When bad news has a silver lining
Every professional football player dreads "the knock."
That's the moment when "The Turk" -- usually an assistant coach or trainer -- shows up at the door uttering the dreaded phrase: "Coach wants to see you; bring your playbook."
For many NFL players, The Turk and the Grim Reaper are one in the same. Getting cut or sent down in the NHL may actually be a little kinder and sometimes helpful. Coaches and general managers across the NHL have the ultimate say in who makes their rosters, and those decisions are never reached without much discussion.
"There are some players who question the decisions and that's fair because you want to provide them good feedback on where they're at," Dallas Stars Co-General Manager Les Jackson said. "We usually provide prospects a plan to work off every year so they're not surprised. When players are knocking on the door, we tell them to push hard and that if they do, they could push another guy out of work."
This time of year, hockey players on the bubble are interested in any whispers about what the future might hold. To say it is a stressful time is an understatement.
Patrik Elias, a two-time NHL All-Star, vividly remembers when he was on the NHL fence. Back in 1996, Elias was considered among the favorites to crack the Devils' lineup to start the 1996-97 season, especially after earning a cup of coffee with the big club (1 game) the previous season.
Instead, Elias began the following season in AHL Albany. He was second on that team with 23 points in 20 games prior to being recalled by the Devils on Dec. 3.
"I was one of the last guys to be sent down to minors," Elias told NHL.com. "I know how hard it is for the young guys because I was in that same position. I really thought I'd make the team out of camp in '96 and I thought maybe I really could have played here if given the chance. I'm sure other players have those same feelings, but you have to keep working and staying positive. If you're deserving of a spot, you'll get that chance. It's hard to wait it out, but the guys that do, eventually are rewarded."
Elias played just 17 NHL games before being returned to Albany that season. The next season, 1997-98, Elias stuck around for the full year and finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy after scoring 18 goals and 37 points. He also became the sixth Devil to be named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.
Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang experienced a similar predicament with the Penguins. Despite making the team out of training camp in 2006, Letang was returned to the Val-d'Or Foreurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after scoring 2 goals in 7 games with the Penguins.
"I was approached by everyone and they told me I'd be going back to my junior club," Letang said. "They said I needed to improve some aspects of my defensive game. It wasn't my offense that was a problem, but, at this level, I was told I had to work hard on my defensive coverage and come as close to perfect in my own zone as I possibly could.
"I was disappointed at first, but you begin to realize that maybe it's a good thing. You always want to stay there at that level and, as a 19-year-old, it was exciting for me at the time. In the QMJHL, I got a lot of ice and played in all situations of the game and we had a nice run in the playoffs, so the experience I received was great at that level."
Letang led his club to the 2007 QMJHL Final, scoring 31 points in the playoffs. After being swept by Lewiston in the championship, Letang appeared in one game for Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. That season, he received three major QMJHL awards -- the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the league's best defenseman, the Paul Dumont Trophy as the best personality and the Kevin Lowe Trophy as the finest defensive defenseman.
Ray Shero, the Penguins GM, admitted notifying Letang of his demotion was tough, but done with the best interests of the player and organization in mind.
"I think you just have to be very honest," Shero said. "Everybody has emotions and you feel bad for a kid because they've worked very hard and some feel they're very close. Kris (Letang) thought he was ready to step right in, but he didn't see it like we saw it, so I just asked him to trust our decision.
"Part of it is becoming a pro off the ice and he had to take some strides in certain areas, but I also told him that if he's willing to do what we tell him, it'll be beneficial for both him and the team," Shero said. "Kids either come from college or junior hockey, so it's a big step when they become a pro -- not only on the ice, but off it. I'm sure we could have started (Letang) here; he's certainly talented enough. But in terms of adjustment and what it takes, he had to earn it. When he had the chance to come up last year, he was a big addition to our team."
Letang began the 2007-08 season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but was quickly recalled by Pittsburgh after posting 7 points in 10 games. He went on to finish his rookie season with 17 points in 63 games with Pittsburgh.
Jackson admits building a sound relationship with a player who shows promise is the first step to earning their trust.
"All our prospects, including our draft picks, are invited to our orientation and developmental camp, which lays the foundation for the next three or four years," Jackson said. "It's really not that difficult because we try to build a relationship where we're trying to help them become better players. You have to build some trust and explain to the player the reasons behind your decision.
"In this day and age, my feeling is players might not like to hear what you're telling them, but they appreciate being respected and knowing you're telling them face to face. If you're sending them down and it's a young player who thinks he's close to making the team, you lay out a plan of which they are part of. I don't believe in handing anybody anything as they must earn the job. You tell them face to face and you tell them everything you're thinking and then move on."." -- Red Wings GM Ken Holland
"They must understand that there are other players on the team who aren't just going to hand over their jobs; they have to earn it. They're not entitled to it, so, in a lot of ways, they know who their peers are and will usually accept the decision."
Communication is the key, according to Jackson, when a prospect with potential questions those decisions.
"Last year, we had a bunch of guys on defense out with injuries so getting a few younger players into the lineup worked out well for us. This year, we'd like to have a couple of young guys up front, but we'll have to see how that works out the first month or two. If they're not ready to play for us, we'll return them to the AHL with the hope they'll continue to develop and learn."
The Detroit Red Wings have had tremendous success at stockpiling prospects before choosing the precise moment to integrate them into the lineup.
"In this day and age, my feeling is players might not like to hear what you're telling them, but they appreciate being respected and knowing you're telling them face to face," Wings GM Ken Holland said. "If you're sending them down and it's a young player who thinks he's close to making the team, you lay out a plan of which they are part of. I don't believe in handing anybody anything as they must earn the job. You tell them face to face and you tell them everything you're thinking and then move on."
Holland, who works closely with Assistant GM Jim Nill when informing youngsters of future plans, has rarely seen a player disappointed in any decision made.
"Most of them are probably a little intimidated," Holland said. "When I was a player, I just wanted to hear about what was going on. But it is difficult when you're releasing or trading someone because they have a family and roots. But the bottom line is we're paid to make decisions and you've got to make them, even the difficult ones."
Letang's advice to any young player on the receiving end of the bad news that is so prevalent around the end of September and into early October is to just listen to the coaching staff and continue to work on your game.
"I would say don't be mad or disappointed," Letang said. "You're a player and players must continue to work hard, improve and make a difference on whatever team they're playing for. If you feel sorry for yourself and don't work as hard, you're just going to be worse off. You just have to get better in order to reach the NHL."