AHL stud Brett Sterling has never signed a one-way NHL deal.

I found myself sitting at my desk perusing the stats of leagues I normally wouldn’t give a second glance to this morning (hurray lockout!), and I kept coming across names I knew from junior, college and pro, but hadn’t seen in some time. I kept thinking “damn, he never made it hey?”, and pulling up HockeyDB pages to see where a career that seemed like a sure thing took a wrong turn.

There’s never one easy answer, but still, it’s worth contemplating why player X couldn’t get a sniff but player Y is an everyday player. So I spent some time sifting.

Hey look, Brandon Bochenski is tied for 15th in the KHL in scoring.

Holy onions he was good in college. Try as I might to forget, I remember the game he hung four on us in Grand Forks. That was the year he outscored NHL All-Star and now-very-rich teammate Zach Parise in both goals and total points (during Parise’s final year at UND). Hell, he almost doubled the points of his other teammate that year, Drew Stafford. More of his fellow Fighting Sioux made it too, but none were as dangerous as him during that season. Bochenski may have played over 100 games in The Show, but he could never quite stick.

Neither can Chris Conner, who has seasons of 60 and 38 games played in the NHL, but for the most part finds himself toiling in the American League. In college, Chris Conner was the sole person we talked about pre-game. He was Michigan Tech. And this guy can’t crack the show full time?

How about Brett Sterling, who had 118 points in his last 72 WCHA games, then came out and scored 55 goals as a rookie in the AHL? 30 career NHL games. His tougher-to-contain teammate, Mary Sertich (114 points over last 84 WCHA games) has 30 less NHL games than that.  Y’know who has more? Their far, far less impressive teammate Joey Crabb.

Colorado College, 2005-06

Crabb was slated to make $950,000 this year with Washington, while Sterling’s never been on a one-way deal (and if you’re guessing it’s because Crabb plays tough, or is more difficult to face, I wouldn’t really agree).

You could do this all day – there are tons and tons and tons (and tons) of examples of players who’ve lit up leagues as high as the AHL and can’t crack the big show.

So seriously, what’s the difference? Why do some guys get their foot in the door, why do some guys get endless chances, and why do others end up in the Swiss Elite League making 80k (not that there’s anything wrong with that) instead of playing for the Rangers making 800k (lots right with that), or even eight million a year (yes plz kthxbai)?

Every team has these guys they think will someday be cornerstones, and and they end up being dead weight. Obviously I never made it (to be clear, I was never really close), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t followed the guys who were and seen what happened to their respective careers. Let’s bomb through some of the reasons, and highlight a few names who’ve missed out because of them.

From Prospect to Project

Reasons Talented Players Fall Short

NHL Speed

Being an elite forward in the NHL requires you to have the speed to keep up with (or surpass) the best players in the game. You can have the deadliest shot a hockey player can have, great vision, strength…everything, but if you can’t get to the scoring areas before defenders, you don’t get the chances to use those skills.

Specifically, this has affected Ryan Potulny and Brandon Bochenski, both of whom have NHL-level ability to bury the puck. Potulny has a 60 game – 15 goal NHL season on his resume, and nobody wants him. There’s no doubt he can put the biscuit in the basket, he’s just not fast enough to get the chances at the world’s highest level, so you’re forced to use him on the PP for him to have any real value. Even my old linemate Trevor Smith, an AHL all-star, is just that one tool away from making it.

Teams hold out hope you’ll find a way to gain a half step, but if you don’t, they’ll let you go.

Physicality/Size:

Hockey fans love the little guy. They love that their legs have to pump faster than anyone else’s out there, and if they’re to make it, they have to be willing to tangle with much bigger men.

However, there is a cut-off. There’s a line where you’re just too small, and even though you may be willing to tangle, you’re not going to win any puck battles.

Chris Conner suffers because of this, Brett Sterling isn’t helped out by his height, and most of all, Ryan Duncan gets totally screwed. Ryan Duncan was possibly the best offensive player I’ve ever been on the ice against, he won a Hobey Baker, and…he’s “listed” at 5’7″. There’s just no chance for a guy that size, as good as he may be when he has the puck.

Top six/bottom six perception:

There’s a huge number of third and fourth line players in the NHL who had great numbers in junior, but if they were going to make it, had to adjust their game to be a little more grinder-riffic. The reality these days, is that’s it’s more of a top nine/bottom three, but still – a guy like Jeff Tambellini is far more talented than (fill in almost any fourth liner), but because he’s not tall, teams figure they can’t mold him into a lower line type player.

Tambellini tried to play a lower line role at times for the Islanders, but in the end, if a team can’t use him in their top six, they think they can’t use him. That means skill guys aren’t trying to crack to top 12 (or even 15) forwards, but it’s the top six or AHL for them. Other, bigger players have 12 (or 15) guys to try and knock out.

