Since the hockey world is on hold, I thought I would spend an article (or two, or three—we will see how ambitious I am next week) discussing some myths I see in regard to the AHL and the Colorado Eagles and telling you why I think they are wrong. And, since he is a hot topic right now, let’s talk about Martin Kaut. Here is the myth I see tossed around Twitter:
“Kaut was mismanaged in 2018–19 because he was forced to play a bottom-six role while veteran players stole his ice time.”
There are frankly so many gaping flaws in this line of thought, it is hard to know where to begin, but I will give it a shot.
The role of the AHL
This myth is wrapped up in the idea that the Eagles somehow have too many veteran players, and are allowing those veteran players to steal ice time from young prospects. So let’s start with the simplest point: What is the purpose of the AHL?
There are a great many players who are dominant in juniors or college, but who simply are not ready for the NHL. Playing on a team comprised entirely of 18- and 19-year-old kids has already proven to be insufficient. This is the primary purpose of the American Hockey League—to give these young prospects a chance to play both with and against older, more experienced players.
In other words, having veteran players on the team is not only critical, it is the entire point of the league. Without the veterans, this would be just another junior league.
“The team has too many veterans.”
I see this one on Twitter on a regular basis. It was especially prominent during last year’s playoffs. There are “too many vets,” or the Eagles have “sold out” as an “all vet” team. Again, this is patently false. Why? Because the AHL dictates exactly how many veteran players a team can have on their roster.
Here is the rule:
Of the 18 skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least 13 must be qualified as “development players.” Of those 13, 12 must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season.
In other words, the Colorado Eagles have exactly the number of veteran players allowed by the league. (I would be willing to bet every other team in the league also has this exact number of veteran players, but I did not check all 31 rosters.) Only six players are veterans.
Is one-third of the lineup “too many”? Well, I suppose you could debate that. But, six is the number allowed by the league, and six is the number you can expect any AHL team to have, the Colorado Eagles included. Everybody else on the roster is considered a “development player” by the American Hockey League.
I think this “too many vets” thing comes up because some people think any player who is no longer on his entry-level contract is automatically a “veteran” player. This is incorrect. The AHL determines veteran status based on the number of professional games played. There are many players in the AHL who are past their ELCs but who are not yet veteran players as defined by the league. I do not know if they have an official name, but I call them “tweeners.” The efficacy of tweeners and whether or not a team can have too many of them is too big of an issue for this one post. I will tackle that another day.
Regardless, the Eagles simply cannot have “too many vets” because the number of veteran players is strictly enforced by the AHL. Anybody who says otherwise obviously does not know the most fundamental rule of the American Hockey League.
“Veteran players are stealing ice time from prospects.”
Vets are not “stealing” ice time. First of all, they are playing on the same lines as the prospects. A right winger cannot “steal” ice time from the left winger on his same line. But, this myth is so widely believed that Scott MacDonald of Mile High Hockey addressed it early in the season. He asked Eagles coach Greg Cronin about it. Cronin’s response was that the Avalanche dictate which prospects get the most playing time.
Did you catch that? I am going to say it again for those in the back: Nobody is “stealing” anybody’s ice time. Top prospects like Martin Kaut will play big minutes because that’s how the Avalanche want it. And this will happen regardless of what veteran players are doing.
This is at the heart of debunking this “mismanagement” thing. Martin Kaut received tons of playing time last year. He played in the top six for the majority of the year. Nobody on the team “stole” ice time from him.
“But he was (sometimes) stuck on the third line!”
I can see why people who do not actually watch Eagles games might freak out about this. After all, in the NHL, the top two lines play significantly more time than the bottom two lines. But that is not the case for the Eagles.
Now, I do not know if this is true across the AHL, or if it is just Cronin’s coaching style. And, the AHL does not track ice time, so there are unfortunately no numbers I can point to. But, I have talked about this with MacDonald on Twitter. More importantly, I watch every single Eagles game, both home and away, start to finish. I can say with confidence that there is not a significant difference in ice time between the top three lines. Depending on the night and the players involved, the fourth line might get fewer minutes, but even then, the difference is not as extreme as it is in the NHL. There is no double shifting of the top line while the third line warms the bench. Every single line has prospects on it, and, as stated above, the prospects will get their time no matter what because that is how the Avalanche want it and because developing young players is the entire point of the American Hockey League. Whether they are listed as first or third line is irrelevant—they will always get to play.
