Jason Wilson could have technically been sent just about anywhere by the New York Rangers, the hockey team that drafted him in the fifth round in 2010, but ended up in Wichita mostly out of convenience.
Those type of agreements, though, are usually convenient for everyone but the player.
When an NHL franchise doesn’t have room on one of its affiliates, players can be sent to unaffiliated teams in lower leagues.
Players like Wilson, who aren’t high draft picks and aren’t yet ready to contribute to the parent club, don’t exactly have their NHL dreams dashed in these scenarios, because they often still have time to climb the ladder. But it can be a blow to the ego to end up in the Central Hockey League after spending time in Triple-A or in NHL training camp.
Wilson and defenseman Tyler Hostetter, assigned from the Philadelphia Flyers, have become key elements to a Thunder team searching for playmakers.
“I didn’t really know much about this league, to be honest,” said Wilson, who has scored two goals in two games. “I didn’t really know what to think. Everything was happening so quickly, but I went to the coach (Kevin McClelland) and he seems to have everybody’s best interest.”
Wilson’s is a case where the opportunity is positive for all involved. Wilson is eager to prove himself and to contribute to the Thunder, McClelland is happy to have another scoring forward, and the Rangers get their draft pick into a nurturing environment.
Teams don’t have to accept players assigned from NHL teams, and players don’t often spend much time in lower leagues before being recalled to the AHL or assigned elsewhere, but Wichita and the Rangers have forged a successful partnership.
McClelland, who played in the NHL for 12 seasons and won four Stanley Cup championships, isn’t short on connections in the league, but he has a particularly close working relationship with Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather.
The Rangers have sent players to the Thunder the last three years, as Wilson follows Chris Chappell and Ryan Flanigan. McClelland is happy to accept players who help the team and also the salary cap by contributing a smaller number than a player of similar ilk that Wichita would have to sign on its own.
“It’s got to make sense for both sides,” McClelland said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re getting him most of the year, he’s not going up and down and everything. In the same breath, you want these guys coming back playing with confidence to get to where they need to go.”
The 23-year-old Wilson and the team face a similar dilemma that forces each side to evaluate its agenda. Wilson, or any player in his situation, wants to make a strong impression on the Rangers so he doesn’t become out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but he also recognizes the importance of filling whatever role McClelland gives him.
“You never know who’s watching,” Wilson said. “You never know what connections people have. Someone could be watching you, so it’s important in every game and every practice to give 110 percent because you never know what could happen.”
McClelland forces assigned players to fit in because he gives no special treatment, feeling no obligation to give them the extra playing time that a parent club might hope for or to squeeze all the value possible out of them in case they quickly get promoted.
“It doesn’t matter,” McClelland said. “You’ve got to earn your ice time here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy who’s on the lowest end of the pay scale or the highest – if you don’t earn any ice time, you’re not going to play. There’s no exceptions to that rule here.”
McClelland does, however, understand his role in softening the blow for players who might be disappointed by their assignment and in keeping them motivated to move back up.
“We let them know when they’re coming in, don’t get comfortable down here,” McClelland said. “Work hard and work on things and get confidence back in your game, and get to where you need to go. We just want to be there to help them move along, and while they’re here they can help our club, too.”