Mike Hoffman was sent back down to the AHL yesterday afternoon. On the surface, at least, that's not particularly big news. Hoffman is exempt from waivers and he is signed to a two-way contract. He remains under the employ of the Ottawa Senators. He could, theoretically, be back up today or tomorrow. In three games with the big club, he was held pointless, despite occasionally sharing ice time with the possession-dominant likes of Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan. The team was looking for a jump and Hoffman, in a pinch, did not provide that jump. So back to the farm he goes, equipment in tow, as the Senators ready themselves for another chance at the Buffalo Sabres tomorrow night, hoping to gradually improve on a season so far defined by mediocrity.
The move merits skepticism. When Hoffman was benched on Monday against the Flyers, Paul MacLean assured media that it was not an indictment of Hoffman's play. That likely served as little reassurance to the player himself, as he proceeded to sit for Tuesday's game against the Sabres in favour of Matt Kassian, and was demoted yesterday to Binghamton. If that truly was not a testament to how Hoffman has performed, then the organization's need to awkwardly juggle contracts is even more bizarre than previously assumed. If Hoffman is indeed a victim of "politics" and salary obligations, then, well, yikes. If, and perhaps more likely, Hoffman's play was simply found wanting by coaches on the team, there is still ample reason to be concerned.
A few seasons ago, the Senators considered Mike Hoffman to be a player with fringe top-six potential. The feeling within the organization was, with the right effort from Hoffman, and a few needed adjustments to his game, he could translate his play into offensive success at the NHL level. He seemed to have the pedigree. Though a fifth round draft pick in 2009, Hoffman would go on to be the MVP of Quebec Major Junior Hockey. He won the award playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs, the fourth club he suited up for in his major junior career. As I have recounted before, Hoffman's career has hardly taken a straight path and did not always look promising.
He was cut by his hometown Kitchener Rangers after suiting up for only two games with the team. From there, he signed in Gatineau, was traded to Drummondville, passed over in his first draft-eligible season, drafted in his second, and traded to Saint John. He improved progressively over the course of his junior career, posting higher totals as each season passed. That is, on some level, to be expected, as more experienced junior players are frequently given greater ice time and responsibility. But Hoffman was a real prospect, a once undrafted forward whose successes had earned him a legitimate shot at the NHL.
Of course, Hoffman had work to do. He was, and still is, a player with a diminutive frame. Listed by hockeydb at 5'11, Hoffman sometimes appears smaller on the ice than his 176 pounds would even suggest. He had work to do on the defensive side of the puck and he had to grow stronger. More than that, he simply had to grow used to the different pace and style of the NHL game. As frequently recycled wisdom suggests, there are simply things one can do in the Q (and any junior league, for that matter) that will just not fly in the pro leagues. There is less space, less time and considerably less of an ability to stand around in the slot without being cross-checked below the rib cage, slashed, knocked and eventually thrown to the ice should the puck ever enter the neighbourhood. And so, Mike Hoffman was assigned to Binghamton, spent just enough time in Elmira to see the town before being whisked back up to the AHL, where he would spend the rest of his first professional season.
Hoffman contributed in year one, and produced nine points in Binghamton's Calder Cup run that post-season. He contributed far more in year two. By his third season in the AHL, Mike Hoffman was the team's leader in many respects. Though the captaincy was given to a deserving Mark Borowiecki at the end of the season, Hoffman drove the team's offence. Gone were the defensive errors that stunted his game in his rookie season. Instead, the organization had a well-rounded player who contributed all over the ice, quarterbacking the powerplay from the point and showing his nose for the net on the rush. In a season hampered by injury and interrupted by a fleeting call-up, Mike Hoffman showed how much he had grown. Though still smallish, his game is smooth. He has offensive vision and ability, a good pass, and a powerful shot. He is a slick skater with crafty hands. He is, ultimately, a player who has grown and developed. He has bided his time, heeded lessons and done what every developing player is told to do: be patient, play your game, improve.
That is why it is frustrating to see the Senators send Hoffman packing again, after three games in the bigs and two in the press box playing cribbage with Eric Gryba. At some point, this organization has to give its players a real chance to show what they can do--and scattered three-game auditions for one of the best forwards in the AHL might not cut it.
The Senators should give Hoffman a prolonged shot at earning that spot. Not because it's the right or fair thing to do, but because it is the prudent, pragmatic choice. Binghamton, as the past few seasons have evinced, is critical to the club as an environment for development. When the team's best player, who, by all appearances, has shown himself willing to wait, play and learn, is given only a fleeting glimpse, it undermines the Binghamton's Senators role as anything more than a launching pad for only the most prized prospects. It has the potential to be disillusioning for other players heeding that same advice "wait your turn, your chance will come."
Of course, the Senators' past few seasons have been dependent on the supporting play of those who were told to wait-- and did. Colin Greening, Erik Condra, and Zack Smith toiled in the AHL and were eventually awarded legitimate opportunities to secure roster spots and chunky salary bumps. Robin Lehner has sought after a starting position with the Senators, but the waiting game was backed by a tangible plan: he was young, and his day would come. He was elevated from starting goaltender in the AHL before being sent back down, but was always the franchise's netminder of the future.
The plan for Mike Hoffman and other fringe forwards with potential is far less sure. After all, the rebuild is well underway. It is worth asking if management is still committed to giving ice time to younger players and enduring the associated growing pains. If the Senators opt for dealing assets in exchange for an established forward, they might be depriving themselves of the opportunity to truly foster and build on Hoffman's value in a year that is already slipping away.
The Senators are hurting for a top-six winger. With rumours, no matter how erroneous, that the team might be looking at any number of well-paid wingers around the league, it rings as odd that the Senators not take a long look at an internal, cheap, young player.
It would be a little less grating had management admitted there were some parts of Hoffman's game they still felt needed work. But the tack taken, that Hoffman was playing fine, everything is fine, but whatever, let's just sit him anyway, is puzzling. And if the team moves forward making inquiries about what wingers might be on the block, it would be a startling admission about how much faith management has for the players in the system, since Hoffman is currently the best of the bunch.
Of course, management might call Hoffman back up to the team in two or three day's time and give him that real chance, and I'll play the part of sheepish blowhard. What qualifies, you probably wonder, as a "real chance"? I don't know. But three games, with twenty-five minutes of total ice time, doesn't quite cut it for a player who has spent three years playing his way into this position.