Thursday, May 27, 2010

Different Roads, the Same Turnaround

There is one story line in the Stanley Cup Finals that no one is talking about, and it might be the best angle going in the media friendly Chicago – Philadelphia series that begins this weekend. It isn’t the clash of the Byfuglien/Pronger titans, or Gary Betteman’s refusal to acknowledge the NHL’s new ‘Marian Hossa has to play in every Stanley Cup Finals’ rule.

Think back to 2007. Something monumental happened in early June that had nothing to do with the Anaheim Ducks winning the Stanley Cup.

For the first time in the history of the draft, two American players were neck and neck, competing for the spot as the number one prospect. One was a winger bound for the University of New Hampshire that had played on the USNTDP team, but was a couple of years from the NHL. The other was a right wing playing across the border for the London Knights, considered ready to step into the NHL immediately. The team with the number one pick went with the guy ready to step in right away.

The Chicago Blackhawks took Patrick Kane. The Philadelphia Flyers went with James Van Riemsdyk.

I probably don’t need to tell you that 3 years later, the two are once again neck in neck for a much more important number one slot.

On the one hand, it is a difficult line to drum up. There is no real rivalry between the two, since they are at much different points in their careers. Van Riemsdyk has taken a roundabout path to the NHL. He spent two decorated years at UNH, starring on the United States World Junior team before making 2009-2010 his rookie year. He has been great for the Flyers, and I wrote the following back in December:

‘I had the fortune of taking in a Sharks-Flyers game in San Jose. For the Flyers, the best player on the ice wasn’t Richards, Carter, Briere or even Pronger. As far as I could tell, their most impressive player was James VanRienmsdyk. JVR was flying every time he was on the ice. He was around the puck a lot, and when he got it on his stick, good things were happening for the Flyers every time. Naturally, then, at whistles and line changes, me and my buddy Andrew would look for #21 in white. We rarely saw him. VanRiemsdyk’s ice time was, for whatever reason, limited to around 13 minutes that night. Even that number surprised me when I looked it up the next morning. Looking at his stats, while he would get second line ice time occasionally, only once did Stevens play him 20 minutes’

I still think that pretty well sums up Van Riemsdyk’s rookie year. He has been great, but he is treated like a rookie. Maybe it is for the best. I thought he could handle more when I watched them, but I didn’t see enough of Philly to know for sure. He has had some big goals though, in the playoff run where he has had a somewhat larger role than he did when I saw him, so maybe that is a bit of vindication.

Kane is at a completely different point in his career. He signed and joined the Blackhawks immediately after he was drafted, making his debut in the 2007-2008 season. By now, he is in his third season, the other rokkie that jumped into the NHL with him that year, Jonathan Toews, is the captain, and he is a marquee player in the NHL, having put up 70 and 88 points the last two years.

Obviously Kane is a better player at this point, but that can’t be taken to mean that he was a better pick because of the developmental stages that they are at, which make it an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison. Kane’s rookie numbers were a fair amount better than JVR’s but that doesn’t settle it either, since Chicago has just turned it around in the past two years, and Kane went into a pretty bad lineup where he was asked to score right away. Van Riemsdyk, on the other hand, went to a team that had already turned their fortunes around from the dismal 06-07 that gave them the pick, and therefore played a different role.

The basic takeaway is that here is no legitimate comparison between Van Riemsdyk and Kane, and that to call it a matchup between the two is misleading since they play such different roles. The lack of a viable comparison, though, is one of the things that makes this such an interesting storyline.

The two players show the volatility of the NHL draft, and the quirkiness involved with the process between draft day and actual NHL production. Kane is not the norm. Even in years when lots of players sign, and even for number one draft picks, very few contribute right away, simply because hockey players are drafted at such a young age. VanRiemsdyk isn’t exactly the prototype number two pick either. At the number two position, most picks would be playing a larger role than he has by their third season of eligibility.

Nothing will be resolved (it isn’t as though if Philly wins, it is proven that picks should wait to enter the league or that JVR is better than Kane), but it is still interesting consider, if for no other reason than to think about how just 3 years after both teams were at the bottom of the league, they find themselves on top, with the rewards of their futility playing important, though different roles.

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