Rookie tourney lets youth hit ground running

By Jason Menard

Not every team participates in one, but for those clubs that do, rookie tournaments pack a great deal of value into a relative small — and short — package.

From London, ON to Travers City, MI, to Penticton, BC, young players hoping to make a positive early impression on NHL clubs showcased their wares last week in a series of tournaments that pitted youth — either drafted or free-agent invitees — against each other in competition with various NHL prospects.

In these tournaments the old adage that winning isn’t everything has never been more true. Limited preparation time, a lack of installed systems, and multiple games over a short span of time make it impossible to refine a team’s style of play — but the coaches involved in these tournament say the experience is invaluable both from an organizational standpoint and as a way to help young players hit the ground running in the larger-scale NHL pro camps.

Bill Peters, the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs head coach and coach of the Chicago Blackhawks’ entry into the Toronto Maple Leafs-hosted NHL rookie camp, held from Sept. 11-14, 2010 at the John Labatt Centre in London, ON, laughed at the question of how much preparation time the club had before hitting the ice.

“How much time did we have? One day,” he said, laughing. “[The players] all got into Chicago and we skated on Friday. Then we bussed up after that skate, had the pre-game skate [Saturday] and then we go!

“You don’t want to overload them with systems play. You want to let them get out there and play hard. They’re all intelligent players and they know how the game works.”

Pierre Dorion, director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators, explained that tournaments of this nature allow clubs to evaluate how their young prospects measure up against their peers without the added pressure and challenges that come from playing against more established — and older — veterans at main camp.

“Value-wise, it’s the best thing for your kids because your kids are playing against other team’s kids,” Dorion explained. “It’s tough for 18 and 19-year-olds sometimes to come into training camp and compete with guys in the NHL that have been there for 10 years. Physically, sometimes they can’t handle it. So when you come to a tournament like this, it’s kids that are pretty much the same age.

“Obviously your first-year draft picks are going to struggle more than players who have finished their junior or college careers, but it still gives you a good feeling for where they’re at and where they should be in a couple of years against their peers.”

John Hynes, head coach of the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre Scranton affiliate and coach of the Penguins’ entry into the rookie tournament, added that the X’s and O’s part of the coaching is minimized in this type of tournament, but they are able to instill some of the core philosophies that the parent club holds true into its prospects.

“We’re looking for certain concepts that we want the players to have. We do have systems in place, but it’s more about concepts,” Hynes explained. “A lot of that is how quickly they can take information and apply it, because that would show their hockey sense. And then we really look for effort and having guys implement and live the cultural values that we want in the Pittsburgh Penguins.”

Peters echoed that sentiment and said that allowing the players to get their game legs in a situation where they’re playing against people of a similar age helps them to prepare for the quicker pace of the pre-season.

“This is a great tournament and it’s a really good evaluation tool for your organization to see how these guys play against people their own age and see how they do,” Peters said. “We want to give our prospects an opportunity to gain some confidence from this going into main camp and they can make a push to make the Blackhawks. I think it’s an opportunity to get some real games in.

“It’s not summer hockey anymore, the pace is a little quicker, you’ve got to move the puck quicker, and the intensity is much higher than what they’ve seen over the past two or three months. I think it’s very advantageous to take part in these tournaments.”

Hynes echoed that sentiment, stating that the extra week of on-ice time helps the players gain confidence in their abilities, which translates into a smoother transition to the main camp.

“It gives the younger players a better chance to be prepared for main camp,” he said. “When they get involved with the NHL players, they’ve been through the systems, they’ve been through some drills, and they’ve been in a competitive environment, so it will help them when they get to main camp.”

That competitive environment is what sets this tournament apart from any previous work players and clubs do in-house explained Dallas Eakins, the Toronto Marlies’ head coach and bench boss for the Leafs’ entry into the London tournament.

“I think when you bring them into the prospect camp in the summer, you get a look at guys and see where they are conditioning-wise, where their fitness levels are, but when you get them on the ice they’re competing against each other and they’re literally teammates, so it’s kind of like practice,” Eakins said. “Hey, listen, my team practices hard but they’re not competing that hard against each other because they don’t want to hurt each other. But when you get them out here in a game situation you clearly see who is able to go into the dirty areas, who is going to finish their checks, who is going to compete hard for the puck against other teams who are clearly pushing back.

“I think that’s the critical part — anybody in the world can look nice in practice; it’s another thing to look good in a game.”

For Steve Stirling, the Binghamton Senators’ assistant coach and member of the Ottawa Senators’ coaching staff at the London, ON tournament, it’s that confidence that is the greatest value that players and coaches alike are able to take from these rookie tournaments. And for a coach, such as himself, who is involved with a team’s minor-league affiliate, it gives him an opportunity to see with what he may be working in the next couple of months.

