Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Butters and the NAHL

Stu Hackel over at the New York Times hockey blog wasn't a big fan of yesterday's post on the Lightning's hiring of Mike Butters:
On his blog yesterday, James Mirtle was critical of Butters’ hiring, making light of his experience as a U.S. junior hockey co-owner (with Koules), GM and associate coach. Mirtle mentions Butters’ team, the Helena Bighorns, play in the Tier III Northern Pacific Hockey League.

But what he doesn’t know is that Helena previously played in the North American Hockey League, which is a substantial step up from NORPAC, and the junior league where the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-17 and Under-18 teams play; and they are the teams where most of the U.S. players drafted by the NHL get their junior hockey experience. So Butters’ team competed at a pretty high level in a strong league. He moved the Bighorns out of the NAHL a couple of seasons ago because travel costs became prohibitive.

I did know that. Its relevance, however, is a bit questionable.

I believe the Bighorns lasted three seasons in the NAHL, a Tier II league which really is more of a stepping stone via the national development program than a "high level" of hockey. The best players** almost exclusively play for the one team, and do so at a very young age before moving onto better junior programs (i.e. the USHL) or the NCAA.

Nowadays, the rest of the teams rarely, if ever, produce NHL-calibre prospects, and I'm fairly certain Helena never had a graduate play anywhere close to that level.

I also don't see them on the list of teams that produced any AHL players, either. One current ECHLer, Chris Kaufman, played for the franchise in 2003-04.

(And Hackel wasn't kidding about travel costs. The Bighorns, at one point, reportedly had losses of $26,000 a month as a member of the league.)

To put it in context for Canadians, in my opinion, the NAHL is a considerably weaker league than Junior A circuits like the BCJHL and AJHL out west. It produces fewer NCAA Division I players per team than those Canadian leagues, and generally maintains a far lower profile.

Jumping from the NAHL to the AHL in a front office role is a pretty huge leap. The NORPAC to the AHL is unheard of.

Here's Hackel again:
Did he get the job because he’s Koules’ pal? Sure ’nuff.

But so did Mike Vernon, who was recently made special assistant to the vice president of hockey operations. As Cristodero outlined quite well, Vernon is a crony of both Koules and Barrie ... and he has absolutely zero experience in hockey management or administration, which Butters certainly does. But Mirtle wasn’t at all critical of that hiring.

Why is Vernon’s hiring acceptable and Butters’ hiring not? Hardly fair treament…
Vernon's been hired, in part, to work with the Lightning goaltenders, a role he's well suited for. He won multiple Stanley Cups as a starter, won a Conn Smythe, has played the 16th most games by a netminder in NHL history and picked up the 11th most career wins.

Vernon very well could be one of the most decorated goaltending consultants in the league in terms of his playing career.

Note the difference?

It's probably also worth noting Stu Hackel is the former director of communications for the NAHL.

Some noteworthy NAHL alumni include Keith Ballard, Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, Erik and Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Mike Knuble, Mike Komisarek, David Legwand, John-Michael Liles, Todd Marchant, Ryan Miller, Peter Mueller, Patrick O'Sullivan, Brian Rafalski, Brian Rolston, Ryan Suter, Tim Thomas, R.J. Umberger, Doug Weight, Ryan Whitney and Justin Williams. Almost every recent grad played in the league as part of the USNTDP (formed in 1997) at a very young age.

UPDATE I hit up Marc Foster from the Junior Hockey Blog for his take, as I'll admit the American junior leagues aren't my forte:

"The NAHL is decent," he said. "It's Tier II A like the provincial leagues, and ranks up there quality-wise with the the western provincials like the SJHL and AJHL, but not as high as the BCHL, which IMO is not too far beneath the USHL. Mileage, of course, can vary because players of different abilities sometimes go into various leagues/levels for their own reasons, usually related to the pro vs. NCAA question.

"No, the NAHL-NHL numbers aren't there, but except for the NTPD (whose purpose other than being a $3-million a year sinkhole I cannot fathom) the focus has been more geared towards the NCAA. It doesn't help that the league has no real vision or strategic plan, and all the owners are anything but aligned (another reason Helena left)."

UPDATE A friend of mine who works with a BCJHL team had this comment on the NAHL: "For a manager to go from that league to the AHL is crazy. You have to have friends in the hockey business — it's still a boys club!"

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At 7:04 p.m., July 23, 2008, Blogger Nick said...

oh snap. blog fight

At 7:16 p.m., July 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Drop the gloves!

At 7:29 p.m., July 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NYT hockey blog is generally a joke. When Yashin went overseas to play, they used him as a prime example that the new Russian league would lure players away from the NHL. Yea...great logic.

At 7:31 p.m., July 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, try to be humble, James. Last season you got your name mentioned in HNIC and now this? Stu "PR Guru" Hackell gives you his respects!!!

Stu, Stu, Stu... you, you, you... give my best to Peter. I just love Tier 3 hockey and The Family Guy.

