into the lineup when they are ready, it can reap dividends on and off the ice.

“You have to be patient with these young guys,” says McPhee. “If they have some ability and a desire to play, you have to be patient. It’s been made clear to them that we want them to play here and play here for a long time. There is really something to be said for players playing for one team only. Three or four years ago when our team was playing pretty well here, we had a lot of players who had been with this team for a long time. Maybe when you bounce around to too many teams, you don’t necessarily become a mercenary, but is your heart really in it when you bounce from team to team? It just seems that if you are with one team, this is your team. Your heart is probably in it more.”

It is also worth noting that Sutherby, Pettinger, Eminger and Morrisonn were all reassigned to the AHL at some point after making their NHL debuts. Pettinger believes that brief taste of the bigs is a good thing.

“I think that’s good for everyone,” he says. “Look at guys like [Tomas] Fleischmann and [Jakub] Klepis. They played some games up here, and got sent back but you get those games on your résumé, play with confidence and get to know that you can play at this level. Eminger started out here when he was young, and Morrisonn came in [in 2003-04] and played a few games. You need a little taste to get you hungry, so when you go back there and you are on the bus for those long road trips you think, ‘Geez, I’d really like to stay in that league and play with those top players.’”

Morrisonn and Brooks Laich were drafted in 2001. Eminger, Boyd Gordon, Fleischmann and Klepis were drafted in 2002. If the pattern holds, some of those young players should be cementing themselves firmly in Washington’s future plans in the two upcoming seasons. Keeping and developing young players makes sound economic sense with the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement. The window for keeping players in the organization is smaller now, though, making it more difficult for organizations to keep young teams together, as the Buffalo Sabres learned this summer.

“The CBA certainly grants more freedom [to players],” admits McPhee, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t keep your players. You see players move around a lot and in some cases they probably would have been better of staying where they were. We are going to do our best to keep this group together. We have been patient and just think we are going to get better performance out of guys that we drafted and retained.”

Sutherby and Pettinger delivered better performances in 2005-06, and the Caps are hoping that’s just the beginning of the prime seasons for both players. If two young players emerge and/or claim spots in the lineup each season, it creates a healthy and competitive environment while giving the team more flexibility under the salary cap to make long-term commitments to players who have already emerged, such as Pettinger. It also provides the room needed to add the occasional free agent when a need must be filled but no player within the organization is able to fill it.

Expect to see Pettinger in Washington for the next three seasons, but don’t expect his three-year deal to lead to any sense of complacency.

“You always have to stay on your toes,” he says. “Right now I am in one of those situations where I am playing a fair amount of minutes, playing with good players and getting ice time. But I’ve seen in this business in the six years I have played that things can change overnight. You just go day-to-day, game-to-game and you don’t take anything for granted. Just work hard and have fun while you are here.”
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