Point/Counterpoint: Development vs. “Win Now”

Welcome to the newest edition of “Point/Counterpoint,” where a pair of Flyers Faithful scribes present both sides of one particular issue with their own unique view and flair. This week, Nick D and Bob H square off again over the matter of whether the Flyers should keep the pressure on and try to win it all in a short time span, or take the long road and develop from within.

First up, Bob H

Kevin Marshall was done wrong. Under the guise of breaking up a “logjam” on the defensive front, he was dealt from Adirondack to Hershey for a minor-league forward last week. Thus, another in a stack of potential future Philadelphia Flyers (or at least some juicy future trade fodder) for the Orange and Black will toil in the minors of another franchise.

Sure, the idea of the draft is to stockpile as many bodies as you can and let the chips fall where they may as these commodities skate for whatever affiliate they find themselves, but the Flyers really have a harmful mental block when it comes to knowing which kids they should keep and which ones they should get rid of.

Even when injuries to contracted players hit (and they do with frequency every year), and a select few are called up to the Show as replacements, it makes sense to keep the next wave of guys down in the minors to continue their development. Apparently, it doesn’t make enough sense, because the Philly organ-eye-zation thinks that if a certain player isn’t ripe to be called to the NHL at some point, he’s not worth keeping around for long. Then, in a twisted form of “benevolence,” that player is given his release from the franchise to another one, under the guise of giving him a better chance to make the NHL.

And yet, I’m amazed that there’s a ton of hand-wringing over why the Phantoms have been a joke for roughly a full decade. It’s because the tug of war at the top every year over how much they should press to win a Cup forces them to audition and then deal their top commodities and draft picks they should be using to keep the organization packed with fresh talent. This year is no different than any other. It’s a cockeyed view that needs to be corrected yesterday. This team needs to learn how to take the long view and strengthen its core to ensure future success.

Nick D: Let’s face it: the Flyers don’t draft well. Okay wait, before everyone comes with their pitch forks and torches, let me rephrase: the Flyers don’t draft well outside of the first round. Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Zac Rinaldo are the only members of the Philadelphia Flyers who made the  big boy club out of training camp that were drafted by the Flyers and guess what, they’re all first-rounders other than Rinaldo. Everyone else on the roster has been either traded for, signed as a free-agent, or picked up as an undrafted rookie out of college at a fairly hefty price-tag too I might add (see Cap-Geek.com for further analysis on both Sergei Bobrovsky’s and Matt Read’s respective contracts). The Flyers don’t wait around for their young guys to develop unless they see something magical, like they have in Giroux and to a lesser extent right now in van Riemsdyk.

There is incredible pressure to win a cup now throughout the organization and that’s the way it should be. The club and it’s die-hard fans have been yearning for a cup since 1975 and close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. While a change in philosophy might be nice to dream about, the fact is that the scouting has to be better in the later rounds. Holding onto a guy like Marshall would be great if he had shown signs of getting better in his tenure with the Phantoms, but all he did was stand pat or improve slightly, and cracking a fill-in role for a mere 10 games isn’t going to cut it anywhere in the NHL. The Flyers may have moved the 22-year old Marshall to give him a better opportunity and maybe Matt Ford is a 27-year nobody who will never play a game in the NHL.  However, with Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon in the last years of their respective entry-level contracts, and Bourdon being able to hold a roster spot for 37 games, averaging a little over five minutes of ice-time more a game than Marshall has, and contributing two goals, two assists, for four points to Marshall’s zero, and maintaining a plus-two plus/minus rating, well, the scales tip in Bourdon’s favor of getting another contract.

Another issue the Flyers need to tackle in their minor league affiliates is coaching as it is pretty clear that the development of most of their young talent has been slowed or even stopped when players start with the Phantoms. The Flyers keep low level talent in their minor leagues and deal a lot of them away, but who has really been worth holding onto? Anybody? While some players have gone on to be key cogs for other teams winning a cup, it’s not like there are a ton of them who played a good bit with the Phantoms first. That has more to do with coaching and scouting than it does with patience and a philosophy.