At 7:36 p.m., July 23, 2008, Blogger Ryan said...

Let's not forget that most of those kids they claim as alumni from the USNTDP played for the program when they were playing games against the USHL.

At 10:23 p.m., July 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ryan is right

At 12:06 a.m., July 24, 2008, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Some noteworthy NAHL alumni include Keith Ballard, Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, Erik and Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Mike Knuble, Mike Komisarek, David Legwand, John-Michael Liles, Todd Marchant, Ryan Miller, Peter Mueller, Patrick O'Sullivan, Brian Rafalski, Brian Rolston, Ryan Suter, Tim Thomas, R.J. Umberger, Doug Weight, Ryan Whitney and Justin Williams. Almost all played at that level for the USNTDP at very young ages.

The USNTDP didn't get started until the fall of 1997. Knuble, Legwand, Marchant, Rafalski, Rolston, Thomas, and Weight were long out of the league by then. Of the others, I know that Ryan Miller and Justin Whitney played for teams other than the US development program: Miller with the Soo Indians, and Williams with Compuware.

At 12:22 a.m., July 24, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

My mistake — I looked at the trend among recent grads and then included everyone.

Here's the full NHL-alumni list published by the NAHL. Forty-four of the 75 names played for the USNTDP, while quite a few of the rest played before 1997:

Adams, Kevyn - Chicago Blackhawks (Niagara Scenics)
Anderson, Craig - Florida Panthers (Chicago Freeze)
Bacashihua, Jason - Colorado Avalanche (Chicago Freeze)
Conboy, Tim - Carolina Hurricanes (Texas Tornado)
Conner, Chris - Dallas Stars (Chicago Freeze, Compuware Ambassadors)
Fritsche, Dan - Columbus Blue Jackets (Cleveland Barons)
Greene, Andy - New Jersey Devils (Compuware Ambassadors)
Harrold, Peter - Los Angeles Kings (Cleveland Barons)
Janssen, Cam - St. Louis Blues (St. Louis Sting)
Johnson, Brent - Washington Capitals (Compuware Ambassadors)
Knuble, Mike - Philadelphia Flyers (Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings)
Krajicek, Lukas - Vancouver Canucks (Compuware Ambassadors)
Legwand, David - Nashville Predators (Compuware Ambassadors)
Marchant, Todd - Anaheim Ducks (Niagara Scenics)
Miller, Aaron - Vancouver Canucks (Niagara Scenics)
Miller, Drew - Anaheim Ducks (Capital Centre Pride)
Miller, Ryan - Buffalo Sabres (Soo Indians)
Moss, David - Calgary Flames (St. Louis Sting)
Moulson, Matt - Los Angeles Kings ( Springfield Spirit)
Mowers, Mark - Anaheim Ducks (Saginaw Jr. Gears)
Parros, George - Anaheim Ducks (Chicago Freeze)
Rafalski, Brian - Detroit Red Wings (Melvindale Blades)
Rolston, Brian - Minnesota Wild (Compuware Ambassadors)
Rupp, Michael - New Jersey Devils (Cleveland Barons)
Slater, Jim - Atlanta Thrashers (Cleveland Barons)
Thomas, Bill - Phoenix Coyotes (Cleveland Barons)
Thomas, Tim - Boston Bruins (Lakeland Jets)
Weight, Doug - St. Louis Blues (Bloomfield Jets)
Williams, Justin - Carolina Hurricanes (Compuware Ambassadors)
Wisniewski, James - Chicago Blackhawks (Compuware Ambassadors)
Wozniewski, Andy - Toronto Maple Leafs (Texas Tornado)

At 12:43 a.m., July 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chick fight!

At 11:18 a.m., July 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'd have to say that your singling out and piling on this fellow is not your finest moment. He may prove to be out of his depth, but he does have hockey experience.

The Tampa situation does not need a colour-man. The play-by-play is entertaining enough.

At 11:39 a.m., July 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The summer of Lightning! I can't wait for next press release. Seen Stamkos? Or something else. Could Lightning play in the KHL?

At 11:40 a.m., July 24, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

In no way am I "piling on" Butters. It'd be easier to spot if I was.

He could very well prove competent in this role, but my point is that a jump from the NORPAC to the GM of an AHL team is unprecedented. It's a direct result of his relationship with Koules.

At 12:18 p.m., July 24, 2008, Blogger Shane Giroux said...

Am I the only one who immediately had visions of Butters from South Park coaching a hockey team?

At 2:16 a.m., July 25, 2008, Anonymous Stu Hackel said...

James - I feel the need to restate my original argument for the sake of clarification, and perhaps I should have been more clear, but first I'll start with an apology for my assumption that you were not aware Helena played in the NAHL.

