NHL Team Drafts High, AHL Team Benefits

Photo courtesy of Rob Ferguson. All rights reserved.

As I watched Steven Tambellini glide across the stage at last night’s NHL Draft Lottery I giggled. Not because anything amusing was going on. But because I knew there was absolutely no way the hockey gods would have predicted the Edmonton Oilers would AGAIN nab a first round pick. Inconceivable at best, the Oilers defied the odds, and stole the first overall from the even lowlier Columbus Bluejackets. To call any organization “lucky” while they simultaneously tank three years (or more) in a row to become lotto eligible is not lost on me. It’s also quite entertaining to watch the worst of the worst in the NHL crack smiles, shake hands, and smile for cameras at an event of this nature — less than 24 hours prior to the best of the best battling each other for the Stanely Cup. Ironic indeed.

But with the Oilers now owning that #1 pick there are benefits that have a trickle down effect. Ultimately a high draft pick can mean a lot of things for an NHL’s minor league affiliates. But the most glaring one is that a high draft pick means an increased number of deeper round players will play in the AHL. There’s nothing new or earth shattering about that statement. NHL team drafts high, AHL team sees more 2nd/3rd/4th rounders more quickly. And this is very important to remember. Players that need maturing, that aren’t immediately gifted, that indeed become an acquired taste — all can blossom in the minor league farms.

Taylor Hall, NHL guy. RNH, NHL guy. Yakupov, most likely NHL guy. This greatly takes the pressure off the farm club and the players therewithin, especially the goal-scorers. Why? By immediately stocking teams with high end players out of the gate, the AHL can take it’s time (as can the players) with developing offense properly. Case in point. A guy like Tyler Pitlick didn’t need to have a light’s out type of rookie season. Instead he could ease into the quickness and size of the game naturally while the Oilers have the luxury of waiting him out because they already have a youngster filling that role in the big leagues. Don’t get me wrong, the NHL teams need good goal scorers, and the more the merrier. However, there’s no rush on prospects when those specific needs are already being filled.

The American Hockey League is an ongoing process league. The development that takes place within its confines never stops. It never slows down. It never takes a break. It can’t afford to and neither can its NHL counterpart. By drafting high, the Oklahoma City Barons can soldier on in that process without feeling any obligation to “get them good NOW”. A luxury that some teams just can’t afford. Does this mean an Oilers pick in the teens causes the opposite to occur? Absolutely not. But the pressure on players to better themselves more rapidly might quietly rear its head, and you don’t want that going south quickly.

We see the flipside of the “too fast” development process in two players now on the farm — Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi. Both will be NHL players one day, no doubt. “When?”, remains the question. Imagine if one or both of those guys began their pro careers by making waves in the AHL first. Their stock would be given time to grow, time to become more valuable, time to avoid being buried in the big leagues. I think we find that both of these players will be better next season as a result of time in Oklahoma City. Just imagine where they’d be now if they had started the process from day one on the farm? Different story most likely.

There will always be a time and a place for players to get better. Even those drafted high have a bit of a learning and growing curve. And despite the mismanagement at two levels within the Oilers organization (Tambo & Renney), there is no denying that the 2012-13 team will be prepped and ready for goal scoring. It’s just the nature of the players they’ve drafted. Meanwhile the up and comers will quietly do their work on the farm, become better players, and (fingers crossed) prove the theory that the AHL team can reap benefits from a high NHL draft.