Bob H: Here’s a short list of former players in the organization that, for one reason or another were either not fully developed in the minors and were not afforded a chance to rise up through the ranks, or if they were, given a brief audition in the pros before departing: Vinny Prospal, Bruno St. Jacques, Patrick Sharp, Tony Voce, Dennis Seidenberg, Jeff Woywitka, Alexandre Picard, Patrick Maroon, Jonathan Matsumoto, David Laliberte, Mike Ratchuk and of course, Marshall — all of whom could have made or be making an impact here.

A huge part of being able to perform proper assessments when you have your draft picks physically within the organization is to possess patience and also to have the willingness to evaluate each prospect not just based on expectations, but also on the circumstances (i.e. injuries, maturity, etc…) and whoever is in charge of funneling that information to the person in charge of making those decisions on who stays and who goes are both guilty of doing it wrong. Look, I know there’s pressure from all quarters to win now, but that’s been status quo for so long and that attitude hasn’t panned out quite as well as in say, Detroit, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, has it? That’s why a change in philosophy in order and if the current crop off decision-makers can’t get it done because they stick to a 40-year-old ethos, then it’s time to change up the front office and find people with better eyes and ideas.

Every single club which has won a cup from Pittsburgh in the early 90′s forward endured awful down years where they were able to draft high and get talent which was able to help rebuild, while also letting their respective teams have several years to rise up while that talent develops. It is a foreign concept to this bunch, and why should the Flyers think they should be different?

But we just continue to wrestle with “what might have been” scenarios. It’s time to stop the madness.

Nick D: Justin Williams and the 2005-2006 Carolina Hurricanes, Sharp and the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks, and Seidenberg and the 2010-2011 Boston Bruins both have a Stanley Cup while of course the Flyers didn’t win in either of those years and were eliminated from the playoffs by those two clubs oddly enough. Tough pill to swallow when you look at the fact that Sharp and Eric Meloche were dealt for Matt Ellison and a third round pick in the 2006 draft, Seidenberg was exchanged for Petr Nedved (another aging rental player who potted just one goal and garnered six assists for seven points in 21 games with the Flyers) as well as swapping fourth round picks (one of which would eventually net current Flyer Tom Sestito for the Columbus Blue Jackets), and Williams was traded to the Hurricanes for Danny Markov. Williams has hit 30 goals twice and twenty goals once since being moved, while Sharp has had some gaudy numbers over the years.

What lots of people tend to forget about Seidenberg is that he had injury problems that were extremely troublesome for a young defenseman (knee) and has only played 70 or more games twice in his career. Seidenberg does move the puck well and provides a pretty good buffer to the net (currently sitting in 19th overall in blocked shots in the entire NHL), he’s just serviceable, nothing more, nothing less. Williams has also been fairly injury prone during his NHL career with a slew of untimely injuries to his knees and hand, as well as a lot of sprains and muscle strains during his tenure with the Flyers. Sharp is a tough loss as he’s a 20-30 goal-scorer with the ability to pot up to 40 goals, who was traded because of a short-sighted Ken Hitchcock and a happy trigger finger Bob Clarke; but it’s still just one guy.

Another thing people tend to forget, Sharp has been playing with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for the past five years (including this one) and when did his production take a sharp upturn? Oh, that’s right, right around the time that Toews and Kane joined the NHL in 2007-2008. Also, factor in who the Flyers have signed and would not be able to otherwise had Sharp been re-signed and that situation gets even murkier. Enough about Sharp though, as he’s the one example that you really hate to see go.

Almost everyone else on the list up there hasn’t cracked a lineup, and those that have, haven’t won anything. The Flyers in the meantime, through their ability to leverage fairly good trades and signings under Paul Holmgren, have become a perennial contender and have lost to either the Stanley Cup Winner or Stanley Cup Runner-Up in each of the last four years

Bob H: Nick, you ignorant slut. There’s a prime example of this insanity on the current roster: James van Riemsdyk.