I'm going to avoid all the prattle from other commenters about which US junior league is better than the other and by how much, because 1) it is a specious discussion since they don't play each other, 2) each league has passionate defenders and detractors who don't hear what the others say, which leads to 3) because even though I'm two years out of the NAHL and only spent two years in it, I got sick of the silliness of this discussion very quickly and that hasn't faded over time; I'm still sick of it, and 4) it had nothing to do with the point I was making about Mike Butters -- which was this:

Mike was the person in charge of day-to-day operations of a junior A team in a good league, a league good enough to have the best collection of U.S. junior hockey players in it. They didn't play for the team he ran (in fact, Helena wasn't very good, and a big reason, as your diligent research turned up, is they hemorrhaged money, which was not Butters’ fault), but I pointed to the USNDTP's membership in the NAHL just as an illustration that the NAHL was quite a credible league that contributes a good number of players into the US development chain from juniors to NCAA to pro hockey (and when I worked for the NAHL, the league was graduating about 100 players annually to the NCAA, roughly the same as the USHL; I don't know the figures since I left). NORPAC, where Helena plays now and where you identified Butters as being from, isn't really much a part of that chain at all. So I was merely trying to demonstrate that Butters' credentials were somewhat more impressive than as you described them in your original post. I never said that his NAHL experience automatically qualified him to be an AHL GM, or made him a more acceptable candidate, or were even good enough for the AHL -- just that his experience was not quite as thin as you portrayed it. .

What I did say in my post -- and on this we agree -- that he got the job because he was a friend of Oren Koules. I also maintained Mike is a personable and bright guy, who works hard and could very well rise to the occasion and master the job; perhaps it won’t work that way. Personally, I think he’ll do fine, but we'll see. Is his an unusual leap, going straight from junior to the AHL? Sure. I never said otherwise. Of course, Peter DeBoer just went from Canadian major junior to the NHL, so big leaps do happen.

And my second point was comparing Butters with Mike Vernon, and, restating here, I felt you were unfair to be critical of the Butter's lack of experience and not Vernon's.

You are right in stating that part of Vernon's responsibilities could be to tutor goaltenders for the Lightning, and that, given his NHL record, we'd be hard-pressed to find someone better qualified. I'll agree with you there (with the caveat that he's never been a pro goalie coach before and you never know if you can be a good teacher until you actually have to do it; lots of great athletes can't coach because their gifts come so naturally to them -- but I would think from what I know of him that Vernon can most likely do that job).

But Vernon will have other duties in his post besides working with goalies. He's envisioned by Len Barrie as a "jack of all trades" in his role as Special Assistant to the Vice President of Hockey Operations (Brian Lawton) and that includes being a "sounding board on personnel matters" and conceivably some scouting in Western Canada. And it's in those areas where he has no experience whatsoever.

As you know, it takes years in most cases for someone to develop the ability as a scout to look at a prospect and project what kind of player he will be in four or five years. It will be great if Vernon can do that right from the start, but that's a huge assumption. The same goes for the deft hand and trained eye it takes in general when dealing with the wide range of personnel matters that the hockey department at an NHL team handles. It's not the kind of that one easily steps into. Jim Nill in Detroit, for example, whose job theoretically might -- or might not -- be somewhat parallel to Vernon's, was a scout for Ottawa and then the Wings for a number of seasons before becoming assistant GM. Or, if we want to think of Vernon's role as more informal and advisory, the analogous job with Detroit belongs to Scotty Bowman, who if memory serves me correctly had just a little experience in off-ice hockey matters prior to taking that job.

My point, with which I'm sure you'll agree, is that Vernon lacks any experience other than as a player, and -- like Butters -- there are certainly people who are much more qualified to help Tampa Bay than he is.

But, also like Butters, Vernon had the most important qualification for getting hired by this ownership group -- and that is that he's friends with the owners. They know him, they like him, they are comfortable with him. I hope Vernon does well, too, but my point remains that he is no better qualified for his new job (except perhaps teaching goaltending) than Butters is for his (and he's had experience in hockey administration). So to be critical of one Mike and not the other Mike strikes me as unfair.

Finally, my past affiliation with the NAHL had little bearing on my opinion in this matter. Yes, I know a lot more about the NAHL, US junior hockey and the people who work in it now than I did before I worked there. I certainly also know the shortcomings as well, and I know them from the inside. I didn't defend Butters because of our shared NAHL past but because I felt your assessment of him compared to Vernon wasn't fair. And I wasn't defending the NAHL at all, just defining its place and crediting Butters for working there. I worked for the NHL five times longer than I worked in the NAHL, and anyone who reads my posts for the NY Times blog realizes I am not by any stretch of anyone's imagination a knee-jerk defender of the NHL. I try to form my opinions on the basis of what I think is in the best interests of the game. Where I've previously worked only matters because of what I learned working there.

Anyway, this is so long that I'm sure almost no one has gotten from top to bottom without falling asleep or missing a meal so I'll stop now, except to say I enjoy your blog, James. It is very readable, informative and thoughtful. I know you are well respected in the hockey blogosphere and for good reason.

At 5:02 p.m., July 25, 2008, Blogger Wyshynski said...


At 6:18 a.m., July 26, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess Marc Foster won't be getting any Christmas cards from the NAHL league office this year.


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