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No Playoff Horses on The Lowell Farm

I sometimes get e-mails from readers like you who have something to share or a thought or a question or even a sign of appreciate them.  And I'm quite thankful for them.  Today I have a bit of a treat from reader John Hemminger who has quite a bit to say about the Lowell Devils. It's interesting, it's researched, and it'll get you thinking about the farm team that even I forget to check on sometimes. The full letter comes after the jump and this related aside:

Related Aside: If you have a detailed point you'd like to make, like John's, you don't necessarily need to e-mail me - though it is nice and appreciated.  You can always post it as a FanPost for immediate reaction.  A good primer on how to make a FanPost is at Bleed Cubbie Blue, which explains both FanPost and FanShot features.  I also highly recommend tagging the post with the appropriate player and team so more people can find it when searching.  Of course, if it's really good, I'll "front page" the FanPost so it can be seen on the main view (like you are now.)

It appears the Devils have seemingly ignored their AHL affiliations the past 7-8 years and I’m beginning to think it’s building a farm team that are playoff novices.  I don’t know how much of a correlation this would have with the Devils losing the first round each of the past two seasons, but I have great concerns about the lack of a playoff mentality on their younger players and current prospects. 

I was a frequent visitor to Albany from 1993-94 through 2000-01 and had the opportunity to see many great Devil players – stars and role players – develop in front of thousands of fans every night.  Every year from 1993-94 through 1998-99 they made the playoffs and, on several occasions, won a couple of rounds (including their AHL championship in 1995).  Around 2002-03 the Devils seemed to lose interest in working with the Albany River Rats and it showed – marketing went out the window and the coverage of the team by local Albany media seemed to disappear almost overnight.  Whereas in previous years players like Brylin, Elias, Sykora, Sullivan and Souray would constantly be playing in May with a microphone in their face from the Albany TV crews, players like Parise and Gionta were virtually ignored.  Attendance dropped off considerably – from over 6,000 a night (1993-1996) to about 3,900 (2,500 most nights) during their last year in Albany. 

After the break with Albany many stories came out in the Albany news about how Chris Lamiorello and the Devils organization had been reducing the amount of money funneling into the Rats for marketing and had kept all the players under Devils contracts strictly under wraps from the Albany press --- even saying the players were not to be involved in any community events (ie: Children’s hospital visits, etc).  I found this hard to believe and thought it was simply sour grapes, but I’ve been to Albany to see the Rats with my daughters now and the attendance has definitely increased since the changeover to the Hurricanes.  Not a tremendous increase, but there seems to be a greater awareness of the Rats in Albany now than back in 2002-2004. 

Conversely, the Lowell Devils have been dead last in AHL attendance the past 3 years and are barely getting 1,500 people for most of their games.  Moreover, there was quite a bit of friction between the Devils and the city of Lowell 2 years ago regarding their lease, and apparently the Devils are outdrawn by the UMASS Lowell hockey team by quite a bit.  That’s embarrassing. 

Where am I going with all of this?  Well, the result has been several years of losing records and no AHL playoff appearances since the late 90’s.  This year was no different – Lowell seemed to be on course for a .500 record and a playoff appearance but they stumbled badly after the All Star break and didn’t put things together until the last 2 weeks of the season – too little, too late.  Another year of no April/May playoff experience for Bergfors, Vrana, Fraser, Tallackson, Pelley, etc.  Amazing that the combined AHL playoff games by those five prospects is ZERO.  All have played multiple years in the Devils system and they’re off to go fishing every April.  Moreover, Corrente/Eckford/Halishuck are all highly touted prospects missing out on valuable experience.  All these players played the regular season with half their games played in front of a handful of fans with virtually zero media coverage.  How is this to prepare them for an NHL career where the expectation is to be playing high-pressure games in May? 

I began looking at the career AHL number for some players on the current NJ Devils – the team that has had one playoff series win in the last 3 years – and noticed several Devils home-grown players without any playoff experience prior to NJ.  This contrasts greatly with the players who came through the system from 1993-1999.  Notice some of the differences:

Name AHL Seasons Participated In AHL Playoff Games
Andy Greene 1 0
Brian Gionta 2 0
David Clarkson 2 0
Paul Martin 0 0
Zach Parise 1 0
Travis Zajac 1 0
Patrik Elias 3 10
Sergei Brylin 3 16
Kevin Dean 6 18
Brad Bombardir 4 33
Sheldon Souray 4 8
Colin White 3 18
John Madden 2 18
Jiri Bicek 6 22

I know guys like Brylin, Bicek and Dean were not superstars, but they all came up and contributed in key situations without much fanfare (much the way Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky or Chad Larose did the past 2 years for their teams) .  

I understand several prospects played high-level NCAA hockey, but they’re shorter seasons and don’t require you to play a 5 or 7 game series against the same opponent over a 10 day period.  And I know some prospects have played in the Junior Championships or prominent Junior Hockey programs, but again – they’re not playing in April/May after you’ve finished 80 regular season games.  The closest thing to the NHL playoff format is the AHL format – and the Devils prospects are simply not exposed to this until they’re in NJ.  It can’t be helping.  There’s a culture of losing that has grown down on the farm – I hope it changes soon.

Big thanks to John Hemminger for the e-mail (note: I did put in some extra spaces from the original e-mail, but no changes to his words) While you and I could quibble about the chart, the main points he made are sobering and sadly true. The Devils minor league system used to be a powerhouse in the late 1990s but has since fallen on the wayside to being doormats in the AHL.  Frankly, exceptions aside, few want to support a loser and it isn't good for the AHL franchise as a whole to continue to lack a fanbase of support.

While I'm not sure anything really prepares one for the NHL playoffs, I agree that the AHL Playoffs is a positive experience for a prospect.  But knowing what a prospect can do in the AHL playoffs - a league that directly cultivates future NHL talent - can make the difference in determining who to focus further attention on.  It's one thing to put up unimpressive numbers in the regular season, it's another if the player's production shoots up in the post season because he "raises his game."   I would think he'd make a better shot at the NHL than otherwise. That so many River Rats/L-Devils haven't experienced an AHL postseason in years should be a concern for Chris Lamoriello and his staff. 

Oh, and Lowell making the playoffs may give the fans up there something worth watching and more could come for that alone.  That'd help too. 

Yes, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and David Clarkson are good examples of the farm team still cultivating/helping in the development process of a player. Yes, a prospect can still go through playoff-like and other big game situations like U-18 tournaments, the World Juniors Championship, NCAA playoffs, and junior/European playoffs. But neither of these tourneys funnel talent directly to the NHL, nor is it necessarily the NHL style of play, and they don't come after 80 games of a regular season filled with grueling 3 games-in-a-weekend.  The larger question of whether our developed prospects are being hurt by this is a very valid one.

I wish I could comment on where the L-Devils need the most help but I'm woefully ignorant with both Devils' farm teams.  Do they better prospects? A better system of playing? Better veterans? A new coach? Ari Ahonen? (Just kidding) I just don't know.  Hopefully, Chris Lamoriello has a better handle on it.

Again, thanks to John Hemminger for his e-mail.  If you have any thoughts on what Lowell needs to do, whether this is hurting the New Jersey Devils, or even know of a source where we can learn how the prospects are doing beyond their stats, please share them with us.   At least Trenton made the playoffs (though they lost in 7 games to Elmira - P.S. check out Mike Ashmore's work following the team, it's really something else).