Pulled out of New Hampshire after only two years (with the Flyers’ front office complaining the whole time about how they didn’t think he was “developing” in college), then given all of seven games experience in the American Hockey League before being shuttled to the NHL and expected to either sink or swim. Now that he was arbitrarily anointed one of the new young leaders heading into his third pro campaign, all the holes in his game that could have been filled by more time in college and the minors are being acutely analyzed and criticized.

And if that’s not bad enough, here we are again trying to wade through the muck of trying to perform a triage between Read and Couturier regarding which one can be sacrificed to get a supposed better piece to a puzzle for a “deep playoff run” whatever that means. I thought the whole point was to wait and see what develops with this new crop? I guess that too-good-to-be-true first half of the season was like a cattle prod to the front office and jolted their plan into fast forward. Fools are always fools for the same reasons, so why wouldn’t it be this way?

The Flyers have a long and proud history of churning out “winning clubs” but all this nonsense of doing so while covering up the lack of prospects by trading for veteran talent or getting rid of potential talent to fill other more urgent needs is just going to keep the Flyers spinning their wheels. A plan needs to be implemented, right now, and one that looks 5-10 years down the road instead of 1-2 then recycle and repeat.

Nick D: Yeah, yeah, yeah. All this sounds like is trying to defend a player who has had a down year. The fact is, van Riemsdyk is a disappointment this year. He has had some injury issues and now with the concussion issues he’s having, he may not be able to play for quite a while it seems. But haven’t the Flyers seen enough to know he’s a big forward who doesn’t want to go into the corners or play a physical game and win battles night in and night out? From last year’s playoffs, it looked like they had another Giroux: a guy who “got it” and has a crazy high compete level on top of a world class skill-set. This year, he’s taken a step to the side and while that can happen with power forwards, where is the power game from this kid at all? Where’s the anger? Where’s the mean streak?

To deal JvR could be a huge mistake, but to let him wallow in the throes of the AHL over the past two years would have been a bigger mistake, let alone let him finish out his college career at UNH. Frankly, college players and players who come up through juniors are on two different levels. The college kids take longer to develop in some cases (look at Sharp), while the kids coming up through juniors a lot of the time already understand what is expected if they want to make a lasting impression, what kind of game they need to play to fit the team, to play roles, to kill penalties, to play the power play, to lead in key (read: all) situations. In the AHL, if you haven’t cracked the roster by your second or third year, you’re likely to toil the rest of your career there or overseas, or at least that’s been the case with the Flyers farm team players. Another issue that you may recall these Flyers farm team players having is a problem with commitment or attitude say like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and  Maroon have had. All these guys have proven that you can’t develop an attitude or adjust a player’s desire to win on a nightly basis no matter what sweater they pull over their heads.

The Flyers have taken on their share of “project” players and not too many of them have worked out in their favor. While some of their acquisitions haven’t gotten them a Stanley Cup, you can’t deny the fact that the likes of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Chris Pronger, and Kimmo Timonen have been more than integral to the Flyers success than any player under 25 the Flyers have parted with (with the exception of Sharp and to a lesser extent Williams and Seidenberg) over the years. This Flyers team is not in a rebuilding phase, as they have been one of the top teams for much of the year despite a massive overhaul, so why bother looking five to ten years out if they already have the personnel in place who can win in the next three years?

With Danny Briere, Pronger, and Timonen all getting up there, and Bryzgalov and Hartnell hitting the ends of their primes in the next three to five years, the time is now to get that extra piece that could help these kids mature quickly over the next two years and put them in a position to get a deep playoff run under their belts. Winning sooner than later should not only be desired, but expected, and while patience is a virtue, this city has waited 37 years for a cup, why wait another 10 when they have an abundance of talent to help them now and the next three to five years that they could move for a cup in the next two?

If all of the cup winners in the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that building through the draft works to a point, then you need to make some roster moves or changes to push the team over the edge, even if they’re small ones, via trade or free agency.

