April 02, 2009
Minor league sports are a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, they're a business every bit as viable as a professional league, and in many ways have to work harder to keep and cultivate an audience.
On the other, the majority of them are elementary education for prospects before they reach the big leagues; which can be a difficult thing to accept when one of your stars is yanked away in the heat of a playoff race, both for the team and the fans who pay to watch it.
That's what happened when the Columbus Blue Jackets recalled Nikita Filatov from the AHL Syracuse Crunch. The blue-chip prospect had 16 goals and 16 assists in 32 games, and was a vital cog for a Crunch team scratching and clawing for a playoff spot. Filatov may not see the ice in the Blue Jackets' final regular season games, but they wanted him to experience the playoff push.
The decision has sparked outrage in Syracuse and a very harsh reality check about the role of minor league hockey in the grand scheme. Very, very harsh.
From Lindsay Kramer of Syracuse.com comes the AHL-centric take on Filatov's call-up:
The Crunch's loss of its top game-breaking threat at its most important time of the season represents a defeat in a battle of conflicting developmental philosophies. And it's one that Syracuse hasn't had to wage for at least eight seasons.
That's how long parent club Columbus had been in existence prior to 2008-09, and in each of those years the Blue Jackets fell short of the NHL playoffs. This season, with five games left, Columbus is all but in the playoff party.
Deciding that Filatov would be better off absorbing that experience by osmosis - though not committing to use him for anything more strenuous than practice - the Blue Jackets yanked him out of the Syracuse lineup. It's not clear how long he will be gone, but he is definitely expected to miss Syracuse's home contests Friday vs. Rockford and Saturday vs. Rochester.
Unlike the Blue Jackets, Syracuse's season is on shift-by-shift life support right now. With five games left, it is tied with Toronto for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North.
Understandable. Kramer also called the unexpected roster move "illogical" and wondered if it was a cruel April Fool's joke. Previously, Kramer blogged about the call-up (H/T PD reader Ryan Real) with this take:
... losing Filatov would be a lot more tolerable if Columbus was either in serious danger of missing the playoffs or actually in the playoffs right now.
Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch heard the outrage coming from AHL affiliate, and penned a scathing rebuttal on the Puck-rakers blog:
No easy way to say this: Crunch games are glorified exhibition games, just like every AHL club's games. If they win, great. If they lose, no big deal. If they lose and the top prospect has a good night, it was a great night for the organization. If the Crunch make the playoffs, lots of folks are happy. It's good experience for some of the lads. If they don't make the playoffs, it's not the end of the world.
I learned about this pecking order first-hand through the sport of baseball a few seasons ago. When I covered the Clippers, the Yankees would put a pitcher in the rotation with an 8.95 ERA and demand that he start every fifth day. It didn't matter if Columbus was in a pennant chase. It didn't matter if the guy got rocked every fifth day, he was in the starting rotation because the Yankees said so. They send a prospect hitting .128 to Columbus and demand he bat cleanup. It didn't matter if he went 1-for-28, he was hitting fourth.
The Blue Jackets -- like the Yankees -- are in a difficult spot with this stuff. They have to say all the right things: "We're committed to fielding a winning team in Syracuse." "We want only the best for the Crunch." "It's very important to breed that winning feeling with our minor-league players."
Honestly, though, it's all hogwash. If the Blue Jackets win AND the Crunch win, sure it's a bonus. But if the Blue Jackets win a Stanley Cup some year and the Crunch go 12-66-2 ... it was an unbelievable year for the organization.
There's sympathy to be had for the Crunch, Portzline's absolutely correct: There's only one primary consideration in the existence of that franchise, and it's what the best actions and decisions are for the betterment of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Puck Daddy reader Sean Jones made point a bit more emphatically in an email this morning:
Personally, I think it's a fantastic move for the kid to be able to spend time with veterans and learn what the push is all about. Also, the past few seasons a ton of minor league "Jackets" hoping to make the team out of training camp have spent their summer working out in Columbus with the strength coach, and it has paid off with Jared Boll, Derek Dorsett and others. What are the chances that 18 year old Nikita wants to run back to Russia over the summer and train like "Rocky 4"? Maybe this is a way to persuade him to stay and add some real bulk to his 170 pound frame.
Even as the Blue Jackets finally mature into a playoff-caliber franchise, it's still all about the future. Filatov's a key part of it, and even having him "learn by osmosis" is more valuable to the team than having him get the Crunch into the playoffs. Just another reason why respect must be paid for AHL teams that are able to compete year after year no matter the configuration of the roster.