WHY are the St. John’s Ice Caps in the Calder Cup final starting Sunday? There are many reasons, two of which are the Winnipeg Jets’ top affiliate is neither micro-managed nor micro-focused on winning.
For a long time as the Manitoba Moose, True North, now the owners of the Jets, had winning as just about its only goal in the AHL. It was in an affiliation with the Vancouver Canucks but it was through an era that by and large there wasn’t an abundance of help from Vancouver.
The GM of the Moose and in that continuing role with the IceCaps is Craig Heisinger. As the Jets assistant GM, he now sits on the other side of the table, his priority what is good for the NHL team. But Heisinger also knows the what the relationship looks like from his former chair and so development has in no way overrun winning in this constant tug-of-war.
Heisinger and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose background includes a successful managing stint with both the IHL and AHL Chicago Wolves, would seem to be uniquely qualified to maximize and grow their assets from the AHL level.
They call it building an NHL organization, changing its culture.
That the IceCaps have been victorious through three rounds of the AHL playoffs, and will meet the Texas Stars for the league championship, is an element of that desired culture progress.
"You’re trying to develop," Heisinger said Thursday. "We believe winning’s part of development. It doesn’t help if it’s a 100 per cent veteran core group but that’s clearly not the case here anymore. As always, the experience you gain playing in the playoffs is significant. There’s no doubt about that.
"Those games you get, whether it’s five, 15, 21, whatever the number, are every bit as valuable as the 76 in the regular season. And as your team gets younger in the American Hockey League, they start to come up to the NHL more as a group. And that’s important, too, to learn to win at one level and learn to be professionals at one level then come up and do that at the next level.
"I think you see that in other situations, like Norfolk-Tampa, Binghamton-Ottawa, teams that have won. Guys have come up and been successful at the next level. But at the end of the day, the experience you get in the development curve at this time is hard to pay for."
Heisinger, with three drafts as an NHL executive under his ever-shrinking belt, said the annual amateur selection process is an integral part of how management is trying to affect the culture change.
"I think it starts on the outside, that you’re drafting good people and putting good people in a good environment to try to have success," he said. "I think it starts in the drafting period."
Of course, it wasn’t just a draft that helped him change the IceCaps back into winners this season. In 2012-13, the AHL team was 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, out of the playoffs for only the second time in True North’s AHL existence since 2001.
"It depends on how you measure success," Heisinger said. "Was (last season) successful based on making the playoffs? No. Was it an anomaly? I think so, based on history on how we’ve tried to do things.
"From a standpoint of winning and losing, it was not successful but from a development standpoint I think it was successful because guys played and people got better and you find out about people in situations that aren’t quite as successful. It’s easy to play in an environment that wins all the time. You find out about people when things don’t go quite as well."
Despite the poor finish, Heisinger said last season was "useful" to himself and the Jets as it concerned the AHL team.
"That’s a good word," he said. "You don’t like what happened last year but when it does happen, and it doesn’t happen frequently, you learn from that and I know I learned a tremendous amount from that. I think we all did."
The best-of-seven series starts Sunday in Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin, but that’s not all the IceCaps’ GM is pondering.
He’s also mindful of next season and beyond with the youngsters that are playing and still to be drafted.
"The young players continue to get better and those guys turn into core guys that help the younger players," he said. "We’ll have some younger guys coming in again next year. It won’t be just learning from the veteran players like Andrew Gordon and Jason Jaffray and Blair Riley. It’ll be introducing leadership at the pro level to guys like Adam Lowry and J.C. Lipon and Brenden Kichton now that they’ve experienced this.
"It’ll help Josh Morrissey be a better captain if he has to go back to junior, if he doesn’t make the Winnipeg Jets in the fall."
One eye on the present, one on the future.