Bob H: But the point at which the extra roster moves need to be made for the title push won’t ever come without being prudent enough to draft the talent who can get you there in the first place. Patience, my young Padawan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=595583662 Daniel Milani

    Neither of you mention John Sim, still can’t believe the Flyers didn’t keep him around. ;)  

    I concur with Bob’s analysis that the kids overachieved in the first half of the season and now the front-office, fans and the media think they have to make the sacrifice this year to stay competitive.  How many rookies are on the roster?  Did  the organization honestly think they were going to have the character, resilience, and all those other intangibles veterans bring to the ice every night.  Yes, they surprised us all (even the ESPN NHL writers seemed to be won over), but the playoffs are a whole different animal and it was naive of Holmgren and Lavy to have forgetten this.  They seemed to have remembered and now they are panicking.  I say let the the team go through the playoffs as is.  Let them have the experience. It may be ugly, but the developmental gains will be cheaper and more valuable that sacrificing Read or Couterier to the playoff Gods for the sake of one rental player that we won’t be able to resign next year.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=595583662 Daniel Milani

    Neither of you mention John Sim, still can’t believe the Flyers didn’t keep him around. ;)  

    I concur with Bob’s analysis that the kids overachieved in the first half of the season and now the front-office, fans and the media think they have to make the sacrifice this year to stay competitive.  How many rookies are on the roster?  Did  the organization honestly think they were going to have the character, resilience, and all those other intangibles veterans bring to the ice every night.  Yes, they surprised us all (even the ESPN NHL writers seemed to be won over), but the playoffs are a whole different animal and it was naive of Holmgren and Lavy to have forgetten this.  They seemed to have remembered and now they are panicking.  I say let the the team go through the playoffs as is.  Let them have the experience. It may be ugly, but the developmental gains will be cheaper and more valuable that sacrificing Read or Couterier to the playoff Gods for the sake of one rental player that we won’t be able to resign next year.  

  • http://twitter.com/lmergner Luke Thomas Mergner

    Thanks for a post on development and drafting. Let me make an observation: Neither of the writers believe the Flyers can effectively draft, develop, and manage talent properly. This is interesting and given our high number of rookies playing for the team probably counter-intuitive to most people. What follows is a bit of research brainstorming.

    I’d like to ask for some counter-examples. As a social scientist, I want to see a comparison with other organizations. And not just by citing good players that evolved in a system or citing superficial similarities between, say, Edmonton and Philadelphia. How is the goal or organizational intent counterproductive in Phily? Is this a problem with individual management or systemic throughout the process? How do other teams prevent making similar mistakes? Are decisions in our organization predictable; are they reactions to immediate needs; do they reflect long-term planning of resources? Long-format interviews with Clarke and Holmgren would go a long way towards answering this question. (Hilarious, I know.)

    Obviously this information is not available to us. We’d have to do a close study of all of the NHL, AHL and junior teams to see how each performs talent development. Then we could compare each process and draw comparisons. (In other words, this is not a question that can be answered with available statistics.) But I doubt any team would allow a journalist or researcher such comprehensive access.

    We’d also have to ask what counts as a good “prospect” especially if we think the Flyers draft poorly in later rounds. In order to evaluate the process of talent development, we’d have to develop a measure of perfectability. Prospect reports would help here. But we need to seperate (the effect of) the ability of a player to learn and evolve in a pro system from (the effect of) the system meant to evolve them.

    I think the first thing I’d do is read the available literature on sports talent development. Then I’d try to find other industries with similar challenges. If we treat talent as a form of “human” capital does that allow us to measure the process in better ways?

    Ok, I’m done. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Bob H

      To delve into that, I’m afraid, will take a post that veers out of the sports business and into a periodical of that discipline. I don’t think I have the time or will to write it by myself…my grad school days are 7 years behind me at this juncture, though I recognize there’s a ton of value in what you’re asking.

      I tried to look a little bit into overarching themes last Summer in trying to expose how the long-standing philosophy of the Flyers, combined with the realities of corporate ownership, keep them locked in the same refresh cycle  no matter what their public statements are.

