Photo by Adam Glanzman via WikiCommons
I’m starting Training Camp with a bold stance.
In attending the Young Stars tournament this year, I got my first live viewing of 2012, 9th overall selection Jacob Trouba with my brain so stuffed full of hype that I could hardly believe what I saw. In fact, my first game report chalked his poor decision making up to being a visceral player who became frustrated with his own performance and noted he’d have to work on his emotional discipline to improve his game. During an early shift in game two, when Trouba failed to recognize that he was responsible for a puck on his own end boards, and then didn’t block the attacking lane of the forechecking forward, effectively allowing his partner (who was covering for his mistake) to be crushed with a running head-start, it dawned on me. I was watching a young Jack Johnson.
A Divisive Figure
I suspect that for some people, the comparison to Jack Johnson is not alarming, and much of this article will be confusing. A former third overall pick, Johnson has been traded twice – so at least three NHL teams wanted him – and played on the US Olympic Team. He has 157 NHL points to his name and even scored 42 in a single season once. He’s fast, hard-hitting, rushes well, and can shoot and pass at a high level. I know Blue Jacket press releases consider him to be a top defenceman in the league, and for some, he just never loses his luster. Yet, for many others, he has major red flags in his decision-making and ability to read the play.
How major? Well, Johnson started his NHL career by going -90 in 343 games on a Kings team that made the playoffs twice with him on it before being traded at the deadline the very season they crawled into an 8th seed and then somehow managed to win a cup. (Must have been the Sutter effect.) Prefer advanced stats? Rudy Kelly at Battle of California has you covered with a WOWY (With or Without You) analysis that shows that all of Jack Johnson’s partners spend more time in their own end and have more shot attempts against when they are with him than when they are without him. And Derek Zona at Copper and Blue piled on with a variety of sources. His corsi and goals against per 60 minutes were the worst among Kings blueliners 4 years running.
Don’t take my word for it, though. His own General Manager Dean Lombardi did an interview in 2010 (while Johnson was on the team) looking back at the rugged blueliner’s game as a young player (quotes taken from a Frozen Royalty piece here).
"Jack was a thoroughbred out there,” Lombardi explained. “But he was all over the place. He was awful as a hockey player. As an athlete, you’re going, wow! Look at the way he skates, shoots, he can pass. But he had no idea where he was going.”
Readers who are Red Berenson might remember that Johnson is an alum of the same Michigan Wolverine hockey system that Trouba just left. Trouba’s 29 points and 88 penalty minutes in his only year at college are just shy of Johnson’s 32 point, 149 PIM Freshman year. But their statistics in the CCHA are hardly a basis for comparison.
Johnson arrived in the NHL with tremendous hype after two successful years in the maize and blue. His offence at college was record setting, but somehow he was considered a defence-first guy with a talent for big hits. Sound familiar, Jets fans?
From a certain perspective, Trouba was very impressive at the Young Stars tournament. His rushes were through and around talented players. I noted that he backs down defenders with his speed and eats up neutral zone ice with ease. Though I was hesitant to write it (I mean – he’s Jacob Trouba!), the truth is that his rushes didn’t go anywhere and were unpredictable within the flow of the game. To me, at least, they appeared to be choices made with the whimsy of a physically more capable player without an obvious next play in mind.
His hits also wowed the crowd. But his first open ice check came on a 2-on-2 in which the puck moved from left (Morrissey’s side) to right (his side) and then he moved from right to left to hit the guy who made the pass… leaving that whole puck thing in play in the slot. Lost in the excitement of the thunderous contact is that the Sharks forward got a clean shot off.
His offensive blue line work was poor – standing still and trying to knock opposing forwards over who blew by him in transition. He just refused to give up that blue line, and so was behind the play often. You might have noticed a lot of 2-on-1s against Morrissey? Or the goalie throwing a hit along the boards at the hashmarks to make a play? Yeah, that was Trouba.
Small Sample Size
Without a doubt, I am very aware that I watched two games of a young man’s hockey life in a season in which he might play 100 including pre-season and his chance at the US Olympic Team and possible playoffs (did I just jinx it?). Still, I’m not the only one to express concerns.
Looking back to his draft year, Hockey Futures rightfully gushes about Trouba’s physical skills, from skating to puck work to his always mentioned penchant for punishment. But they also added this concern:
"Many scouts point to Trouba’s decision-making as one of his greatest weaknesses. His decisions at times are erratic and he is sometimes slow to reacting to developing plays. Some scouts also have questions about Trouba’ hockey sense as well. But with maturity and development, Trouba should be able to improve in those areas."
A year later, I sat above the ice in the South Okanagan Events Centre with the words of Dean Lombardi ringing in my ears.
"This guy has never had any coaching [at the University of Michigan]," Lombardi said. “Jack just did what he wanted.”
It’s hard to mature and develop in an environment like that. It may even be our answer for why the team and Trouba worked out a professional contract when they did, as opposed to the assumed reason that Trouba was ready to be an impact player at the NHL level.
Not Ready – Yet
Without trying to sound like I’m doing the team’s PR work for them, there is no shame in a 19 year old not being ready to play the most complicated position in hockey at the highest level in the world. But with talk around town of shipping Byfuglien out as soon as yesterday to make room for the young Trouba, I think it’s important we recognize that prospects don’t develop in straight lines. His physical skills may be ready – as they were with the towering and speedy and almost traded for being a bust Zach Bogosian – but I think his decision making remains a work in progress. The question is how much work and how much progress.
In that same 2010 interview, Lombardi goes on to say that Johnson had a lot to learn upon arriving in the NHL.
"At times, he was playing forward at Michigan,” Lombardi elaborated. “You had no idea what position he was playing. But he had always been the star and he always got his numbers. Then he turns pro and for the first time, we’re telling him ‘whoa, just make the first pass and learn to play in your own end.’ How about making a read in your own end about the right guy to pick up? He was awful.”
We can hope Trouba, a year younger, is more quickly able to adjust his game at the professional level, to use his rushes, open-ice hitting, and puck skills with greater awareness for what he’s giving up the other way, and for how he can best support his teammates. But as Lombardi said about Johnson, we might consider Trouba extremely raw.
I credit Jets’ Defensive Coach Charlie Huddy for turning Bogosian’s career around, in spite of the ‘change of scenery’ narratives that persist. I think very highly of Huddy, who’s time in Edmonton and Dallas also saw various young defencemen grow and develop within the NHL. I’m not so much concerned that Trouba fails to develop with the Jets, or in their system, but simply that in September 2013, he remains far off in terms of being a contributing NHL defenceman.
Still Might Play
The truth is that Jacob Trouba still may make this team out of camp. Not only does the current defence group have warts enough that Trouba may be in the top 8, he – like Johnson – looks the part. No doubt if he does make the team, he will have some highlight reel plays this year, enough that many people will overlook an up-and-down campaign with a poor corsi and plus/minus in spite of sheltering.
More so than trying to push my view of Trouba on others (enjoy him if you like to see offence!), I hope to simply cool first year expectations, for the good of the team, the player, and the media who have to write articles about the guy.