Personality:

Being a great guy won’t get you in the league, and being a shitty one won’t keep you out of it, but when a huge part of a coach’s role is basically doing HR work (that’ll happen when you have 20+ employees), guys do try to minimize the headaches. Superstar Syndrome is enough to make teams look at comparable players.

Effort:

Bizarre that such a seemingly easy to accomplish thing matters so much, but coaches lovvveee the under-talented guy who finds a way to contribute. Tim Jackman (sorry dude) is the prime example. Tim has been given the necessary bottom three tools: size, and a heart the size of an airport. But talented, holy shit, he is not. But he knows his role, and plays it to a “t”, and has almost 350 NHL games under his belt because of that. There are thousands of guys with more talent that’ll never see a day in the show cause they won’t block a shot with their eyelids like Tim is willing to.

Expectations:

When a guy comes along and is expected to be the next Gretzky, slow progress starts to worry people. Then they do things detrimental to his development, and slowly but surely sabotage their own guy. Nazem Kadri is a guy who cannot conceivably know which way is up right now. Straight to the show! Wait, go down and develop! Put on weight! Lose weight! He should be ready by now! WHY ISN’T HE READY YET!

And suddenly the guy’s on his third AHL team, 27, and not getting a second glance from anyone. (Not saying this will happen to Kadri, but can’t help but think he’d be better off somewhere that he wasn’t The Savior.)

Blown opportunity:

Sometimes an injury will provide a player a chance to fill in somewhere and really steal the show. “Alright, so-and-so is down for two months, we’re going to play you with two great linemates and give you PP time.”

When you get that window, and find it overwhelming during your first crack, good luck getting another one. The next time there’s a hole to be filled, you’re no longer option 1A.

Perceived value due to circumstance/trades:

Some players develop later than others, but if it takes too long, and you find yourself having played for a few AHL teams, teams are skeptical. Why didn’t he stick with the first one? And if you’ve been traded, even in junior, it’s already a concern teams will look into. They want you to be drafted, play in the system, and crack the team by the time that three year entry-level deal is up. Otherwise, they’re looking at that other new prospect they just got in the system.

Low expectations:

When a team expects you to be an okay player and you throw down a slightly-above-average season, they love to play the “look at this gem we dug up” game. It’s like Mikhail Grabovski in Toronto – he’s a good hockey player, but given that expectations on him weren’t crazy high, his good season made fans fall in love with him.

***

There’s a million different personal reasons individuals do and don’t make it, but the ones above are definitely included in those. Also stuff like, um, sucking at skills hurts your odds, but you already knew that.

Sometimes we get frustrated that our favourite prospects don’t come through, but there’s more to it than you see, and behind-the-scenes politics plays a big part, as much as we love to pretend it’s a meritocracy. Just because you’ve got a lot of hope coming out of junior or college doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy road to the NHL.

Comments (39)

  1. What about plain old luck…. right place at right time. I know you have to have the skills and perform when given the opportunity. But luck can play a huge role.

    • For sure. I still think about a chance I had to score in an AHL game before getting sent down (we lost by a goal). Puck randomly jumped over my stick. I put that in, do I get another few games? Do I score in those games? (Obviously not even talking about myself specifically, but that stuff happens to tons of people.)

  2. Re physicality/size: How tall is Martin St. Louis? Matthieu Perreault? There is room for non-tall players in the NHL but I would concede, not much.

    • Guys like St. Louis… or Gerbe, Ennis, Gionta, etc., are exceptions to the rule, and even then Gerbe is the shortest guy in the NHL at 5-5, then you have a handful of guys at 5-7 (including Sterling). Looking on NHL.com, there were 11 skaters in the NHL in 2011-12 who were 5-8 or shorter (all but one of them forwards), and among them only about half are “regulars” at this stage of their careers (Gerbe, B.Gionta, Desharnais, Steve Sullivan, Keith Aucoin, St. Louis and Bouillon, the lone Dman). So to Justin’s point, coming in at 5-8 or shorter you face more than an uphill climb to regular shifts in the show.

    • Definitely, but the shorter guys have to have more other tools to compensate. Look at the difference between Brian and Stephen Gionta.

  3. Very well written. Interesting and insightful.

  4. It was awesome watching Sterling and Sertich play at CC. They absolutely dominated

  5. Just plain coincidence that T.J. Hensick is skating behind Brett Sterling in the picture? I think not. He fits right in with many of your points Justin.

    Thanks again for another well done post.

  6. Nice post Bourne, I’ve always wondered about the fine line. Ive played with AHL guys in shinny and they are freakishly talented, and you think, how much better would you have to be to crack a spot.