“Confidence, no doubt, is a big aspect. I know after talking to the D after the first game, they were nervous,” Stirling explained. “When you look at a guy like Pat [Wiercioch] who’s got two years at [the University of] Denver; a guy like Eric [Gryba], who has four years at [Boston University], you wouldn’t expect them to be nervous, because they’re a little bit older. Pat’s played at the NCAA tournament as has Eric, but they’re still nervous.

“It’s the pros and they’re trying to impress the brass. Confidence really helps. In the last five minutes of the games, I went with four D because they’re the guys that need the work — if they’re not going to be with the big club, they’re probably going to be with us in Binghamton. I want to see how they’re going to react.”

Peters added that this type of tournament, despite its relative brevity, allows coaches to do some evaluation work on their players at a time when they should be at their best.

“You learn about your guys a little bit for sure. Some of these guys we’re a little unfamiliar with,” Peters said. “You see them in prospect camp, but again that’s in the middle of summer and they’re all in different phases of their off-ice training. You don’t know where they’re at cardio-wise — they may be trying to put weight on, or whatever their individual situation is.

“Now we’re 10 days out from main camp, so they should be humming on all cylinders. You’re seeing a guy who should potentially be at his best and hockey sense comes out all the time in a competitive environment and you learn how competitive these guys are too. There’s a lot of little intricacies that you can pick up upon if you’re paying attention.”

The pace of the rookie tournaments’ games also serves as a way to expose short-cuts in off-season training and to help players understand what exactly it takes in terms of off-ice work to make it on the ice.

“It’s crucial. You see it every training camp. Everybody thinks that they’ve trained so hard in the summer,” Eakins explained. “[Nazem] Kadri’s a fine example — you read and you hear him say about how hard he’s trained all summer then suddenly he has a hip flexor. That’s from leaning on bodies, skating just a little bit faster than your hip flexors are used to.

“They’re used to playing junior hockey and now they’ve gone a little step ahead of junior hockey and now they’ll take another step. It’s good for their bodies to start feeling the upgrade in speed and the upgrade in strength

Eakins explained that a significant number of the tournaments’ participants will find their way into the pro camp. In addition, a few players have taken advantage of the opportunity that they’ve had to catch the eyes of the decision-makers in the stands (and luxury boxes.)

“It’ll be the majority of them that will [move on to main camp]. Obviously we want to give our draft picks a taste of what’s going on so that going forward they can get training camps under their belt,” he said. “Some of our guys have performed well enough that our scouts and management want to take a second look. There will be a few that will be sent back to junior, university, or wherever they’re going so that they can work on their game.”

In the end, there are certain truths that remain intact regardless of the type of game or style of play, Peters explained, adding that players participating in these tournaments must learn those lessons and apply them in the next game and as they progress throughout the pre-season.

“The game’s a fair game and it doesn’t matter if it’s a pre-season tournament, a regular-season game, or the playoffs — if you shoot yourself in the foot you’re going to pay the price,” Peters said. “We did that, we’ll learn, and we’ll move on.”

The London tournament featured teams from Chicago’s, Ottawa’s, Pittsburgh’s, and host franchise Toronto’s organizations. The Traverse City Prospects Tournament was contested by clubs representing the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Out west, the Penticton Young Stars tournament pitted squads from the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks, and Vancouver Canucks against each other.

And while not every team participates in a rookie tournament (or, in the case of a club like the Montreal Canadiens, did not enter a team this season), Dorion said it’s rapidly become something that he — and the people with whom and for whom he’s worked — values greatly as a developmental tool.

“I was with Montreal for a long time and I always encouraged it because of [the reasons mentioned above],” he explained. “When we were with the [New York] Rangers, Tim Murray — the assistant general manager — and myself, we both came from different organizations, and we told Don Maloney at the time [about the value].

“We ended up going to Traverse City — and they’re still going to Traverse City. For Brian Murray, it’s always been a good measuring stick for where your kids are.”

In an NHL that now places premium value on young (read: affordable) talent to maximize roster space in the salary cap era, the impact of tournaments like this on the fortunes of NHL clubs (and let’s not overlook the fact that the past six Stanley Cup champions and 11 of the past 12 participants have an entry in one of the three aforementioned tournaments) will go a long way towards seeing participation in rookie tournaments becoming an integral part of the way clubs do business.

Editors note: The past six Stanley Cup champions and 11 of the past 12 participants have an entry in one of the three aforementioned tournaments.