Siegel: Sitting down with Leafs' dir. of player development

Jonas Siegel
6/25/2014 11:35:07 AM
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Of the 20 players who dressed for the Kings on the night of their second Stanley Cup celebration earlier this month, 11 were drafted and developed by the organization.

There were first round picks like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Tanner Pearson, second round selections like Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford, a steal in the third in Jonathan Quick and fourth rounders like Dwight King and the biggest playoff hero of them all, Alec Martinez.

And while L.A. would require and benefit from upgrades via trade – Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Mike Richards most prominently – the foundations of their success are rooted in their fruitful draft and development scheme.

The Leafs, absent from the playoffs for eight of the past nine seasons and long-starved of consistent homegrown talent, are scratching and clawing to try to get to that point (someday).

Earlier this week, Dave Morrison, Toronto's director of amateur scouting, detailed a draft process that appears to be slowly moving in the right direction. Development is the other and usually forgotten side of the coin. Spurring that effort for the Leafs is Jim Hughes, who spoke with about the challenges and trials of development and what the organization is doing to improve the process.

SIEGEL: What's the process when a player gets drafted by the organization? What's that process like of taking him as a teenager and trying to get him to the NHL? How do you do that?

HUGHES: Usually year one, we allow the kid to do his thing. We meet the coaches. We make sure the kid's in good shape [and] he's in a good spot and we usually don't press their buttons. We don't have a sense of urgency with a kid at an early stage, but as he develops into year two, into year three, we turn the heat up, we turn the urgency up. A guy like Freddy Gauthier for instance; last year, we let him work through some stuff. We give him the details of what he needs to do to be successful in terms of making the World Junior team. We give him some bullet point details in terms of being physical, stopping on loose pucks, blocking shots, winning faceoffs, playing with some urgency. We give him some details in terms of what he needs to do in year one. In year two, our demands will be a lot greater. We'll be pressing the button a little bit harder. We'll be trying to push him up the mountain, challenging him, both mentally and physically. We try to expedite the process, all the while knowing that there's got to be some patience in the mix as well.

SIEGEL: Is that a constant conversation that you're having with him?

HUGHES: Sometimes it's a weekly, sometimes it might be monthly, sometimes it's when it's necessary, sometimes we stay out of their way. If the kid's in a good spot [and] the coaches are delighted with the player we might stay out of their way a little bit. If the coach says [the prospect] needs a kick in the ass and he's doing just enough to get by in practice then we might step in and poke him a little bit and poke him a little bit. All we're doing is we're a support to the coaching staff; we're a support to the management team. If the kid's playing in U.S. college hockey, or the kid's playing in the Quebec league, we're just there for support, pretty much providing the same message that his staff is providing and if we have to poke him we will.

SIEGEL: I wanted to ask you about that process with the prospect's team. How does the coordination work? What if you have a prospect in a situation that you don't deem to be advantageous? Let's say for two weeks he's not getting any power-play time or something along those lines. How do you work with the teams to put the prospect in a position to succeed?

HUGHES: Well, we'll get in early and eyeball the coach and find out what his opinions were of the player, find out what the plan is, what the process is with the player, where he's going to start; he might start as a third-line left wing and then the coach says he'll work his way into a second-line position in year two. They usually have a plan and a method to the madness. In a lot of ways we put the onus and responsibility back on the player. For instance, I've had a player say to me 'well, the coach doesn't like me' and before he can get the whole sentence out I stop him in his tracks and I say 'the coach wants to win and if the coach thinks that you can help him win the coach will play you'. So we always challenge the kid to have a great first shift. Why? Because he'll give you a second one. Have a great second shift, he'll give you a third one. Because that's the way life works. They have to earn the right and they've got to compete for their job and they've got to battle. So usually we don't go to the staff, we'll go back to the player. We'll go back to the player and put it on the player's shoulders because again, it's about winning and if the coach thinks that you can contribute and help him win then he will play you. And that's sort of the mission statement that we usually use with these kids. Now, if there's obviously an issue down the road and we've got to talk to the coaching staff and it's not a right mix or it's not a right match then we'll deal with that down the road. But usually we can talk these things out with the player.

