Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Taking Steps Backwards

The Manitoba Moose are a curious case. For a team that has an abundance of youth looking to establish themselves in the professional game, there seems to be a definite lack of professional players who can show the next generation how to play like a professional, the work required behind-the-scenes to be a professional, and exactly what being a "pro hockey player" means. That's not to say that these kids don't carry themselves professionally or speak fluent "media-speak", but there seems to be an obvious chasm between the Manitoba Moose and the Winnipeg Jets when it comes to grooming the kids into professional hockey players.

If you remember some time ago, the Jets were a team picked by The Hockey News as the 2019 Stanley Cup champions. With high-scoring junior players being added at every draft, hope was bubbling over into hype with the number of blue-chip prospects the Jets seemed to be amassing. Names like Nic Petan, Chase De Leo, Scott Kosamchuk, Kyle Connor, and Jack Roslovic had scouts in a frenzy as the Jets continued to stockpile outstanding junior players.

Instead, the reality is that the Jets have visited the playoffs just once, winning a grand total of zero games in their illustrious history thus far - twice if you want to include Atlanta with a whopping zero wins to show for it - in what has to be one of the most laughable histories of any team to date. As the team approaches its twentieth anniversary of its founding, 2019 seems like a pipe dream when it comes to playoff success when the Jets simply struggle to even make the playoffs.

A lot of that missed opportunity can be directed at the AHL's Manitoba Moose and how they are run. Ever since the team relocated from St. John's, Newfoundland to the Manitoba capital, the Moose have done nothing but swirl around the drain, usually finding themselves eliminated from playoff talk around Christmas with the deficit in which they find themselves in the standings. There are some good players on the Moose squad, but they seem to be missing a few veteran players that other teams are only too happy to employ for the sake of development. Right now, the only thing developing with the Moose is a sense and an atmosphere of losing, and that's never going to help the kids become better hockey players.

Why am I speaking about this today? Well, the Moose decided to cut ties with their third- and fifth-leading scorers, setting Dan DeSalvo and Kevin Czuczman adrift as free agents to sign with any other team they like. The fact that the Moose opted to keep veteran players like Darren Kramer, Patrice Cormier, and Brandon Tanev over DeSalvo, Czuczman, and Quinton Howden shows just how poorly this AHL franchise is being run. It might be time to separate the NHL team's influence over this AHL team by giving it more independence to make decisions that help itself.

Instead, DeSalvo signed with the Hartford Wolfpack today, giving them a solid addition to their forward group. DeSalvo was a solid player for the Moose last season, appearing in 66 games while collecting 18 goals - eight of them coming on the power-play - and 22 assists. His 18 goals were second-highest on the Moose while he finished third in scoring. He was a solid face-off man as well - something the Moose desperately needed last season. There was no doubt that DeSalvo was a solid veteran addition, but the Moose allowed him to walk this off-season with little explanation.

Also gone is Kevin Czuczman. The rearguard played 76 games last season, picking up nine goals and 23 helpers to finish fifth in scoring, leading the Moose blue line in scoring by 12 points and setting career highs in both categories. He was often called upon to play against some of the better competition late in the season, but Czuczman showed improvement throughout the season that should have warranted a return to the Moose defence corps. Instead, he'll ply his trade with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season after the Moose allowed him to walk as well.

Of the regulars returning, Patrice Cormier is the grizzled greybeard for the Moose at this point. He's 26 years old. Compare that to, say, the AHL Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids Griffins who re-signed Ben Street to a deal. Street will be 30 this season. Or maybe we should consider 33 year-old Brett Sterling with the Chicago Wolves. There's 33 year-old Chris Conner in Lehigh Valley, 38 year-old Tom Kostopoulos in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and 30 year-old John McCarthy from the San Jose Barracuda. The key with all of these players? They're veterans who have been around the game long enough to show the kids a few things in being a professional while being important contributors on their teams. Oh, and all their teams employee two-to-four guys who are aged 27 or older.

The year that Winnipeg's AHL affiliate lost in the Calder Cup Final - the 2013-14 St. John's IceCaps - saw them employ three regulars aged 27 or older, including leading scorer Jason Jaffray who was 32. Brenden Kichton and John Albert were fifth and sixth in scoring, respectively, and were the highest-scoring players on that team under the age of 25. Of that team, only the ninth-highest scoring player remains on this Moose team today, and that player - JC Lipon - has seen his scoring drop way off as the Moose became all about development. Lipon went from 42 points to 26, 30, and 30 in the next three seasons. So exactly WHAT are the Moose developing if the highest-scoring player remaining from a championship-caliber team has seen his scoring drop off in a big way while the team rids itself of veteran leaders and players?

There will always be good, young players who filter through an AHL affiliate. Kyle Connor got a chance to play alongside Jack Roslovic this past season with the Moose, and the two developed some great chemistry. Both will be fixtures on the Jets' roster at some point, but this pipe dream of a Stanley Cup parade in 2019 down Portage to Main Street in Winnipeg needs to end. The Moose do a horrific job at developing talent, and a lot of that has to do with pitching the veterans into free agency. Veterans are where the kids learn how to play the game through the vets' experiences, trials, and tribulations. Without a few veteran players, the kids have no experiences from which they can draw.

If youth but knew what age could do. Or, in this case, if the Moose but knew.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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