      It seems to be a trend in organizations whose power structures remain unchanged and where the people in power remain unchanged for long periods of time, for instance the Chicago Blackhawks under Bill Wirtz. It wasn’t until he died and his sons took over that their 15-year slide into oblivion was reversed.

      The business of signing Bryz as a base for the club to be serious contenders in 2-3 years and then 8 months later turning around and trying to  look at deals that will “put them over the top” is a prime example of that repeated path the Flyers are on. They’re willing to trade in the plan the second something better than expected occurs.

      And you’re correct: we both pointed out that obvious flaw of drafting. Even in posts where one guy takes one side and the other counters, there’s still often some common ground.

  • http://twitter.com/lmergner Luke Thomas Mergner

    Thanks for a post on development and drafting. Let me make an observation: Neither of the writers believe the Flyers can effectively draft, develop, and manage talent properly. This is interesting and given our high number of rookies playing for the team probably counter-intuitive to most people. What follows is a bit of research brainstorming.

    I’d like to ask for some counter-examples. As a social scientist, I want to see a comparison with other organizations. And not just by citing good players that evolved in a system or citing superficial similarities between, say, Edmonton and Philadelphia. How is the goal or organizational intent counterproductive in Phily? Is this a problem with individual management or systemic throughout the process? How do other teams prevent making similar mistakes? Are decisions in our organization predictable; are they reactions to immediate needs; do they reflect long-term planning of resources? Long-format interviews with Clarke and Holmgren would go a long way towards answering this question. (Hilarious, I know.)

    Obviously this information is not available to us. We’d have to do a close study of all of the NHL, AHL and junior teams to see how each performs talent development. Then we could compare each process and draw comparisons. (In other words, this is not a question that can be answered with available statistics.) But I doubt any team would allow a journalist or researcher such comprehensive access.

    We’d also have to ask what counts as a good “prospect” especially if we think the Flyers draft poorly in later rounds. In order to evaluate the process of talent development, we’d have to develop a measure of perfectability. Prospect reports would help here. But we need to seperate (the effect of) the ability of a player to learn and evolve in a pro system from (the effect of) the system meant to evolve them.

    I think the first thing I’d do is read the available literature on sports talent development. Then I’d try to find other industries with similar challenges. If we treat talent as a form of “human” capital does that allow us to measure the process in better ways?

    Ok, I’m done. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Bob H

      To delve into that, I’m afraid, will take a post that veers out of the sports business and into a periodical of that discipline. I don’t think I have the time or will to write it by myself…my grad school days are 7 years behind me at this juncture, though I recognize there’s a ton of value in what you’re asking.

      I tried to look a little bit into overarching themes last Summer in trying to expose how the long-standing philosophy of the Flyers, combined with the realities of corporate ownership, keep them locked in the same refresh cycle  no matter what their public statements are.

      It seems to be a trend in organizations whose power structures remain unchanged and where the people in power remain unchanged for long periods of time, for instance the Chicago Blackhawks under Bill Wirtz. It wasn’t until he died and his sons took over that their 15-year slide into oblivion was reversed.

      The business of signing Bryz as a base for the club to be serious contenders in 2-3 years and then 8 months later turning around and trying to  look at deals that will “put them over the top” is a prime example of that repeated path the Flyers are on. They’re willing to trade in the plan the second something better than expected occurs.

      And you’re correct: we both pointed out that obvious flaw of drafting. Even in posts where one guy takes one side and the other counters, there’s still often some common ground.

  • Betaray747

    The team blueprint to follow is Detroit. They’ll leave kids in their farm system until they’re 24-25 if that’s how long it takes. Look at Jimmy Howard for example. Detroit is patient and that patience pays off. Just about that whole team has been drafted. Of their current roster of 30 players, 4 were undrafted, 7 were drafted by other teams and 19 were drafted by Detroit. They have a constant and unending wellspring of drafted and developed talent that knows the Detroit System back to front by the time they reach the NHL.