SIEGEL: How quickly do you understand what type of personality that you have as far as some guys respond to a kick in the ass, some guys need to be coddled; is that something that you can pick up on year one as to how to interact with the player to get him to where he needs to be?

HUGHES: Yeah, that's a good question. I think what we do is we try to get to know the personality, try to get to know the person, find out if he's approachable, find out if he's a little bit distant and how we can warm up to him and sort of present our messages politely. And then at some point it might be a very direct, very harsh message. There's different ways, depending on the kid and basically where he's at in the process. But I like to believe that we tell the kid the truth – the good, the bad and the ugly. The only way we're going to make forward progress is by giving them the information, telling them the truth. 'This is what you're doing great. This is what your skill-sets are. This is what you need to improve on.' And basically be really honest with them in terms of the do's and the don'ts and what we like and basically what needs to be tweaked and what needs to be changed.

SIEGEL: But is there an added element in Toronto? I wanted to ask you specifically in the case of Nazem. Nazem comes up, there's all this hype; it's Toronto at its finest. How do you navigate through those waters when there's so many external factors outside of your control pulling the kid in different directions?

HUGHES: Nazem was more patience. And it's almost a trial by error. It's almost one step forward, maybe one step back, two steps forward and it was a process of two, three years. It was a maturity thing. It wasn't a lack of passion. It wasn't a 'you've got to work on your skill-sets'. It wasn't about 'hey, does Nazem love the game?' We already knew that. That was more of the personality and just talking him through things and trying to nurture him and trying to get him to see things maybe differently than the way he's living or doing on the ice. That was a tedious one. Some guys move up the ladder a little bit faster. A guy like Josh Leivo we drafted at 178 pounds and he's a dog on the bone. And we said 'son, you've got an NHL stick, you've got soft hands, you've got an NHL brain, but you're weak as [expletive]'. And he went to work. He got in the MCC and he went from 178 [pounds] to 198 [pounds] and he's chiseled and strong. And he did that work. He did the work. He's responsible for the work. We just gave him the information and said 'this is what's in front of you and this is what you need to do' and he did it.

SIEGEL: You mentioned patience; how do you balance that with the different personalities, like not looking at one guy and saying 'why aren't you getting there faster like this other guy?'

HUGHES: I can give you an example of a guy that's got a workload that's intense and he's got a passion level that's intense is Connor Brown. I just spoke to him earlier today. His weight is moving in the right direction. He was with [strength coach Anthony] Belza this morning, him and five other players were at the MCC this morning. He's putting weight on and it's man-strength that we call it and it's just going to take time. This doesn't happen overnight. So he's got the workload, he's got the passion, he's got the dedication, the desire, but if the man-strength is going to come it's going to come when he's 21, 22. He's a late bloomer and in a lot of ways we've just got to understand that this kid is doing everything in his power. He's eating five meals a day. He's eating the right foods. He goes to bed at night. He's got a good lifestyle. He's got good habits. And we just need to know that he's moving in the right direction and it's just going to take a little bit of time. It's going to take some time, but we know that the process is moving in the right direction. He's probably a perfect example of a kid that I don't think we can speed it up anymore. It's human nature. He's going from a skinny, scrawny kid to becoming a man.

SIEGEL: And he's part of a group of prospects that you have that look like they're really moving in the right direction. You've been in the job now five years; is there something that you've learned about it – maybe watching other teams or doing it yourself – as to how to make that process of development work?

