Wins vs. Development, Which Do You Prefer (It Depends)?

AHL Hockey: May 15 Barons vs Stars
Rajala arms. Photo by Steven Christy.

Craig MacTavish is making tidal wave statements these days. Between Hemsky and Horcoff, alignment of farm with NHL club, and swift coaching changes, he’s a man on a mission. These statements, made in a week’s time, are perhaps more potent than anything Steve Tambellini uttered in his years as GM of the Oilers.

I’ll land softly on one of his directives, and that’s the placement of players on the farm. Todd Nelson, maybe to a fault, found value in a well balanced roster that earned wins and aided prospects. In that balance, he found great success in terms of winning percentages. That’s been great for OKC, its fans, and likely the players contained on its roster. But could it be that winning actually worked in reverse for Todd Nelson? Did it hurt the prospect growth of players on the farm? The new Oilers GM might think so. Let’s discuss.

Here is the direct quote from Craig MacTavish on this topic. Store it away for times when you leave the Cox Center angry about a 6-0 Barons loss.

via Oilers Now radio show:

Our coaches down there and our general manager down there have just done an unbelievably outstanding job rebuilding that team after the lockout and got it to a position that now we’re in the semi-finals again down there.

I know that our coaches and our manager down there are looking for direction on who to play, and we’ll be working with them and giving them probably more direction than we have in the past, and even to reduce the numbers down there. It’s easier to say now because we’ve got a lot more prospects than we have had in the past. We’ve got guys coming in on defence – Klefbom and Marincin and Musil and Davidson and Fedun have all played really well down there – Davidson and Fedun have, and the other three guys I mentioned are all going to be prospects for us. Those are guys that have to play. It’s an easier mindset and an easier decision and an easier strategy to execute now that we have these players coming in that are closer to playing and are legitimate prospects.

He also went on to discuss stylistic changes that will need to be tweaked to match the philosophy and play of that in Edmonton. Jonathan Willis commented on this perfectly:

MacTavish conveys two items in this interview that wouldn’t normally go together: the desire to author significant change in Oklahoma, and happiness with the work of the people in charge down there. The obvious conclusion is that MacTavish believes there simply wasn’t enough input coming from the parent club over the previous season.

Out of one mouth comes two words, as careful as can be. As a fan of the Oklahoma City Barons I believe that with the necessary changes that MacT presents, our mindset will need to change as well. You may hate every minute of it, but it’s coming.

To allow more input from the Edmonton Oilers within the AHL farm team means greater expansion of roles for all prospects, or at least I assume so. This means teams get younger, less vet heavy, and probably a bit more prone to wander away from winning big games. This isn’t always the case, but it sure happens quite a bit.

OKC has been privy to three incredibly winsome seasons. Some say this is good for the team and the city and they’d be right, but at what cost?

Apparently MacTavish, who’s willing to give his stamp of approval on “them”, feels as if the prospects have been buried in favor of winning games. You might consider that reading between the lines just a bit, and perhaps I am, but when you make a statement like “Those are the guys that have to play” it means so much more than winning. It’s a turn towards farming players who’ll be the future of the Edmonton Oilers, and despite how much we as Barons fans might hate it, that’s the future of our team.

Ironically enough during the NHL lockout in 2012 we saw a team that had little prospect presence beyond players that were young, but already a shoe in for the Oilers roster (Hall, Ebs, Nuge, Schultz). This greatly devalued one of the goals of minor league hockey, and that’s tending to prospects. One half season lost for most equals one half season less worth of honing your skills. That was a problem.

My plea is simple, and it’s two-fold. First, be prepared to see a Barons team that is far and away from the win-oriented product we’ve seen in recent years. Instead, find the process to be of worth more than any thing else. Second, don’t give your heart away to players. When you shift from winning good to farming good the prospect spotlight shines bright, fast, and hard. With increased minutes per player you also get less time to look really good. No four year turnaround for new Oilers prospects, and for some it’s less than two years (Andrew Miller, for example, is on a one year ELC starting next season). I like this aspect of hockey, that being prospect drive, because I also have a deep connection to NHL hockey. Watching both sync in one harmonious flow is really quite riveting. Yet for the vast majority of Oklahoma City, this has been a partial problem with the attendance figures – players are unfamiliar.

To answer the original question, which do you prefer, winning or developing, I cop out and say both. And depending on who’s asking, you’ll likely get a different set of answers. Most Barons fans want winning. Most Oilers fans want development. Let’s agree to meet in the middle while fully realizing churning out players will always be more valuable than anything else.