Thursday, April 24, 2008

Right Man for the Job?

It's easy to like Kelly Buchberger. Hell, if you're a long time fan of the Oilers it's damn hard not to love the guy. After all, he was the epitome of a heart and soul player during his tenure in Edmonton, willing to make personal sacrifices not many others would and paying for it with his face and fists.

After hanging up his skates as a player it wasn't the least bit surprising to me that he found his way back to the organization in a coaching capacity, first with the Edmonton Road Runners soon followed by a year as Player Development Coach and most recently as the bench boss with the AHL's Springfield Falcons.

Again the personal sacrifice should be noted as 'Bucky' took the job knowing that it would mean a long period of separation from his family who stayed behind in Edmonton.

The Falcons had their best season in a number of years after horrible associations with extremely thin Tampa Bay (getting better now) and Phoenix parent clubs. Several Oiler prospects had memorable stretches while in Springfield this season and some of the credit for that should go to Buchberger and assistant coaches Jeff Truitt and David Bell.

However, not everything has been parades and rainbows with the farm club this season.

An improvement in the standings still didn't result in a post season game. Injuries piled up to the point where at the end it virtually became a rotating door for players joining and leaving the team. The on-ice product is reportedly frustrating for fans, media, players and management alike. Players coming and going, falling on and off the injured list, sliding up and down between the AHL and ECHL and there was even the possibility of quiet dissention simmering in the room.

There will be a AHL/ECHL Season in Review done for HF in the next little while so I won't go into the detailed performances of specific players here. Instead, let me briefly acknowledge that a handful of players had positive developmental years including Liam Reddox, Rob Schremp, Slava Trukhno and goaltenders Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk.

For now I only want to look at the coach and ask the same question Oiler fans asked back in early August of 2007: Is Kelly Buchberger the right man for the job?

My personal opinion is NO and here's why:

1) Not enough coaching experience - Yes he is a 'man of the people' and some players can relate to him because of that but does that mean he can coach? Yes he played for 16 or 17 years in the NHL but does that automatically mean a guy can coach? He spent 1 year behind the bench with the Road Runners then another on the road as development coach. He's definitely got guys on the farm into great condition, there is no denying that, but are they better players?

2) Proof is in the Pudding - Look at how the Falcons performed this year. Sure it was the AHL team's best record in a few years but they still missed the playoffs and were so badly out shot on a nightly basis that it was frustrating for everyone associated with the team be it media, fans, players or staff. Springfield was rarely able to keep their opposition from getting +35 shots per night with perhaps the worst example coming on March 22nd in a 4-1 loss to Hartford where the Wolf Pack outshot the Falcons 45-16.

More than 5 players told me that the team's systems stiffled offensive creativity and defensively consisted of little more than 'rim the puck' and 'chip it off the glass and out'. The opposition simply outmanned the Falcons wingers in the defensive zone preventing the predictable chip out thus keeping Springfield on the defensive for most of the game.

3) 'Screecher not a Teacher' - Perhaps the most unsettling description that has reached me out of Springfield is that Buchberger berates players on the bench for their mistakes as opposed to constructively telling them how to fix their errors. That style, especially with young players still learning the game, is destined to fail as very quickly players will stop listening.

4) Who Thrived? - Tim Sestito and Liam Reddox were particular 'Bucky players' and are frequently named by the coach as being top performers. Both are more likely to be career minor leaguers than significant NHL contributors (although both could see spot duty) and really, is it any wonder why those types of players would find success under a coach who was basically the same type of player? On the other hand, the players who came to the AHL expecting to produce offensively seemed to struggle for most of the season. Slava Trukhno had 3 excellent weeks and little else, Colin McDonald notched all of a single point in the last two months, Danny Syvret was shipped out of town because his offensive game fizzled, Cody Wild and Harlan Anderson couldn't bring their offensive game with them after joining the team late in the year. Outside of Schremp, Pouliot and Thoresen, no players really lived up to expectations in the offensive sense. Coincidence??

Personally I see Kelly as a quality assistant coach, someone the players (especially the grinders and plummers) can use as a role model. I've been reminded that extensive injuries contirubted to the lack of offence in Spriingfield and that is true; the Oilers move guys up to fill their holes leaving the Falcons thin at times.

Geoff Ward was supposed to be the farm coach and he was a good one. Rob Daum was hired on with the NHL Oilers and then a few weeks later Ward took the job with the Bruins and Bucky slipped into the vacancy.

In hindsight, I think the AHL job should have gone to Daum and believe still that a swticheroo this summer might be for the best. Have Bucky come up to the NHL as an assistant role where he would fit in with MacTavish and Huddy as former Oilers. Meanwhile Daum, who has a proven track record with offensive players, could go to Springfield and become the head coach there. That alone would give Jeff Truitt a fine tutor for coaching in the minors as Daum has a couple AHL seasons already under his belt already including a 50-win season in Houston (let alone the impressive CIS record that most fans will wrongly scoff at).