HUGHES: I think some of it is trial by error. We tweak things. But we've always been brutally honest with the kids – good, bad and ugly. We've been positive with the kids. We've been direct with them in terms of they need to inspire and they need to empower themselves. We go after the mind just as much as we go after the physical part of it. The brain muscle sometimes is neglected. So we talk about the mindset, we talk about the passion and loving the game and empowering yourself. 'Don't wait for the coach to empower you; you empower yourself. You treat yourself like it's your own business. You run it like it's your own business. You run it like it's your own business. And you make it what you want it to be'. We try to stimulate them from an intellectual standpoint, just as much as we do it from a physical standpoint. And we've got a great team of people that are involved with this process. We have Belza and [skating coach] Barbara [Underhill]; they instantly made the Greg McKegg's better. Greg McKegg needed to work on his skating so he's with Belza working on the physical side of things and then he gets out with Barbara and works on the mechanical side of things. So you're running it up the ladder side by side and between the two all of sudden we don't really talk about Greg McKegg's skating anymore because we've got the people in place that are doing their jobs and making this thing work. Then we've got Bobby Carpenter and we've got Steve Staios that are in the player development department as well. We all have our own style and yet we're all saying the same things. We talk to him from a mental standpoint. We talk to him about a physical standpoint. We're here to nurture them, teach them and grow them. And again, some guys are more serious about it than others and that's basically what separates the junior players and the AHL players from the guys that eventually become NHL players.

SIEGEL: I think the mental side is interesting and it ties in with what I want to ask you next. You look at someone like Carter Ashton; you watch him with the Marlies and he's dominant at times. And then when he comes up to the NHL and he looks like he's trying to find his way a little bit more. How do you take a player who's right on the cusp and get them into the NHL?

HUGHES: More touches; exposure to the power-play; playing with high-end players at the American League level which is going to slow his brain down when he has the puck. Everything doesn't have to be a mad race; have some puck poise. And when you're playing with a Spencer Abbott or you play him with a Peter Holland, they possess it and they want to give it and they want to go. So naturally when you put Carter with [one of those guys] then he's going to get the touches and he's got to be creative because they want to be creative. It's not a dump-and-chase, get it out, get it in; they're forced to make plays. So just that experience and having that puck-time is part of the maturation for Carter in terms of moving himself from an American League player to a National League player. He's probably stuck between the two leagues right now because he's got some really good qualities; he cares about his teammates; he's physical; he can skate; he can get up and down the rink; he's got a high-compete load. And he's just got to find that balance of not losing the aggressiveness, but learning how to slow it down when he has the puck a little bit. It's training your mind, slowing it down in your brain is basically that attachment that he's learning to do right now. Because he made some beautiful plays at the American League level this year, now he's just got to take it and bring it into the National League with him.

SIEGEL: More generally speaking, do you think you have a system in place now where you can take more of these prospects and get them to the NHL? How do you take the development system that you have and keep making it better to get more of these guys to that point?

HUGHES: That's where [Steve Spott], [Derek King], [Gord Dineen], that's where they come in. Stuart Percy is a great example of playing 20 minutes per night, playing in all situations – playing on the power-play, playing on the penalty kill – playing in almost 20 playoff games and that experience is invaluable; you've got to earn the right to play in those games. And so our American League coaches are giving these guys every opportunity to earn the right to win positions and to be on the ice in critical situations. Stuart's a perfect example of that. [Petter] Granberg was a big piece of that puzzle as well. We're talking about the player development and nurturing them through their junior careers or college careers and then we work with them through the summers and then Spotter and his crew grab them in the winter and expose them to situations and get them the quality minutes in the right situations. And again, that's how you expedite the process and that's how we're trying to get as many guys to graduate from the American League to the NHL. Some need more time than others, but it's a multitude of people all pulling rope the same way and that's sort of the way we've been operating over the past [few] years.

SIEGEL: Can you feel that you've got some kids that might be able to make that step, if not the step next year to the Marlies?

HUGHES: I think so. You've got [Matt] Finn coming and you've got Brown and you've got Tommy Nilsson coming and we've got [Andreas] Johnson doing a good job over in Sweden. We've got Percy coming. We've got Granberg that's ready. We've got a lot of guys pushing so it's really creating a good, competitive environment. And the cream will rise to the top. These guys will work as hard at their trade to get to that highest level.

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