    In my men’s league last year we had Steve Kelly playing, guy was drafted 6th overall before Iggy and Doaner, 149 games and 9 goals in the show, so fast, but whats missing? (obviously there are hundreds of examples of guys drafted high that never caught on)

    On the size thing, most teams won’t draft under 6, look at Gerbe, super freak, 5th rd and then look how hard he has to work to show he belongs in the lineup.

  7. It’s interesting how so many of these reasons are a result of managerial incompetence. Specifically the notion that there is a difference between “top six” and “bottom six” players.

    In the name of diversity NHL teams are actively choosing players that are objectively worse (that is they allow more goals and score fewer than the alternatives). If I was a GM I’d be signing these kinds of guys every year on the cheap and then playing them on my fourth line. They would surely be able to outscore the Ben Eagers of the world. Then, when a “top six” forward was injured I’d have my replacement there ready and waiting.

    • Then it goes back to personality. Scorers want to score. Then it comes down to personality.

      At some point, an offensive skilled guy sitting on a team’s “4th line” will look across the way at another team struggling for offense and say “if I was on that team I could put up some points” or “if I was on the power play I could put some points”. Does that player decide to suck it up and sit on the “4th line” or ask to be moved to another team?

      I think one quality that Justin alluded to in the piece that is underrated is adaptability. Now if that 4th line offensive skilled thinks I want to get on the ice more he sees that while the team is doing reasonably well but they’re struggling winning draws. That same player decides to improve his faceoff skills and voila now the coach is tapping him on the shoulder late in the 3rd to take a DZ draw to preserve a one goal game. And slowly the transition from highly skilled offensive player to highly skilled two-way player starts taking place to the point where he then ends up being a defensive specialist. Ultimately if you’re an offensive skilled player you need the ice time to show your worth. And ultimately in any team there is pecking order. The guy making the big dough is going to get the majority of minutes and those cheap, expendable guys won’t get much.

      Invariably if you look at most players in the NHL – with a few exceptions in relation to the designated tough guys – most were putting up good numbers where they came from be it junior or college.

      In the future, I think there is going to be less of a top 6/bottom 6 split and more of a top 9/bottom 3 split.

  8. Great post Justin. I always like your posts that blend your personal experience with some of these lesser discussed aspects of the NHL.

    Looking at my own Kings team, I can look at a whole host of guys both on the team and trying to break in and see many of the same issues you’re talking about. Oscar Moller and Loktionov are both small guys with great skill, but every time i see them play at the NHL level they’re getting thrown around and pushed off the puck pretty easily. Then we look at our goalies. Bernier was to be the savior, but Quick came in as a stop gap and just flat beat him out for the #1 spot. Now guys are talking about Bernier as a “disappointment”. He hans’t met expectations. Fact is, he’s been great in his games at the NHL level, but is now clearly no longer in the Kings future as a starter and spent most of his time playing behind a team that couldnt score.

    Then, may favorite… Dwight King. He was called up under Terry Murray and looked unimpressive. He gets called up under Sutter and everybody is asking, “who is THIS guy”?

    In regards to size though, why do teams even bother drafting smaller players? You’d think, given the size of the league now that a smaller guys shot at making has got to be so small that it’s almost not even worth wasting a pick on anybody under 6′. Yeah, theres a few smaller guys in the league, and yeah once in a while ONE guy makes it. But why not go the safer route and bet on guys with size?

    • Ah the classic size vs. skill debate. Love it.

      I think there’s been a shift, a bit to smaller players in today’s game, than say in the mid ’90s when it was an era of bigger is better.

      Invariably big players with skill are preferred but as you drop down the depth chart do you become a team with bigger players, with less skill, but have the ability to win puck battles and break down other teams or do you go with smaller, but skilled players, who may lose the occasional battle in the corners but can generate scoring opportunities.

      • I think theres a difference between “going smaller”, and going “small”. Small guys in today’s game are generally 5’10-6’0″. Going with guys that are 5’7″ would be ridiculous. And THAT is what im asking. Why would teams draft players that small? The chances of that guy making any team are such a long shot, and yet every team drafts these types of players.

    • I always thought that the hype on Bernier was way out of the realm of reality. It’s hurt his reputation that he’s “just” a legitimate NHLer.

      • Yeah, for sure LA fans probably had the highest expectations of anyone, but can you blame us. Look at our history in net. My point being though that, he’s a legit net minder, and yet he’s been labelled a disappointment by many across the NHL now and I feel like it’s unwarranted based on what ive seen from him.

        • Yep, I totally agree. I feel bad for the guy. He’s a legit NHL goalie and everyone acts like he killed their firsfborn son because he hasn’t been in multiple all-star games.

  9. “They want you to be drafted, play in the system, and crack the team by the time that three year entry-level deal is up. Otherwise, they’re looking at that other new prospect they just got in the system.”

