Sunday, May 09, 2010

Detroit's Development - Defence

In reading comments and posts throughout the Oilogosphere, one recurring theme I have seen over the last year or so has been shifting to the "Detroit model" of developing prospects slowly. A recent, brief exchange at Lowetide's has inspired me to investigate a bit further into Detroit's reputation as a team that brings their prospects along slowly. I wanted to see if that is indeed an accurate assessment of their development model, so I have examined Detroit's handling of their prospects (in this post, their defense), and in a future post will compare it with Edmonton's, to see if the prospects have been handled differently, or if they have instead simply turned out differently.

LT wrote:
... One of the things the Detroit model shows us is the value of developing defensemen by sundial.

I replied:
I don't know about that LT. Can't we just as easily argue they've had some late developing prospects and a pretty good D on a pretty good team, making it tough for youngsters to crack? As opposed to some conscious choice to hold players in the minors longer than some might deem necessary for development purposes?

Looking back, I don't think my reply to LT in any way addressed the value of developing defenseman slowly or quickly. That said, what I meant was that I was unsure whether Detroit was specifically bringing their D along slowly, or if it just seemed like they were because their D is deep and hard to crack.

I think one could reasonably argue that their defense hasn't been built according to some master plan where they season their prospects on defense slowly before inserting them into their top 6. Of DET's top 4 D, one is Nicklas Lidstrom, who they drafted at age 19, 53rd overall (at that time, that was a third round pick, would be a late 2nd now). He stays in SWE until 21, then they stuck him straight into the NHL and he posts 60 points. Seventeen years and six Norris trophies later, he remains arguably the best defenceman in the league. It would be an understatement to term Lidstrom an astute draft selection, but I don't know how strenuously we can argue DET did much to develop Lidstrom pre-NHL. Even if they did, it's now 20 years later, maybe things have changed within DET's development since that time? Two of the other top 4 D are Rafalski and Stuart, both of whom signed as UFA's.

Rounding out the top 4 is Niklas Kronwall, a player drafted by DET 29th overall in the 2000 entry draft. He was drafted a year late at 19, spent 3 years post draft in Sweden and headed across the pond at age 22. He spent the first two months and 25 games in the AHL during the 2003/4 season before he was recalled to the NHL. After 20 NHL games he was injured and missed the rest of the season with a broken leg. He spent the lockout season in the AHL where he won the Eddie Shore Award for most outstanding defenseman in the AHL, and has been an NHL regular since except for one AHL game, on a conditioning stint post knee injury, in 05/6. It might or might not be reasonable to argue that the Kronwall's 2004/5 AHL season was of huge importance to his development, but I don't know that we can argue he'd have been there were it not for the lockout; it's not like he was bouncing between the NHL and AHL before he broke his leg. He spent two months in the AHL acclimatizing to the NA game, and after that it was off to the NHL. Should we credit DET for that AHL development if it only came about because of a work stoppage?

If we look at defensemen taken near Kronwall in the 2000 draft, I don't get a sense that Kronwall was treated much differently by DET than were the players selected by other teams. The first 10 defensemen selected in that draft were (selection number in brackets):

Klesla (4) - one year in OHL, NHL regular since 2001/2.
Lars Jonsson (8) - NHL bust, 8 NHL games with PHI 6 years after the draft, now in Europe.
Hainsey (13) - 1 year college, 2 years AHL, played most of 2003/4 in the NHL, AHL in the lockout season, NHL regular since except for 22 games in 2005/6.
Orpik (18) - 1 year college, 2 years AHL, NHL regular since 2003/4 (DNP during lockout)
Volchenkov (21) - 2 years in Russia, NHL regular since 2002/3 (AHL during lockout)
Hale (22) - 3 years college, 2003/4 season as NHL regular, lockout season in AHL, mostly AHL in 2005/6, NHL regular since.
Kronwall (29) - drafted at 19, 3 years Sweden, 2003/4 year split (but promoted to NHL in DEC and ned never demoted), lockout in AHL, NHL regular since.
Nikulin (31) - NHL bust, has never come over but last I read is reportedly an NHL calibre player.
Schultz (33) - one year in WHL, NHL regular since 2001/2.
Foster(40) - drafted at 19, one year junior, one year OHL/AHL split, two years AHL, lockout in AHL, NHL regular after 2005/6 except for 19 AHL games in 2005/6.

