The Lake Erie Monsters proved this spring that player development and winning in the American Hockey League can coexist.
Lake Erie's success bodes well for the future of the Columbus Blue Jackets as well. The Monsters became the first Blue Jackets affiliate to win the Calder Cup when they completed a four-game sweep of the Hershey Bears on Saturday in front of 19,665 fans in Cleveland.
"I don't think you can put a tag on [winning]," Monsters coach Jared Bednar said of how winning can aid development. "I think you have to have some sort of success to develop players. That's my belief.
"Our group, it's countless numbers of young prospects that are impacting our team every night in a positive way. I think they can carry [the playoff experience] forever. Nobody can take it away, and now they can draw back on these experiences as they move on to the NHL, hopefully. When you prove that you can win at a high level like this, then people will take notice."
With the Blue Jackets having taken on a rebuilding plan under president of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, the payoff for those efforts could be near. They could not have asked for a better season for their young prospects.
The Monsters dressed three first-round picks (defenseman Zach Werenski and forwards Sonny Milano and Kerby Rychel). They had 97 points before a 15-2 playoff run that ended with them winning their final nine games. They won 24 of their final 28 games in all. Twelve Lake Erie players also dressed for at least one game with the Blue Jackets.
Monsters rookie Oliver Bjorkstrand, a 21-year-old third-round pick (No. 89) in the 2013 NHL Draft by Columbus, scored with 1.9 seconds remaining in overtime of Game 4 to win the Calder Cup. He is the poster boy for player development.
Bjorkstrand's growth illustrates the steps that Blue Jackets prospects took. After a 17-goal regular season, he won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the AHL playoffs after scoring 10 goals and 16 points in 17 games. His three overtime goals are an AHL postseason record, and he tied the league's playoff record with six game-winning goals.
Grinding out nearly four rounds and two months of playoff hockey is a rare experience for most prospects. NHL teams also love winners, and a Calder Cup championship on a young player's resume is bound to garner attention.
"It's going to be a huge opportunity for everybody going forward, and every team around the League is going to want them," forward Josh Anderson said.
AHL playoff hockey is the next-closest experience to skating in the NHL for young players in terms of on-ice competition, but the Monsters also had a taste of NHL-style attention as well. They played in front of huge crowds throughout the postseason, and Game 4 drew the second-largest crowd in AHL playoff history (20,103 watched the Chicago Wolves at Philadelphia Phantoms in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals at Wachovia Center on June 10, 2005) and the largest to ever attend a hockey game in Ohio.
Lake Erie averaged 11,045 during the postseason while the Monsters pursued the first hockey championship for Cleveland since 1964.
"Twenty-thousand people, to win it with [1.9 seconds] left, just unbelievable," said Rychel, who was selected by Columbus with the 19th pick in the 2013 draft. "[Playoff hockey brings] such high-pressure situations. Every play is huge, no matter what time of the game it is or which game in a series it is."
Werenski, 18, joined the Monsters late in the regular season out of the University of Michigan. He fit in immediately and ended the playoffs second among AHL defensemen in scoring with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 games.
Though Werenski, the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, often made it look easy, he admitted that the AHL was an eye-opening experience.
"It's a world of difference," Werenski said of the jump to the AHL. "Coming from Michigan, I thought [that] was pretty good hockey. But you get here, it's just a whole new level, especially in the playoffs. It made me such a better player."
Werenski played two years at a hockey powerhouse and was part of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. However, Cleveland's fan support this postseason was something new altogether.
"Nothing compared to this," Werenski said. "This was the best crowd I ever played in front of, and it was awesome."
Unlike many of his teammates, captain Ryan Craig is beginning to wind down his career at age 34. But with 198 NHL games to his name, he understands how the playoff run can boost young careers.
Before going through two months of playoff hockey, did his 20- and 21-year-old teammates know what it takes to win a championship in a professional league?
"I'm sure they do now," Craig said. "They know that in 13 years this is the first time I've lifted a trophy. I think this is a heck of thing to grow on and build on for everybody in our organization. That's what [the AHL] is about. We're in this business for people to reach their goals, and this is obviously one of our goals.
"Then the next goal is to get to the NHL."