    I think this points to another issue. Great players get passed up in great systems. So you’re a forward who could crack most NHL rosters, but the team that drafted you has several better guys. You wait a few years for your chance before the NHL club decides either to cut you loose or trade you. Then you scramble for a new contract or you’re on a new team that has a few years worth of prospects that are younger (and more hyped) than you are. Congratulations, through no fault of your own, you’re an AHLer for life.

  10. I am thinking that Andy Miele (Phoenix) might fall victim to a number of your points JB. Which is a bummer.

  11. One of the best posts on this blog in a long time! This post took me back to our college days! And the debates on who’s going to become the better nhler!

  12. I think the teams draft these smaller players because USA Hockey is really pushing skill and numbers and the NHL grants a lot of money to USA Hockey. The more kids that play… more talented kids are “found”. Size really doesn’t matter until they get to the elite level. I don’t know why a team would draft a kid and hope he grows? All they have to do is check into his pedigree and can see the approximate size he will be. I personally like to watch the skilled players more then the big crushers. I am not a huge gopher hockey fan but love watching Rau, hopefully he doesn’t lose a shot at the big league because of his size. There are a lot of players on his current team and past teams that are much bigger then him but are not at the same level. I think the direction the NHL was trying to go and probably still trying to go we will see the smaller skilled guys more and more.

  13. Great post. It’s great timing for this post because I was watching the 1991 World Juniors Canada v. USSR game and there are guys that were studs on that team that never sniffed the NHL. It’s amazing what a fine line it is.

    However, my one complaint is that this post is very short on love for Grabovski. Excuse me while I write 5,000 words on why you should like him more.

  14. All I have to say about this post is Rob Schremp. He probably covers all the highlighted points that have been made in this article.

    • That’s a guy who frustrates me. He’s got crazy skill in a couple areas but he cannot consistantly get in to good scoring areas in the NHL. He just floats around the offensive zone rarely doing anything with the puck within 20 feet of the goal.

  15. Ryan Duncan is one of the best collegiate players I’ve ever seen.

  16. On the size debate, I think these days there is a notable ‘perfect NHL physique’ these days. Anybody outside of this perfect blend of height, weight, speed, toughness has to have some other asset very few people have to get a look in.

    Thats where you get your St-Louis and Charas (ie top and bottom of that particular scale!)

    Of course this is happening in a lot of sports as the science behind training and conditioning and nutrition have advanced

  17. The Kadri case makes me a bit worried about Niederreiter. He is off to a real good start this season in the AHL but a season on the NHL 4th line next to guys like Pandolfo couldn’t really have helped groom him for his expected role.

    • Yeah, Niederreiter makes a lot of us nervous. Gonna need him to show something soon (so I’m glad he’s off to a good start).

  18. Not really relevant for this article, but you are grossly underestimating Swiss Elite League salaries. Imports usually make upwards of 500.000$ and also get free housing and a car.

  19. The majority of these reasons comes down to the role of management in development. I don’t think you can underestimate the role team leadership/management/coaching has, from NHL GM to AHL coach, etc on player development. Great teams know how to manage expectations, assess players at all levels of their development not just at the draft, and put players in the right roles so they develop properly and reach their potential.

    A guy could have all the success in the world in the CHL, college or AHL, but if once they get brought up they are placed in a completely different role and/or system, of course there’s a good chance they aren’t going to succeed. One of the reasons the Rangers (as one example) are developing good young players now is that the kids in the minors learn the same system as they will be expected to play in NY. It helps make the NHL learning curve less steep, prospects develop confidence and the coaching staff has confidence in their prospects.

    The bottom line is that assessing player ability and potential is still a far from exact science. There are plenty of guys who could have succeeded in the NHL if only given the right opportunity. If a guy has the talent to play in the NHL, but never gets a chance because some idiot exec says they’re too short then that’s just bad management. It’s entirely possible that if Martin St. Louis was drafted by another team, he may never even have sniffed the NHL.

    Is a guy really too slow or small for the NHL or did he just get the unfortunate luck of being drafted by a team that doesn’t value his other attributes properly or put him in a situation where he could succeed?

  20. Hey Justin, I remember when you played at AA, I felt so bad for you and the other guys who would never really have a shot at anything, but played for the love of the game and the other perks you get as a college hockey player I’m sure. I believe it was your year that you made the Final Five and won a play in, then got beat by UND with Parise and company. Minnesota edged UND, and we saw the entire AA team at the Wild Onion in St Paul, and Chris Fournier was popping off at UND fans. I will never forget that!

    Thanks for your insight, I enjoy reading your blog.

  21. I realize that last post sounded bad. I mean not playing for anything as far as postseason. I know AA has had some guys make it to the show, Glencross!

  22. It’s funny you post this, as I can spend too many hours a day looking at stats and how certain guys go from being the 5th best scorer on their team to playing at a high level (NHL, AHL) and the leading scorer ends up going over to Europe and spending all of eternity there.

    Great read!

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