Most of those players drafted somewhat near Kronwall were handled similarly by their respective teams - roughly 3 years somewhere before the NHL. Schultz moved much more quickly to the NHL, and I suppose one might argue that his development (in terms of upside) was "hurt" by that - he certainly never brought his WHL offence to the NHL. Maybe he would have if he'd spent two years in junior and one in the AHL before hitting the NHL, as opposed to one year in junior and two years in the NHL? In any case, I don't see a lot in Kronwall's handling that suggests Detroit did anything particularly different from any other NHL team that drafted a D at that point in the draft, outside of MIN with Schultz.

DET's 5th and 7th D, Ericsson and Lebda, were both developed, to some extent, within the Detroit system. Jonathan Ericsson was drafted in the 9th round by the Wings in 2002, so I'm not sure it's surprising he took awhile to become a player. Does it count as taking your time to slowly develop a player when the guy was simply that far away when drafted? Ericsson spent 4 years in Sweden post draft, so he came over to NA at 22. Very similar to Kronwall, except Kronwall as previously mentioned was drafted at 19 and spent 3 years post draft in Sweden. He then came over to NA in the summer of 2006, signing a 2 year ELC with the Red Wings. He played the next two seasons in the AHL, and became an RFA in the summer of 2008. The Red Wings signed him to a 3 year, 2.7 mil, one way contract that summer. Ericsson still had one year of waiver ineligibility remaining, and Detroit used this to send him to the minors for 40 games of AHL seasoning in 2008/9. I believe Ericsson is the best example of Detroit bringing a defenseman along more slowly than most/any other teams would. I'm not sure how much can be gleaned either way from a sample size of one, but the results for Ericsson appear to be mixed. The Wings have taken a slow path with Ericsson. He's 26 years old, and he will be a UFA in the summer of 2011 if he doesn't re-sign before that date.

Brett Lebda was signed as a college free agent in 2004 after he had played 4 seasons for Notre Dame. He played in the AHL during the lockout season, and played 25 AHL games during the 2005/6 while appearing in 46 NHL games. He has been an NHL regular since. Lebda certainly isn't an example of a player DET brought along slowly, but then again he didn't join the organization until age 22.

Their 6th D, Andreas Lilja, was signed as a UFA.

After looking at the defensemen currently on Detroit's roster, I'm not sure that they truly handle their defense all that differently from anyone else. Three of their defensemen were signed as UFA's. One was a generational player brought into the NHL as a 21 year old two CBA's ago - I don't think Lidstrom's development is instructive, or relevant, in assessing Detroit's current development philosophies. Lebda and Kronwall don't seem to have been handled differently when compared to how other organizations tend to handle these players. I do think Ericsson IS an example of a player brought along more slowly than most organizations might have. But, he was a 9th round draft pick, so you wouldn't really have expected him to come along as quickly as a 1st round pick. He was also trying to crack a very good team in an organization that could afford to pay him one way money to play in the AHL in exchange for getting him signed to a 3 year deal that took him to UFA age.

To look at their development system, we need also consider a couple of prospects in the AHL. Before that, I do want to briefly mention Jiri Fischer, a player who might still be playing for Detroit were it not for his heart problems. Fischer was drafted 25th overall in the 1998 draft, roughly the same area of the draft Kronwall was selected. Fischer played one year post draft in junior, and was in the NHL at age 19. He certainly does not fit the mold of a player brought along slowly by DET, but then again that was 10 years ago. Maybe they would have handled Fischer differently had he been drafted in 2007?