The only time this may change is during playoffs, which brings me to my next point.
Players still must earn their ice time
Most of this “Kaut was mismanaged” stuff comes from last year’s playoff push. In the last few weeks of the season, as the Eagles fought for the final playoff position in the Pacific Division, Cronin—presumably with permission from the Avalanche—seemed to stop focusing on prospects and started making guys earn their ice time. After being on the top two lines for most of the season, Kaut was suddenly lower in the lineup. He may even have been a healthy scratch for a game or two.
First of all, as I have already pointed out, playing on the third line instead of the second does not mean much. They still play roughly the same number of minutes.
But, more importantly, Kaut had not earned it.
I know, a couple of people whose opinions you trust told you Kaut was killing it in the AHL. They watched two or three games and looked at a few stats and a highlight or two. They combined that with his play in the Czech Republic League and his first-round draft status and told you he was absolutely NHL ready and was being unfairly held back by Cronin. Believe them if you like, but I personally have more faith in the coaches than that. Not only that, I have faith in what I see with my own eyes. As I said earlier, I watch every single Eagles game, both home and away, start to finish. And anybody who actually watched Kaut last season, week in and week out on a regular basis, could see he needed more time. Anybody who watched more than a handful of Eagles games could see he was far from dominant. He was middle of the pack, at best.
The hard reality is, Martin Kaut had the majority of the 2018–19 season playing in the top six to prove himself to the coaching staff, and he failed to do so. He simply did not earn top billing once playoffs rolled around. Expecting a coach to bench guys who are actually scoring in favor of one who is not just is not realistic, especially during playoffs.
Which brings us to one of the hottest debates in the world of sports.
“We owe it to him” versus the sunk cost fallacy
Whenever I say that all AHL players should have to earn their ice time rather than having it handed to them, I hear the same protest: “But he’s a first-round draft pick! We owe it to him.”
We could debate this one all day: Does a team automatically owe a player ice time simply because they are a first-round pick? Some people will say yes, but personally, I fall on the “sunk cost” side. I do not watch these kids in NCAA or juniors, and I do not really care when they were drafted. Once a player is in the system, they are just another player and it is up to them to earn a spot in the lineup. The only thing I look at is how well they play in the AHL. If a first-round pick is unable to earn his ice time against an undrafted player like Logan O’Connor, that is on that player. The only thing the team “owes” him is the tools to make his game better. Some will say the Avs are not doing that. I think that is another giant misconception and nobody has proven it more than O’Connor, but that is an argument (and a blog post) for another day.
“But he isn’t developing.”
This is arguably the biggest myth of all. Admittedly, Martin Kaut did not develop as quickly or as noticeably in his first year as many expected. So what? Lots of players will not be “NHL ready” after only one year in the AHL. That is why entry-level contracts are generally two or three years long—because some guys take longer to develop than others. The AHL is different from the European hockey Kaut was used to. And let’s not forget he had just had heart surgery as well. Expecting him to rocket on the fast track to the NHL was never realistic.
And this season?
After a slow start and an injury that kept him sidelined for 15 games, Kaut suddenly started to shine. A lot of it was learning to use his size to his advantage. A lot of it seemed to be more about confidence and determination than anything. Whatever it was, it was suddenly working. But was he NHL ready?
It is no secret that I still was not convinced, even when the Avs called him up. But, I really am rooting for him. How could I not? And I can honestly say, I have never been happier to be proven wrong. He did far better in those few games in the NHL than ever expected. So yes, clearly Kaut has made huge progress this year.
Nobody knows what will happen with the remainder of the season, but assuming it eventually resumes, Kaut likely does not have to worry about being bumped down the lineup during playoffs this time around.