Now I have formulated this opinion after speaking with many people in and around Springfield but I conceed, I haven't yet spoken to Buchberger himself. That said, consider this an opinion in the works and I'll let Buchberger explain to me where I'm wrong (which I am quite open to being told). That conversation is overdue but I'll let you know if it changes my perceptions after I have it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Winning vs Development

One debate I've seen being hotly debated on various message boards recently has to do with the role of a farm team. Depending on who is arguing, some people believe the primary reason the farm team exists is for long term player development while others feel the goal is the same at any other level, to win.

Personally I think the answer is pretty obvious but for the sake of being thorough and trying to see things from all angles, here's a list of all the possible reasons for having a farm team that I can think of and the argument that goes with it.

1) Player Development - The AHL, and to a lesser extent the ECHL, is the league directly beneath the NHL and the destination for players not good enough or ready yet for the top league in the world. It provides NHL teams with a place for them to assign players to prepare and improve their game so that when they do get called up to the NHL, they are ready to contribute. It also provides an avenue for European players to make an adjustment to North American rinks and style of play, although it's an option that few Euros deem beneficial compared to playing professionally at home. Development takes precident over winning.

2) To Win the League Title - The Calder Cup is the prize at the end of the AHL playoffs, the Kelly Cup for the ECHL. The object of sport is to win and win at all costs. The team owes it to the fans that buys the tickets to ice the team that has the best chance to win games, regardless of who those players are.

3) Furthering Hockey - The minor leagues provide the NHL with an opportunity to spread the gospel of hockey to non-hockey markets.

That's about all I've been able to come up with and I think you can eliminate #3 as potentially being the primary reason farm teams exist. So it comes down to one of the first two and in my mind it's painfully obvious that #1 far outweighs #2.

Fans in Manchester or Springfield or Stockton might disagree with me but lets be honest. Winning is great but it better not be coming at the expense of the development of an organization's top NHL prospects.

"Development is the number one thing, Guy" said a NHL executive when I asked the question, "Especially in today's game when you look at the young players who are stepping in and contributing, you need to have a good feeder system for those guys."

That doesn't mean that winning isn't important but it is definitely secondary. The best case scenario is that a championship team is made up of top prospects so that there is a ton of development going on while the fans and minor league affiliate can celebrate the victory. The Hamilton Bulldogs (see photo) are a perfect example; defending AHL champs that had several players who are now with the Montreal Canadiens this year including playoff MVP Carey Price.

"That's why [farm] teams have the veteran players that they do down there," said the NHL exec., "Those vets understand what their role is, not to put the screws to the young players but to be leaders and role models and stuff like that."

To take the argument a step further... from the NHL organization's perspective would winning with career minor leaguers be worse than losing with the players you draft and want to see develop into future NHL players?

"You want your players to get the playing time," came the answer, "You hope you do a good enough job putting the puzzle pieces together because you want to win, every coach and player wants to win, but at the same time you want to make sure your players get better. They don't get better by sitting in the pressbox or playing on the fourth line [in the NHL.]"

So if winning with your youth is the absolute best thing that can happen, losing while your prospects don't play would have to be considered the worst case scenario because then nobody benefits.

I'll leave you with this thought: Ryan O'Marra dressed for just 2 games combined in March and April during Springfield's playoff stretch drive. A former 1st round pick, although not one Edmonton made, who is deemed to have a NHL future did not receive valuable development time during pressure situations in the last month and a half of the AHL schedule.

Was Ryan O'Marra handled properly in 2007-08?

That will be adressed in a blog entry in the near future and the answer is a lot more complicated than you might think.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Buzz About Boris

As the Camrose Kodiaks get set to try and finish off the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in the AJHL final Sunday night, a few players are getting some great exposure.

Last year a run to the Royal Bank Cup impressed the Columbus Blue Jackets enough to draft goaltender Allen York in the 6th round.

If the Kodiaks do advance to the Doyle Cup, and then to the national championship, it will give the likes of Joe Colborne (projected to be a first round pick) Andrew MacWilliam (a possible 2nd round pick) and Mike Connolly (a point per game forward who lacks size that could be a mid round pick) a bigger stage to up their stock.

But it's not just the players who get more of a chance to impress NHL brass.

Camrose head coach Boris Rybalka has done everything possible at the junior "A" level and it's time for him to move on to bigger and better things.

In case you don't know, Rybalka has led the Kodiaks to AJHL and Doyle Cup titles in 01, 03, 05, and 07, winning a Canadian title in 2001, and silver medals in 03 and 05.