Jakub Kindl was drafted 19th overall in 2005. Kindl had two very good post draft seasons in the OHL. I think one could make an argument that other teams might have put Kindl in the NHL at 20, but then again I don't know how he looked at camp. Maybe he looked close to ready but Detroit demoted him anyways? Maybe it was clear he wasn't ready to be in the NHL? In any case, in his first AHL season he performed abysmally, with a (by far) team worst -34. Not surprisingly, he was sent back to the AHL for a second season in 2008/9, where his offence improved from 17 to 33 points, but his plus minus remained the worst on the team (actually, this kind of sounds like Detroit's version of Chorney, also a 2005 draftee). This past season, 2009/10, Kindl's offense stagnated but his plus minus did improve to -4, roughly in the middle of the pack for Grand Rapids defensemen. Kindl may well be an example of a prospect DET has been handling extremely slowly, but then again the line between "prospect handled slowly" and "suspect" can be blurry. He is still said to be very much in Detroit's plans, and appears to be waiver eligible next season. Based on what I've read, my guess is Kindl will be brought up to the NHL to replace whichever of Lebda or Lilja DET lets hit UFA this summer, and the returns might start to come in at that point.

Derek Meech was drafted in the 7th round in 2002, and his development looks pretty typical of a 7th round pick that eventually cracks the NHL - two years post draft back in the WHL, all 3 years of his ELC in the AHL. At that point, he was waiver eligible and signed a 3 year deal, which appears to have been a two way deal, but at the league minimum. He has spent all three years of that deal in the NHL, except for a brief conditioning stint, as a 7th D. Meech has been brought along slowly, but turning into a 7th D is a pretty decent outcome for a 7th round pick. He is an RFA this summer, UFA summer 2011.

Kyle Quincey is the one that got away for Detroit, but they were deep on defence and it wasn't easy to see it coming when looking at Quincey's history. Quincey was drafted in the 4th round of the 2003 draft, 132nd overall. Statistics don't tell us everything about defencemen, but offensively he looked pretty decent in his two post draft OHL seasons. At 20 he signed his 3 year ELC, where he spent the vast majority of his time in the AHL, playing 13 NHL games over the course of his contract. Quincey was now waiver eligible, and the Wings decided to try sending Quincey through waivers, apparently instead of Meech. LA claimed him, and he has established himself as an NHL defenceman in the two seasons since. Quincey has brought slightly more offence to the NHL level than he had at the AHL level, in what I would guess is a rarity. Maybe all he was missing was an opportunity, and maybe he'd have never turned out as well if he'd been in Detroit, playing 40 games a season on the 3rd pair?


After looking at Detroit's handling of their defencemen, I'm not really sure that they are handling their prospects much differently from other teams, with the possible exception of Ericsson (and maybe Kindl). I'll have to go through and compare their development with a team like the Oilers, but I think it looks more like a situation where their D prospects haven't been particularly strong, and simply haven't forced their way onto a quality NHL roster, as opposed to clearly holding NHL-ready prospects back for developmental purposes.


Buddha Pest said...

You can also consider 3 more "exhibits":

Anders Eriksson- 552 career NHL games prior to 2009-2010 season, drafted 22nd overall in 1993, played 2 full years in Sweden following that, played 75 games in AHL in 1995-96, played 44 games in AHL and 23 games in Detroit in 1996-97

Jesse Wallin- 49 career NHL games, drafted 26th overall in 1996, played 2 full years in WHL following that, played 76 games in AHL in 1998-99, played 75 games in AHL in 1999-2000

Mathieu Dandenault- 868 career NHL games prior to 2009-2010 season, drafted 49th overall in 1994, played 1 full year in QMJHL following that, played 4 games in AHL and 34 games in Detroit in 1995-96

I agree with much of what you have said. In my opinion, it's too simple a statement to suggest that Detroit has a particular model that is different from other NHL organizations in terms of how they develop their players, including d-men.

Buddha Pest said...

Certainly organizations like Detroit and New Jersey who the casual fan look upon as "model" organizations have done a marvelous job of drafting and developing their players.

