Red Wings forward Drew Miller is off to Scotland to play and see the sights, but will facing lesser competition take the edge off his game by the time the lockout ends and the NHL resumes play? (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
By Stu Hackel
As the NHL diaspora continues to spread thanks to the ongoing lockout, we're seeing players land in some very unusual places. Hearing about an NHLer lacing them up for the KHL is, by now, nothing new. But with the Hurricanes' Anthony Stewart, the Red Wings' Drew Miller, and the Ducks' Matt Beleskey all signing with clubs in the United Kingdom's 10-team Elite League while Brandon Dubinsky of the Blue Jackets, Joey Crabb of the Capitals and the Nate Thompson of the Lightning have joined the ECHL's Alaska Aces, we're now seeing guys skating in leagues that are a few levels below their abilities.
Some of that has to do with the fact that professional jobs are getting harder to find with the best European leagues underway and the teams having filled their rosters. In the case of Dubinsky, Crabb and Thompson, they are also all from Anchorage, so this is a chance to be in familiar surroundings. "It's easy to be home, close to family,'' Dubinsky told Doyle Woody of The Anchorage Daily News. "You don't really get this opportunity too many times, to play in front of your family.''
Dubinsky, who was dealt to Columbus in the deal that sent Rick Nash to the Rangers in July, told Woody he had offers to play in Europe, but "I just didn't find a situation where I was happier than here. You might lose some dollars and cents, but that pales in comparison to the opportunity to play here.''
On the other hand, for Miller, signing to skate for the Braehead Clan, one of the four Scottish teams in the British Elite League, the chance to play away from home helped motivate his decision. “It's an area of the world I'd like to be able to see,'' he told Detroit media over the weekend (quoted by Ansar Kahn of the Michigan Booth newspapers.) Michael Farber took a fascinating look at the Belfast Giants in the March 21, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Of course, Miller's other reason is the same one shared by all NHLers who are now playing elsewhere. “It's just an opportunity to play," he said. "It's kind of getting repetitive here, skating with half a team. It gives me an opportunity to play in game situations.
“I'm not sure exactly where it ranks, but I think they play more of a North American style than most of the European leagues, I'm told,'' Miller added. “The biggest thing is playing games and mentally preparing for a game and being in that kind of atmosphere. That's what I'm going to try to get out of it.''
Thinking about these guys plying their trade in leagues where they are easily the most accomplished players, I started to wonder if they might be hindering their skills by skating among players who are not their equals. You often hear about how young, developing players get better when they play against older competition. Does it work the other way? Let's say the lockout ends in two months. Will a player who "plays down" a level or two for that long find that his game suffers when the NHL returns and he's plunged back into a setting where a good number of his peers have been performing among those who are at a higher level?
"It depends on how hard they work," SI's and NBC's Pierre McGuire told me on the phone Tuesday morning. "It's not just the games, it's how hard you work in practice. It depends on how intense they are, how serious they are with their regime. If they work hard and they train hard, they should be better off for it. There were a lot guys skating with major junior teams back in 1994-'95, and they ended up doing really well. Depends on how hard you push."
A case that proves McGuire's point is that of Scott Gomez, who is currently practicing but not playing for the Alaska Aces (he's said he does not intend to play for them during this lockout). Gomez pushed hard during the lockout of 2004-05. He played for the Aces back then and led the ECHL in scoring with 86 points in 61 games, plus he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player. When the NHL returned in 2005-06, Gomez enjoyed his best NHL season with 33 goals and 84 points.
So playing for an atypical team in an unconventional league need not be detrimental to a player if he continues to take the game and his job seriously. If a guy goes somewhere just to see the sights and neglects to train and play with purpose, he could face problems rejoining his NHL club when the lockout is over.
As for the other side of the equation, the organization he selects will experience some definite benefits having him in the lineup and dressing room.
Kirsty Langmuir, the GM/Business Manager for Braehead Clan, said in a statement, “It is a true honour to have a player of Drew Miller's caliber on the team. To have an NHL player from such a renowned team join us is just fantastic. Not only is this great for the team and the fans, but it is also a fantastic opportunity for the players to train and play in games with a guy who is a current NHL star.
“We are really looking forward to Drew’s arrival and we hope that the fans will come out and show their support for both Drew and the team. This truly is a huge thing for this club and for hockey fans in the Gardner Conference, and we are delighted to have Drew on board.”
Doyle Woody wondered in an Anchorage Daily News article, however, if other ECHL teams would be so welcoming to the NHLers on the Aces roster. "Will they get a free pass out of respect, meaning opponents will give them room and go lightly on the hitting?" he asks. "Will someone try to make a name for himself by taking a run at one of the aforementioned Aces or straight-up force a fight? Will they be treated as just another guy in an Aces sweater?"
Woody has no answer for his questions, but he knows hockey is hockey and someone could easily challenge Dubinsky, Thompson or Crabb. And they are not going to shrink from the task. They can handle themselves. "But rest assured Aces coach Rob Murray doesn't want to find them having to fight regularly," he writes. "Hell, not even semi-regularly."
They're going to be more valuable for Murray if they are on the ice than the penalty box.
"Let's be realistic," Woody continues, "if Jimmy Nobody keeps taking runs at Dubinsky, for instance, Dubinsky well might respond. He's no wallflower. When he was a New York Ranger, if some opponent was going to continually hassle, say, Marian Gaborik, one of the Rangers' designated fighters or even a guy like Dubinsky might step in and drop gloves. With the Aces, though, Dubinsky equates to Gaborik, and that means teammates should be keeping a close eye on opponents."
That sort of behavior might be more commonplace in the ECHL than it will be in the British Elite League but, regardless of where NHLers guys play, the game's etiquette doesn't vary much, even in strange places.
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