St. Louis Blues: The NHL System Is Not Like Baseball

Mar 25, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Ivan Barbashev (49) celebrates with defenseman Colton Parayko (55) after scoring a goal during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 25, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Ivan Barbashev (49) celebrates with defenseman Colton Parayko (55) after scoring a goal during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports /

The minor leagues are there for one reason in the minds of their major counterparts. They are there for player development. However, in hockey things are not quite the same as baseball.

The St. Louis Blues do have a problem coming in 2017-18. They will not have control over their minor league affiliation, even if they are supplying the bulk of the players that will play with the Chicago Wolves instead of the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

As previously discussed, this causes an issue with control. If you are not the major league team calling the shots, then your top prospects might be getting fourth-line minutes or your goaltender of the future might be a backup.

There is no way of really knowing how it will work out until the season comes. Las Vegas might have mainly junior players and only have a handful of guys actually in the AHL. Still, they get to decide how much the Blues prospects get to learn and what they learn.

This is not a sustainable model and Doug Armstrong knows and has said as much. For one season, it might be beneficial as Vegas will likely have a few veteran players that can help mold the Blues’ youngsters. Beyond that one year, the Blues cannot still be in this situation.

All that said, there is still a difference between hockey and baseball that does give more credence to the statements made by the Chicago Wolves owner.

Wolves owner Don Levin recently stated “St. Louis would like to see their guys win, but wouldn’t put any effort into doing it,” while noting that Wolves signed players produced more on the ice than those signed to Blues contracts. He also said “George is one of the very few GMs that really believes that winning is an important part of development,” referring to George McPhee, the new GM of Las Vegas.

We can debate on and on whether the Blues are interested in their prospects winning (the organization’s time with Peoria would suggest it is not the priority). St. Louis does seem to want to follow the baseball model though.

They want their top prospects being played on certain lines, certain pairings given a try when the Blues want it and to have the control over ice time. Look no further than goaltender Ville Husso.

Husso was sent down to the ECHL to get development. The Blues only had a working relationship with the Missouri Mavericks, who were the affiliate of the Islanders, and Husso was not playing enough. The Blues had to bring him up to the AHL to get the time they wanted.

If that is your organizational model, it’s fine. Players do need to be brought through the ranks with some organizational stability and understand what will be expected of them each step of the way. You don’t want a certain message at one level and a completely different one at the next.

However, too many are using AAA or AA baseball players as the example and it’s apples to oranges. Baseball is different. It is more individual.

If each player in baseball goes out and does their job, more times than not, success will follow as a team. The same is not always true in more team oriented sports.

If Vladimir Tarasenko scores 40 goals every season of his career, the Blues are not always going to win. If Jake Allen leads the league in several key categories, St. Louis might still lose.

In hockey, winning is learned and usually earned the hard way – through experience. Pittsburgh could not win until they learned how against Detroit. The New York Islanders of the 80’s had to figure out how to beat Montreal and Edmonton had to learn how to take out the Islanders.

Very few teams or even players for that matter just know how to win on their own. Take the biggest superstar in the world and they cannot win by themselves, they need a team around them that can do it too.

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So, in that sense, Lavin is right. It’s fine to want to get certain guys top line minutes or see how a certain line will work together. Winning is important though.

The guys on the local radio show called “The Turn” were asking who cares who wins the Calder Cup. Outside of the fans in that city, the answer is probably very few.

Even so, making the playoffs at that level and learning what it is to go through that grind of facing the same team over and over is invaluable. Winning a championship can really aid in developing that work ethic and knowledge of what it takes.

Baseball is different. There are so many differing factors and moving pieces and managerial decisions that go into winning that being the best team in the minors actually doesn’t make much difference to one individual’s progression.

In hockey, I think it can. Learning how to win is just as important as learning the Blues style.

Look back to the Blues of the mid-2000’s and early ’10’s. Those guys were brought to the NHL almost immediately and handed the keys to the car.

They did fine and many became fan favorites like T.J. Oshie, David Backes, David Perron and Kevin Shattenkirk. They all turned into good players, individually, but went through a hell of a lot of growing pains.

They did find some playoff success and any lack thereof will be blamed on the organization or some sort of Blues curse by some. It could boil down to they never learned how to get over that hump together.

I’m not trying to fool anyone. Not every successful AHL team has just thrust half their lineup into the NHL and gone onto be champions.

The LA Kings, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings minor league affiliates have all won and they either have good NHL clubs or rising ones (in the case of Detroit).  However, Colorado’s AHL team won last season and their NHL program is a mess and Washington’s won a few years ago and they can’t win in the NHL playoffs.  It is hit or miss.

You’re always going to have your career AHL guys, in-betweeners and top prospects being groomed. That’s just the way of things.

Winning can’t be taught through just developing playing skills though. These guys have to go do it. Being handed top line minutes just as an experiment like they do in baseball doesn’t convert.

In baseball, as the radio guys said, you can force a guy into a cleanup role or pitch a guy as your ace regardless of what their numbers are because that’s what your scouts say they should be. In hockey, you need to show it.

Ken Hitchcock would go a little overboard by playing talented guys on the fourth line. That never made sense, even to me.

Still, you have to build that winning mentality and it starts in the minors if that is the career progression you must take. There is nothing wrong with learning to play with a third-line guy or figuring out how to center the second line instead of wing the first, if it will help a team win.

It builds flexibility, trust in teammates and, again, that championship mentality.

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It isn’t an either or thing. The minor league team doesn’t need all the control. The Blues proved that by giving Chicago a division championship when St. Louis had the most control over the team in their four years.

Building a winning team must be a priority though. When Peoria was languishing, there were almost no valuable pieces being brought up to the NHL. Now that Chicago has turned their fortunes around, the Blues suddenly have a basket full of guys ready to step in.

Winning helps cover a lot of things. Knowing how to win is an important part of growing.