He has also led Team Canada West to World Junior "A" Championship gold medals in the last 2 seasons (see picture).

Next year the tournament is being held in Camrose, and while Rybalka hasn't been officially offered the job, a source close to Hockey Canada has told me, it's his if he wants it, and an announcement should be coming shortly.

What's holding up the proceedings is Rybalka's loyalty. He doesn't want to take the job, and then have to back out if he's not coaching in Camrose anymore. I've been told that Hockey Canada will give him that option and fully understand that while Rybalka might take the job this summer, he may not be coaching the team next year.

So that leads to speculation about where Rybalka might end up. I've always thought the WHL was his first choice, and I'm pretty sure the dub is still high on his list. Over the last year or so though, I've been thinking Rybalka would make a great coach in the NCAA, after all he has so many connections down south after sending player after player to college teams. There are 2 reasons why I'm starting to think the school route might not work though, and both have to do with family. Rybalka's wife is a teacher and might not be able to work in the states. She has also battled illness in the last few years, which is why the bench boss hasn't moved on yet despite several offers from the college game. Thankfully his wife Roxy is healthy now, but with her past history and the American health care system, you have to wonder if the family is a little leery about heading south.

One option that might be available though is the pro game, which would bring with it a great health care plan, and a pretty good pay cheque as well. I've talked with Boris many times about moving on, and he's continually said the offer has to be right, and even being an assistant coach in the pro game would be the right move.

Try this scenario on for size....Kelly Buchberger is promoted by the Oilers to the big club. That leaves Jeff Truitt to take over the reins in Springfield, and Boris Rybalka moves into Truitt's vacant assistant position. The move would give the Oilers 2 young, smart, up and coming coaches in the system, that know exactly how to develop young talent.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Schremp Story not Finn-ished

As I reported last week, there have been rumblings out of Europe that Edmonton Oilers prospect Rob Schremp and his agent are considering European options. That story began with a newspaper blog report by Kent Jonsson (see original story a few entries ago). Schremp and his agent both denied the story but personal contact with Mr. Jonsson clearly left the door open for further developments.

Today there is one of those developments.

In a new, shortended entry on his newspaper blog, Mr. Jonsson not only names his source but goes on to say that an official offer has been made although not by a Swedish team.

The translation is this:

"I wrote some time ago that the talented forward from the Oilers organisation was offered to Swedish teams. It did not take long before people in Canada contacted me. Guy Flaming, host and producer of the radio show "The Pipeline Show", emailed and questioned the information. Perhaps Schremp will not go to Sweden, but Finland appears to be an option. Schremp's Swedish agent, Bjarne Lundh, says:

- My colleague spoke to Rob the other day. Rob has now received an offer from a Finnish team. When it comes to Swedish teams, it is still too early to tell, Lundh says

Does Schremp really want to go and play in Europe?
- Well, we got to trust what he tells us.

A pretty cryptic response at the end there but we know now that an actual offer has been made and it comes from a team in Finland. You also know I'm on top of this story and I am tracking down further information even as I write this. More when I have it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Pats For Sale?

It's widely regarded among media members and maybe others, that the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL are for sale. But it came as quite a shock to me this weekend when I was told that the Regina Pats might be on the block as well.

The oldest team in junior hockey history, the Pats are currently owned by Russ and Diane Parker, as well as their son Brent who is the team's G.M.

I was told by a Saskatchewan junior hockey source close to Regina that a former NHLer had inquired about buying a WHL team. He was told that Portland and Regina were likely the only teams available. Apparently when he checked on the Pats status, he was told that a current NHLer has the inside track on the team. In fact to quote my source "Mike Sillinger has that one all sewn up"

What makes the story even more interesting is that, if Sillinger does by the team, he will apparently replace current head coach Curtis Hunt, with former Regina Pat star Dale Derkatch (491 points in 4 seasons) who is currently coaching the Notre Dame Hounds AAA midget team in Wilcox, which is a quick saucer pass from Regina.

I made a few phone calls before writing this, one to Pats G.M. Brent Parker, whom I'm still waiting to hear back from, and another to Regina Leaderpost columnist extraordinaire Rob Vanstone. What I gathered from RV is that, as sure as the snow melts in spring, this rumour comes up each year. But it does have some merit. Sillinger is a home grown Regina boy, who played 4 seasons with the Pats, and still owns a home in the city.

And after playing for a record 12 teams, and getting traded 9 different times, also the most in league history, Sillinger is nearing the end of his career, and might want to be involved with a team he won't get traded from.

It's also not uncommon for former and current NHLers to get into the business of owning WHL teams. Darryl Sydor, Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan own a piece of Kamloops, and Brent Sutter of course is the boss in Red Deer.

While this sale might not happen this year, I believe it's inevitable that Sillinger will one day be the main man in Pat land.