Every team has one, and every team needs one, especially in a condensed season like this one. It’s the pipeline, the conduit that produces replacement talent to the NHL club when openings are created through injuries, illnesses, etc.
For the Columbus Blue Jackets, the pipeline has had to flow pretty steadily with the rash of injuries and other situations that have arisen this year. The good news is that steady flow of young talent from the American Hockey League has produced so well at this level, it’s given the Blue Jackets the chance to rebound from their dismal early-season results to their current status as playoff contenders.
That doesn’t just happen by coincidence in pro hockey. It’s certainly not a given that AHL talent can step right in, as the youngsters from the Springfield Falcons have done, and contribute productive and meaningful minutes to the parent team. First of all, it takes a core of solid prospects in the system from which the parent club can draw. That talent should ideally be playing within a system that’s at least compatible enough to the NHL team’s system that the transition for the player coming up is that much simpler. And the coaching at the AHL level must be such that the talent making the jump is ready to step in and play with confidence and composure.
It’s a credit to the structure within the Blue Jackets hockey operations department that the relationship between the AHL and parent team is producing all of the above. Most recently, defensemen Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef and forwards Ryan Johansen and Nick Drazenovic have played significant and productive minutes for Columbus. Johansen and Prout have been regulars in the lineup, as has Tim Erixon, who came up earlier this year from Springfield and has played most nights like an NHL veteran. Blue Jackets defenseman John Moore, a 2009 first-round draft choice, has grown up in the system and thinks there are a few factors responsible for the success he and his young teammates have had stepping in for Columbus.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, most notably the coaching we’re getting,” Moore explained. “We’re getting great instruction down there, but also, the core of our young guys here has been playing in the system for three or four years. So it’s also, I think, the natural progression and maturing process of the young guys. But, again, I don’t think you can say enough about Brad Larsen (Springfield Falcons head coach) and what he’s done and how he’s shown us what it takes to be a professional day in and day out.”
Larsen was a hard-working forward who got as much out of his talent as he could in his NHL career, and Moore says that approach is what the coach has been trying to impart to young prospects in Springfield over the past few years.
“I think that’s one of the first things that hits you when you’re down there is the expectations are just making sure you’re working hard, and every day you have to earn it,” said Moore. “Nothing is given to anyone. It’s really all you can ask for as a young player; it’s an awesome setup that they’re not playing favorites or anything. You get what you deserve, and it’s fun to be around.”
A big part of that fun for a young hockey player is playing in an environment that accelerates the development process. Every player at that level wants to take the step up as soon as he can, and Moore believes Larsen was instrumental in his steady progress and promotion to Columbus, where he played 67 games last season.
“Definitely, he was actually the d-coach my first year in Springfield (2010-11), so I worked with him really closely,” said Moore. “He was always taking me in for video and after practice working on certain things with me, pulling me aside and telling me what I needed to work on. He’s been unbelievable in dealing with younger guys, and that’s such a big element down there, building guys up. A lot of times you’re getting some 19- and 20-year-old kids that think they have it all figured out, but really don’t, so he’s done a really great job down there.”
When this condensed season began, most people around the league thought teams with solid goaltending and the ability to withstand the inevitable number of injuries would be the teams to enjoy the most success. Thanks in large part to the work of Sergei Bobrovsky and the steady stream of quality call ups from Springfield, the Blue Jackets have been one of the league’s most successful teams of late.