Pick the circus cliché you’d like, it probably applies to coaching in the American Hockey League.
Juggling, balancing, or walking a tight rope — take your pick.
And just like the circus, a minor misstep or bobble can lead to the act falling flat.
That’s what happened in the Texas Stars’ 4-1 loss to the Rockford IceHogs in Game 2. In an attempt to juggle winning and player development, everything fell apart.
Texas coach Derek Laxdal dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen in an effort to play Mattias Backman, Jason Dickinson, and Mattias Janmark in Game 2 — three players highly-ranked in the Dallas Stars prospect system, but had five combined games in a Texas uniform before Game 2.
For better or worse, that left Kevin Henderson, Matej Stransky, and Gemel Smith — three players that combined for 196 games this season — watching from the Cedar Park Center’s suite level.
It ended up being for worse.
The two-person fourth line, with a rotating forward double shifting from the top-three, played six minutes of five-on-five hockey. Janmark and Dickinson were non-factors.
Backman, who’s defense partner changed throughout the night, struggled and made questionable decisions with the puck.
There was a perfect microcosm of the problem midway through the first period. Janmark, Dickinson, and Backman were on the ice with Devin Shore and Julius Honka — a five-man unit that prospect prognosticators would salivate over — and they were penned in Texas’ defensive zone for almost a minute as Rockford dominated play. Jack Campbell eventually bailed out the young core with a glove save.
Now, was it the reason Texas lost?
No. Rockford has been the better team this series.
But, could an energy-producing fourth line of Henderson, Smith, and Stransky provided the spark Texas needed during a hellacious first period in Game 2?
Possibly, but it’s too late to find out.
Laxdal was asked about Janmark’s addition to the lineup after the game. And it sounds like Texas may forgo some of the “developmental opportunities” for a must-win Game 3 on Wednesday in Rockford.
“We wanted to get a look at him … we were sacrificing a guy who’s played a little bit more,” Laxdal said. “Moving forward here we’ll make a decision (for Game 3). Part of the process and part of the development model is getting these players in at certain parts of the year. And this is great development time for these kids.”
And that brings us back to the core question. What’s more important in the AHL — winning games or developing NHL players?
While Dallas would gladly demolish Texas’ roster if it meant winning a Stanley Cup, the big picture view has always been, “winning breeds development in the AHL.”
Unlike Minor League Baseball — where a manager once told me point blank, “I don’t look at the standings, I’m just worried about playing the kids,” — the Stars have a picture of the Calder Cup and the words “We win here,” on a wall in the locker room.
And Texas had a winning formula in the second half of the season. After hanging around the playoff border for much of the first half, Texas was a different team after Christmas.
Texas started games strong, finished hits — effectively — and used it’s collective offensive skill to create the perfect mix of blunt and sharp objects to dissect opponents.
Part of that mix was missing in Game 2. But who made that decision?
The coach is responsible for his lineup, and officially that’s how it’ll stand.
But consider the following: Dallas’ hockey operations department was at Cedar Park Center in full force Saturday. That group is also highly interested in the development and analysis of Janmark, Backman, and Dickinson.
It’s already hard enough to juggle, or balance, winning and development. It becomes even more difficult when someone else is telling you how to perform a tried and true act.