The NHL entry draft is always a bit of a gamble. Every player picked could make it in the NHL, or could never live up to the potential that saw him selected. The question for everyone following along with a player's development is: what will it be?
Normally, the higher in the draft a player is selected the better the chances of seeing them in the NHL, but this isn't certain. Nothing in hockey is certain. Because of this, there is often little media coverage of prospects. After all, no one wants to waste effort. This is what has happened to Morgan Klimchuk. A first round pick in 2013, he has been overshadowed by the Flames' other first rounders Sean Monahan and Emile Poirier and, strangely enough, third round pick Keegan Kanzig. There are a host of reasons why discounting Klimchuck is a mistake.
Klimchuk was selected 28th in the 2013 NHL entry draft. He is the only first round selection still playing in major junior. Many might count that against him, citing Monahan being productive in the NHL and Poirier making the jump to the AHL this year as reasons to discount Klimchuk. After all, none of the other first rounders are still languishing in junior.
That would be short sighted. Klimchuk's time in the WHL has been one of growth and experience. In January of this year, Klimchuk was traded to the Brandon Wheat Kings, a team which was expected to make a strong push for the Ed Chynoweth Cup. (It turns out they did make a strong run that ultimately fell short.) Even the Regina Pats, where Klimchuk started the year, had a good record.
Fans have come to expect players to leave junior almost as soon as they're drafted instead of viewing this as an exception to the norm. Fans have become less patient with player development. This leads to players being rushed and their potential being spoiled. There's a lot a player can learn from an extra year in junior, and players should experience that if it's needed. Those characteristics players develop in junior will ultimately help shape a player better suited to the NHL more often than not.
Learning to Win
The ultimate example of a player learning patience, learning to win, and gaining big game experience is Griffin Reinhart. Sent back from the New York Islanders after a trail period in 2014, the Oil Kings captain had to adjust to playing in junior again when he would have rather been playing in the NHL. That trip back to junior taught Reinhart the value of being patient in a very tangible way; it also taught him what it takes to win. His Edmonton Oil Kings won the Memorial Cup in 2014, creating the perfect end to a successful junior career.
Klimchuk also needed to be a part of a winning team. While the Flames made the playoffs, it can hardly be said Adirondack had season that would teach a young player about big games and winning trophies. That can be said about the Brandon Wheat Kings, who only lost 11 games in a 72 game season. Winning was very much what the whole Wheat Kings season was about.
The Wheat Kings handily dealt with their opposition throughout the post season, including Kanzig's Calgary Hitmen. In the end, they were swept aside by the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL Final, but even learning to lose big games and bounce back stands a young player on a rebuilding team in good stead. As an end to Klimchuk's junior career, it is not as perfect as Reinhart's, but it is full of important lessons which will make Klimchuk a more complete player.
Learning to Put Up Points
Klimchuk had a record of 34 goals and 46 assists that favoured his time in Brandon. While only good enough for 19th in the WHL, it is a 10 position advancement over his 2013-2014 statistics. Klimchuk showed progress in being able to put the puck in the back of the net and in working with those around him. He connected well with his linemates in Brandon and helped them to raise their game to a better level as well. Not only did Klimchuk put the puck in the back of the net more, he helped to see positive results in his linemates and teammates.
The talent level found in Brandon seemed to suit Klimchuk better. This will mean Klimchuk will be better prepared to deal with the talent level he's sure to see in Stockton next year for having had the chance to further develop his skills and play with others with a higher skill level. It is better to allow a player time to develop than to launch them into the deep end and hope they can swim. This leads to the player drowning and never managing to be successful in the NHL or AHL because they can't adapt.
This last year in the WHL has given Klimchuk a chance to prove his readiness to all watching while he gains experience playing on multiple teams and with a variety of players. It has increased his versatility by changing the players around him and forcing adaption to a new system to lead to success, an ability that will surely be helpful over the course of Klimchuk's career.
Learn to Lead
Hockey is not just about what's done on the ice. It's also about what happens in locker rooms, with teammates, and at home. Over the last year, Klimchuk has proven to the Flames organization he understands this. He is able to place the good of the team first. His trade to Brandon was handled well by Klimchuk despite the fact he was leaving a team he was comfortable with and the star of. This ability to put the team first is an essential ability for anyone who is going to step into a leadership role in the future.
If the team doesn't believe in those that are leading, it is much harder to gain respect and buy in. Look at John Tortorella's final season with the New York Rangers for just how badly hockey teams need to have faith in their leaders. Klimchuk has led by example from the first line of the Brandon Wheat Kings. He has shown what is possible through superior performance with linemates Peter Quenneville and Tim McGauley. The Wheat Kings' performance was very strong from the addition of Klimchuk and his line was strengthened by his presence during the playoffs.
Not only has Klimchuk shown remarkable growth on the ice this year, but he has shown a remarkable amount of media saavy. It seems that playing hockey in the fishbowl of a small Canadian city is good for learning more than hockey.
All in all, it means that Klimchuk is more prepared, for all aspects of the game, because of his time in junior. This year has prepared Klimchuk to excel throughout his career. While there can be no certainty about how Klimchuk's career will actually turn out, there are many positive indicators from his last year in junior that he's ready to make the jump and start a long and prosperous pro career.