TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.
– Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy
is thankful the Los Angeles Kings
never made him play in a prospects tournament or a rookie game. Back in 1980, when Murphy was drafted, the Kings just couldn't risk such a thing.
"They'd end up with players that were lower draft picks that weren't going to make the team playing against guys that were in the American League for 10 years," Murphy told NHL.com. "A couple of them (the AHL players), they really had no shot of making it to the NHL, so they took it out on these young kids. A lot of these games turned into fight-fests. You'd have a young prospect put in a position where he was going to have to fight these guys and that doesn't help his development. You can't evaluate him. You get nothing but a kid with a bad taste in his mouth."
While things have changed since Murphy was a young pup embarking on a legendary career, placing an extreme amount of importance on evaluating prospects – even the middling kind – has been universal in the NHL since 2005, when the new CBA came out and the League entered the salary cap era.
Nowadays, events like the annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament, which was born in 1999 and is hosted by the Detroit Red Wings
, are viewed as essential. Goonery is not welcome because with limited dollars to spend on players who are becoming free agents faster than ever before, evaluating and developing prospects has become as important as signing or trading for established stars.
"(Prospect evaluation) is more magnified now," Red Wings' Assistant GM Jim Nill told NHL.com. "Say what you want, to have a good team you always have to have good young kids coming. You have to have somebody making $500,000 or $600,000. If you're going to have six guys making $6 million-plus, it's easy to get a calculator out and see the numbers don't add up. It's a must."
The development philosophy has never been more evident than this month as more than two-thirds of the NHL teams, including the eight in Traverse City, are putting their top prospects to the test in actual games against outside competition.
Florida, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Ottawa have their top prospects playing in a tournament in Kitchener, Ont. Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary brought their best youngsters to Camrose, B.C. for a tournament.
In the coming days, Los Angeles will bring its rookies to Phoenix; Anaheim and San Jose will have their prospects play in Las Vegas; Washington will host Philadelphia's best; and the prospects from Boston and the Islanders will play in Connecticut.
The games are intense and, at least here in Traverse City, every team has its top executives and members of its scouting staff in attendance. Even some coaches, such as Mike Babcock (Detroit), Andy Murray (St. Louis) and John Anderson
(Atlanta) were in the stands Saturday night.
"The players now become free agents at an early age, so we're all trying to move our development up a bit to keep our players as long as we can," Atlanta GM Don Waddell told NHL.com. "Whether you use the salary cap or free agency as a reason, they all get tied in one way or another."
Nill said the reason the Red Wings started the tournament 10 years ago was to give their prospects a fair shot against their peers instead of trying to first evaluate them in training camp against the established NHLers.
The old way was of no use at all.
"We used to bring these kids to training camp and throw them on the ice with Steve Yzerman
and Nick Lidstrom and said, 'Hey, show us what you can do,' " Nill said. "Well, they were out there squeezing their sticks and stumbling, bumbling around. It's not fair to them. They're not physically strong enough or mentally strong enough. So, part of the idea was let's let these kids show us what they can do against their own peers.
"These kids are going 100 miles per hour. It's September and they're in playoff mode almost because they want to impress. Eyes are on them and it's their chance to show the world what they can do. It's great hockey."
The tournament also gives executives a chance to scout some of the opposition's best young prospects, which could become useful down the road.
"There is a lot of information to be gathered here," Murphy said, "and I guarantee you there are trades that happen in the NHL where you find these guys that are thrown in because someone has seen something at the prospects tournament that caught their eye."
From a coaching perspective, Murray told NHL.com the tournament offers a unique opportunity to scout the youngsters before training camp, when he has to split his attention between prospects trying to make the team and already established players.
"Most of our players will be going back to play junior, so it's a chance to see them in a game situation and as a coach you don't really get that opportunity," Murray said. "We get to do that, and compare them to the depth other organizations have."
In a format that isn't any riskier than an exhibition game.
"It just makes sense (to do this)," Murphy said. "We're going to see guys here that are focused on just playing hockey. There are no sideshows. There are no goon shows."