For many, the image of the road less taken is that of a winding path through the wilderness.
Not so for the Nashville Predators and their prospects. The long and deeply held belief of franchise management has been that the road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee, home of the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Therefore, the road less traveled — barely traveled, in fact — is the direct route.
Recently, though, a set of footprints emerged on that path.
Goalie Anders Lindback arrived in town this summer from Sweden and was not sent off on any sort of developmental pilgrimage. The 22-year-old stayed put with a solid training camp and then planted his flag when he started three of the first four games and went 2-0-1 in place of injured Pekka Rinne.
Less than a month into the season, it’s already tough to imagine he’ll ever have to wear an Admirals’ uniform. Why should he? He was poised and confident from the outset. Most importantly, he was productive.
In fairness, Lindback is a couple years older than North American-based players when they graduate from the junior ranks of the Canadian Hockey League. His preparation for the NHL included one full season and part of another in Sweden’s top professional league, which could be considered a comparable alternative to the AHL.
But that hasn’t stopped the Predators before. Patric Hornqvist was a productive player for three seasons in Sweden before he spent the majority of 2008-09 as a 21- and 22-year-old with Milwaukee. Of course, he emerged as a 30-goal scorer last season.
Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis, Colin Wilson and others all did time in the AHL while some of their respective peers went right to the NHL from wherever it was they had been playing. In Suter’s case, his one AHL season conveniently fell during the NHL’s lockout, but there’s nothing to indicate he wouldn’t have done the same had the NHL played that season.
Coach Barry Trotz will tell you over and over again that all players develop at their own rate. Some get it early. Some get it later.
He’s right. Some actually develop sooner than others. Yet the Predators seem convinced that none develop without some time spent at Milwaukee — typically at least one season.
Meanwhile, all around the NHL, particularly in the current salary cap era, teams plug in 19- and 20-year-olds every season and watch them flourish. Not to mention the fact that players on entry level contracts are exceedingly affordable, which ought to be particularly appealing to the Predators.
Chicago proved last season that the sooner you rely on talented young players, the sooner they get the necessary experience to maximize their potential. They didn’t wait with Jonathan Toews — either in playing him or making him their captain — and at 22 years old he led them to a Stanley Cup.
Here’s hoping the Predators have learned a little something from Lindback.
There are no age requirements for NHL players. There are no experience mandates.
All that matters is talent — and more than ever, young talent matters.
Nashville has its share of talented young players, many of them playing at Milwaukee with the idea they’ll make their way to the NHL.
More than ever, though, the idea that a direct route to the NHL is the road to ruin seems like an outdated one.