NHL: “If They Can Take The Job…”

-By Mary Walsh

The San Jose Sharks did not make any moves this week, they did not even turn up in the rumor mill. For better or worse, it does look like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau be in teal next season. As I have said before, I think that is for the best.

Listening to a radio interview with the Red Wings’ Mike Babcock, I was reminded of Doug Wilson’s comments about the role he expects younger players to take this coming season.

Back in May, Wilson described part of his plan for the team. He was talking about Al Stalock’s chances of taking the starter’s role:

Every one of our young players will be given the chance to take whatever role they want. That includes him. When you go through this you have guys who are aching and begging for that opportunity. If they can come in and do it they can take it.

In an interview with Detroit Sports 105.1 on July 17, Mike Babcock said something very similar:

We’re gonna play the best players. So just like we did last year- it’s always a hard thing when a veteran on a one way contract doesn’t make the lineup, but that’s life- we’re committed to the growth of this team. Most franchises to get back on top have to get bad for ten years. That’s not our plan. We’ve scrounged to get in the playoffs the last two years in a row. I think we did a real good job, had a real good run against Chicago. I didn’t like us in the playoffs last year against Boston, but we like what we have coming. And we like our kids, so the biggest thing is not to rush them. We could really use some puck-moving D. Well we just happen to have some puck-moving D in the minors, big guys who can skate. When are they ready? We’re sure not going to rush them but if they’re capable of taking jobs they’re gettin’ the jobs.

There are some differences there, the focus on giving players time is something that Wilson has put less emphasis on lately. The last part, about giving the young players a chance to take jobs if they are capable, this sends up some red flags for me. My confusion stems from how you get from the first sentence (“We’re gonna play the best players.”) to the last one (“We’re sure not going to rush them but if they’re capable of taking jobs they’re gettin’ the jobs.”).

If these guys are the best players you have, why in the world would they NOT, under any and all circumstances, get the job?

Maybe I am misreading the “taking jobs” part. Do they simply mean “if they are capable of doing the job, since we don’t have anyone better, we will let them play instead of going out and finding someone older”? Shouldn’t they also mean “if they are better than the older players we have, we will use them”? Shouldn’t they always mean that?

It certainly seems like the Sharks have not followed that last rule. Yes, Matt Irwin lacked experience, but all signs pointed to him being a better option in many games last season than Brad Stuart or Scott Hannan. Given the ice time to develop his game, won’t he be a quicker, higher return asset than those two were last season? If he doesn’t play he won’t develop, but that is true of any young player. The team followed the same pattern with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun and to a lesser extent Jason Demers: using older veterans again and again while the young players seemed ready and in need of ice time.

This notion that a younger player with more upside will be benched to let a veteran play is insane. Yes, the veteran might represent a lower short-term risk but if a younger player is capable of taking the job, doesn’t that mean he is not a higher risk long term? Doesn’t that mean he is capable of taking the job from the veteran? To say a younger player will get to play if he is capable of taking the job sounds like the team had previously given far to much consideration to veteran status. This is not just a matter of fairness and meritocracy, it is the difference between winning and losing.

On the other hand, it can be risky to put too much on a younger player. Eric Gilmore published a piece on NHL.com suggesting that Mirco Mueller could crack the Sharks lineup this coming season. Doug Wilson has suggested as much in the past. Tomas Hertl cracked the lineup last season, in his first year in North America. Couldn’t Mueller make the big club early too? Other defensemen have done it but comparing Hertl’s role to Mueller’s is clearly comparing apples to oranges. A defenseman’s job is much more complicated, traditionally defensemen take longer to develop their professional game. To move any player up to the NHL too soon can have a negative impact on his game, and with defensemen that impact can be that much worse.

So, as eager as fans might be to see Mueller make the jump, it seems unlikely that such a move would be a good thing for the Sharks or Mueller.

It might just be noise. Hannan is returning, Thornton and Marleau very probably are too. The team will have no shortage of veterans to fall back on. If their humiliation as group at the end of last season stung them as much as they claim, less roster turnover is better than more.

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