But, as you have alluded to, there are many factors involved in this success- not just the observation that they seem to be able to take their time developing their players. These factors include:

1. drafting talented players (eg. Lidstrom) who don't need as much time developing prior to entering the NHL;

2. the team's depth chart relative to a certain player's position in the depth chart. For example, Detroit had players like Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Matt Schneider, and Chris Chelios on their team during much of the mid to late 1990s and early 2000. This allowed them to take their time developing their drafted defencemen. With Nik Kronwall, he didn't have to be rushed to Detroit as they had the likes of Lidstrom, Chelios, Fischer, and Steve Duchesne playing on the big club.

3. Similarly, the luxury of bringing in a young defenceman and playing him only limited minutes before expanding his role. They were able to do that with Dandenault, Lebda, and now, Ericsson.

Buddha Pest said...

4. Similarly to points 1 and 3, the luxury of having a superstar defenceman on the roster (Lidstrom and Niedermayer when he was with the Devils) that plays major minutes in all situations and allows younger players to develop.

All of these factors (and many more) have contributed to the success of a team like Detroit. Perhaps the perception is that they purposely let their players develop slowly, In reality, much more has been involved. As Ken Holland has said in past interviews and I paraphrase: drafting, development, and luck have all played a part in the success of their team.

As for the Oilers, well, when you look back at their defence since 1990, you probably won't see much similarity between the Oilers and teams like Detroit. Except for Chris Pronger, they haven't had a superstar calibre d-man in their ranks. They haven't drafted any high-end talented d-men in the past 20 years. Except for a period of time in the 1990s when they had players like Hamrlik, Mironov, and Niinimaa, they haven't had a good core of d-men that allowed them to slowly integrate a young d-man on the team.

Hopefully, the Oilers have taken notes from teams like Detroit and NJ though.

Lowetide said...

I still don't think the Red Wings would have played Chorney in an NHL game, and I bet the Oilers would be putting all kinds of pressure on Brendan Smith (is that his name? college kid) to sign.

I don't recall the last Dman rushed to the majors by Detroit and maybe that has something to do with having Lidstrom. However, the Oilers had Pronger and still gave at-bats to Matt Greene and he wasn't ready and that's a hill I'll die on (in terms of arguing).

Give me five minutes at hockeydb and I can find an Oilers list back to Poti where the player was plugged in right away.

Detroit? They seem to have a plan that involves bringing these kids along slowly.

I might also add that not all AHL minutes are created equally. Jonathan Willis' excellent work a yeear ago showed that Chorney was facing veteran AHL players pretty much from the get-go.

We don't have evidence with regard to the Red Wings kids in the minors, but they do seem to create at atmosphere where these kids can have success.

Maybe that's something we can look into: how many Oil/Wing AHL defenders played in 300 NHL games or more once graduating since 1994? And lets count only the defensemen who have played 160 games in the minors.

My guess is the Oilers have a bunch of Poti/Chorney's who never had the opportunity to develop properly.

Ever try to climb a ladder with two rungs missing? Pretty difficult thing to do.

Lowetide said...

Obviously the 160 number should include SEL, RSL, KHL, SML etc.

Buddha Pest said...

One more factor to add:

Obviously, you have to consider the player himself and his development and desire to play in the NHL. Is Jakub Kindl ready to play in the NHL? If he's not ready and hasn't developed the skill set, then it's not just a question of Detroit purposely holding him back nor is it just a question of who is on the depth chart ahead of him. If he is NHL ready, then he should be able to push himself ahead of players like Meech, Lebda, and Lilja.

spOILer said...

Would DET have played Chorney if Kronwall, Lidstrom & Lebda were all hurt, the team was out of the playoff race, and he was the best option on the farm team?

spOILer said...

There's guys like Boychuk, too. Boychuk didn't necessarily develop by sundial. A case could be made he was developed at sea and had to find land again, before being able to advance to the next stage.

speeds said...

LT: You think the Wings should leave Smith in college for another year? He was over a PPG as a D, the highest scoring D in the NCAA, pretty good +/-. You wouldn't rather see him in the AHL next year? He's not that young, he's 21.

speeds said...

I can't find a link saying that he's signed, but this April 30th link makes it sound extremely likely.

Lowetide said...

speeds: The AHL would seem to be the logical next step for him.