For most fans of an NHL club, “organizational depth” - your strength of personnel from the top league to the bottom - pales in importance to the depth of your current team. You like to see your team have at least a few solid lines, knowing that over the course of 60 minutes, most players are going to have to contribute.
But at this time of the year - a time when a number of players are already shelved for the season, more are out for blank-to-blank weeks and others need occasional nights off to heal nagging injuries - we see how crucial organizational depth can be to help the big club succeed.
For players further down in the system, this is when opportunities arise. Both of my American League call-ups came around this point in the season, thanks to injuries to players in the NHL and AHL: once for a week in early January and a second time in late January for the months leading up to the playoffs.
As an organization, you want players coming up to the big club who can fill in without causing the team to miss its stride. This is a large part of the reason AHL teams like to have a couple guys with NHL experience on their roster.
Most players can move up a level and, for a game or two, not hurt the team. It’s easy to get amped up and go 1,000 miles an hour for a few shifts a night, applying the intense focus a player trying to make a good impression shows up with.
But as the games go on and the beginner’s luck and first-time thrill wears off, a player can get exposed and teams can start to struggle. The streakiness we see from NHL teams around mid-season can often be explained by the old “only as strong as your weakest link” adage.
It’s important to be deep the whole way through the system this time of year so your future players have the chance to get better, too. As an NHL team, you don’t want to call up all of your AHL team’s best players and leave your young, talented prospects to play with hobos like me. That doesn’t make the future any brighter.
You want prospects surrounded not just by capable players who won’t hold them back, but also the type of well-seasoned players who can help them out in their first years of professional hockey. It’s a sizable step from junior or college, so you need to leave some mentors around your prospects.
If there’s a weak spot anywhere in the system - and there often are for many teams - it will inevitably reflect on the big club.
This is the time of year where a team with a poor scouting staff gets exposed. Organizational depth is supposed to be a system of sustainable resources, where your draft picks gain experience, get some pro games, ably fill the holes when they’re up and pass on those experiences when they’re down.
Teams that don’t effectively continue the process will see any team identity fade, be exposed as thin in the coming months and drop in the standings.
The focus for clubs is always on the playoffs. Teams rest the players who need the time off and with more and more warriors felled on the field of battle, more young players are going to get shoved into important roles.
Some will be exposed, some will shine and their team’s point total often fluctuates accordingly.
For teams that hope to climb the standings to a better playoff seeding and improve their chance at the Stanley Cup, the work of the scouts who provided that team with organizational depth is in the spotlight.
Teams have varying degrees of injury luck, but all have injuries. Let’s sit back and see who has the best gum to patch their holes.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.