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.

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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.