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THN.com Blog: Is trial-by-fire policy burning Wild’s youth?

Ken Campbell
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James Sheppard leans in during a face off against the Anaheim Ducks. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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THN.com Blog: Is trial-by-fire policy burning Wild’s youth?

Ken Campbell
By:

The Minnesota Wild has a very clear and definitive policy when it comes to developing its young players. It believes its talented teenagers’ long-term interests are better served by throwing them right into the NHL atmosphere and keeping them there.

The Wild clearly believes it’s better for a youngster to struggle to find his identity as an NHL player early than to have him dominate with his peers in Europe, major junior or college hockey.

But does it work? Well, more than anything, it probably proves there is no one formula for best developing players. A rare few of them prove very early they can adapt to the NHL and others need to fill out their junior careers and play a couple of years in the minors.

Just this past week, coach Jacques Lemaire called out James Sheppard, lamenting the fact that Sheppard had just five goals this season, one more than his rookie year of 2007-08. That’s the same Sheppard who was brought to the NHL at the age of 19, with one year of junior hockey eligibility remaining, despite the fact he had never scored more than 33 goals or recorded 100 points in any season at the major junior level.

Under most circumstances, Sheppard would have played out his junior career in the Quebec League and likely played for Canada at the World Junior Championship. This season would have been his first as a pro and most organizations would have had him in the minors, so his NHL career wouldn’t even actually have begun yet.

Are two years in the NHL and nine goals going to ultimately make Sheppard a better player? Nobody knows yet, but conventional wisdom suggests that no player’s career has ever been hurt by being brought along slowly, but lots of them have been wrecked because players were rushed into the NHL.

Will averaging just 8:03 per game for 43 games this season ultimately make Colton Gillies a better player, or would he have been better served dominating as a 19-year-old with the Saskatoon Blades? After all, he only had 47 points last season and scored a total of 91 in 195 games in major junior hockey. Gillies never had a chance to be a dominant player and it will likely be a number of years, if ever, before he becomes an impact player in the NHL.

But the Wild has never been shy about bringing its young players into the lineup quickly. Their first two draft picks ever in 2000 were Marian Gaborik and Nick Schultz. Gaborik played in the NHL as an 18-year-old and Schultz began his NHL career at 19 and, injuries aside, it doesn’t seem to have hurt them very much.

Brent Burns also joined the Wild at the age of 18 and despite an initial attempt to turn him back into a forward, Burns has developed into one of the league’s most dynamic young offensive defensemen.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard was also brought in as an 18-year-old despite almost universal concerns that he was far too small and underdeveloped to play in the NHL at the time. He was coming off a season in which he led the Quebec League with 94 assists and 140 points. And while Bouchard has enjoyed a respectable career, he has never posted more than 20 goals or 63 points in a season.

Perhaps missing the playoffs this season, which the Wild will almost certainly do, will cause the organization to change its strategy when it comes to its young players. If not, Tyler Cuma, step right up, your time is now.

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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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THN.com Blog: Is trial-by-fire policy burning Wild’s youth?