December 14, 2010
A couple days back Barry Melrose was on ESPN, once again having a good-natured chuckle at his own expense over the whole not-being-such-a-sweet-coach-in-Tampa-Bay thing.
But, they shouldn't. I'm not so sure he misused him at all.
For young players entering the NHL, there's a sizable learning curve, and I'm not convinced that only giving a rookie a moderate amount of ice time early in his career is a detriment to his development. I know it helped me in college.
That learning curve is why a lot of NHL teams keep their draft picks for the nine game maximum before sending them down -- even if they don't keep them, getting their feet wet can be huge for development.
When you make the step up from playing against boys to battling men, you learn how much the little things like winning puck battles mattered to your stats in previous seasons. Suddenly, you find your opportunities to create cut in half. And when you do get them, the goalies are even bigger and faster.
You need some reps to learn some new tricks, and to find that new "compete level", but not so many that you're constantly tired and unable to prove the things you can do when you're feeling your best.
The biggest shock for most up-and-comers is the violence with which guys at the higher level enter into combat over a loose puck. I remember being shocked at the force with which some established NHLers would hack and shove in a battle, even in summer hockey.
Everybody just seems ... angry.
While playing said shinny, Dany Heatley(notes) shattered my stick with a chop, took the puck and didn't look back. If you see him doing that against another NHLer that's bringing the same intensity, you lose context on the level of tenacity that's actually involved in those moments. In training camp, when the young prospects are in the mix with players like that, the hostility gap is huge.
You learn to expect that as the season goes on, and more importantly, you learn to bring it yourself.
When you do have the puck -- and I know it sounds obvious -- but it takes some time before you sear into your thick skull that "oh, I have to skate my hardest EVERYWHERE."
Most pro players were, at one time or another, one of the best players at a lower level where the game was considerably slower. At those levels, you get accustomed to grabbing the puck and letting your natural speed keep you up to pace while you made your decisions.
Thus, what used to be your breakaway speed at that level, your passing gear, is what you have it in even when you're just lugging the puck up through the neutral zone. Just a few games back I saw Tyler Seguin(notes) get caught from behind and have the puck stolen, a play that reminded me, embarrassingly, of my first AHL game.
Ooohhh, so I'm the not-so-fast kid here, hey?
For almost all rookies (there are a few exceptions, of course), it takes months before you learn to effectively use your speed to challenge opponents, as opposed to using it for survival. Positioning becomes key. Timing matters more.
Stamkos, like so many other rookies, was no different. You can cite his before Melrose/after Melrose stats all you like, but a big part of his massive jump (and therefore his earning of more ice time) is that he just advanced along the learning curve and simply got better as an NHL player, not because he was given more ice time just for the sake of it by a new coach.
It's why we're seeing "rookie" Logan Couture(notes) excel so much this year -- he played modest minutes during a lengthy 40 game adjustment period last year, and came into this NHL season with a massive leg up on the other rookies -- he knew what to expect.
Fans often have high expectations for their top draft picks, but they need to understand how big the jump truly is.
The learning curve takes time, and this time of year, some guys are starting to come around the bend.