Steve Martinson just completed his eighteenth year as a professional hockey coach and his results speak wonders about his ability to recruit players. He has won eight championship and has only missed the playoffs one time in eighteen years. The one time he missed the playoffs was in 2011-2012 with the Chicago Express (ECHL) when he had six players promoted to the AHL and six other players sustain season ending injuries. To make matters worse the team decided to fold at the end of the season so the last part of the season was played knowing they were not returning. As coach always says, "Not an excuse, just the facts."
So exactly how does he go about putting a team together was the question I posed to him this week as he was preparing to leave town for some time at his home in Rockford, Illinois.
Recruiting is the most important aspect of the job for a head coach and Martinson does it all year long. Everyday he is in contact with players and agents. Whether it is telephone calls, texts or social media he maintains contact with as many players as possible and this is the case both in the off season and during the season.
The starting point is determining a budget. While the salary cap ($12,000 per week) is a given cost, housing and insurance costs the team more than the players salary. A big cost factor is how many married players are on the team. Married players get their own apartment while the single guys share an apartment. Health insurance is much cheaper for single players and married guys without children than it is for families. One of the goals for the coming year is to reduce the cost of housing and insurance.
With back to back championships you might think everything would be positive in putting the 2014-2015 team together but that is not the case. Many of the players want to try playing in the AHL, Europe or even in the ECHL. Being on a championship team gives them leverage to pursue these opportunities. So you have a situation where many of the players want some time to find other opportunities before committing to Allen. Another issue facing Martinson is after winning the Presidents' Cup all of the players feel they deserve a raise in pay however the amount available is still the same $12,000 per week available last year.
The best recruiting tool for the coach is the environment playing hockey in Allen, Texas. A great facility, a winning tradition, great weather, opportunity to play golf year around, and a good fan base.With a major airport and the possibility of AHL call ups Allen is a destination that is appealing to players. Since Allen typically makes a deep run in the the playoffs the players can expect to earn several thousand dollars extra in salary and bonus during the playoffs.
So exactly how does Steve Martinson go about signing players. The process started immediately after the season ended. Because the team won the championship the coach wants to be loyal to the guys on the team but he also feels you need to act quickly to get good players from elsewhere looking for a place to play. He has already offered contracts to several players who played in the ECHL last year and these are impact players for sure. Kevin Young, who won the "Most Outstanding Defenseman" award in the CHL for 2012-2013 has already been signed. At the same time he has made offers to some players from last year's team who want to return and are ready to sign. Jamie Schaafsma, Tyler Ludwig, & Jonathan Lessard have already signed with others to come.
For the current Allen Americans players Martinson puts them if four different categories. The top category are those players that have said, "I want to return to Allen and am ready to sign a contract." The next category are the young guys who may have opportunities in the AHL or ECHL and need time to see what is available. If these guys want to return a spot will be available for them. The third category would be the more experienced players who would like to return but asked for some time to see if they can land a job in Europe or maybe even in the ECHL. If this group waits too long they may not have a spot on the team as Martinson will continue signing new players over the next few weeks. He can't wait for them the make up their minds and when they finally do he may not have the slots or the money to sign them. The fourth category would be the guys who know they aren't returning (signing elsewhere or retiring) or have not contacted Martinson since the season ended.
Because Steve Martinson has been around minor pro hockey for so long and has coached in the ECHL he has a real advantage when it comes to recruiting. But even with the contacts he has, he spends many hours going over data to determine who to recruit. He has a couple of techniques that he uses to find those diamonds in the rough, players who have underperformed but will thrive in his system and players that have not been used in the right way on their current teams.
Identifying good young players is one of the keys to success because they get paid less than the veterans. Last season was a good example as the top three scorers on the team were all younger players. It is difficult to have a team with depth if you have too many high priced players so coaches always struggle with getting good players at the right price. This often creates some tension between the players, who feel they deserve a higher salary, and the coach who is dealing with a salary cap. In the NHL these conversations take place between attorneys for the team and attorneys for the player but in the CHL it is most often between the player and the coach.
Until July 1st all of the Allen American players rites for the CHL remain with Allen (unless the rites are traded) but on July 1st Allen has to submit to the league a list of no more than eight players they want to protect. These eight names do not include players that have already signed. Because only eight players can be protected there is incentive to get as many players signed by July 1st as possible. Coaches from other CHL teams cannot talk to Allen players and Martinson cannot talk to players from other CHL teams at this time as that is considered tampering.
Another issue the coach needs to be aware of is the veteran status of each player as the number of veterans on the team is limited. A veteran is currently defined as a player with more than 300 professional games and the roster can have six veterans (one must be a returning player) not including goalies. This rule is always being discussed and there have been some rumors the number might be reduced but it is all speculation at this point. Since it is recruiting season, if the CHL does make a change in the number of veterans a team can have or the number of games played to qualify as a veteran it needs to happen quickly.
As I spent some time talking with Steve Martinson there were a few themes that came through as he puts together the team for the 2014-2015 season:
- Look for fewer married players, especially married players with children, on the roster this season.
- He will be loyal to the players that helped bring back to back championships to Allen. That doesn't mean everyone wishing to return will be signed but he has reached out to everyone to see what they want to do.
- When you win the championship everyone feels they deserve a raise but with the salary cap remaining the same ($12,000) that is not possible. However, it is important that the players are dealt with fairly and are paid what they are worth.
- Those that are ready to sign will be the top priority. Those that wait run the risk of other players being signed and a slot not being available or money not being available.
- Get as many players signed as quickly as possible. A goal would be to have the top two lines, four defensemen and a goalie signed by July 1st.
- With the average salary being about $630 per week ($12,000 divided by 19 players) finding good young players that make less than the average is critical so you can pay the top end guys.
- Popularity of players with the fans is not a big factor when it comes time to signing. It is strictly based on performance. You can always find another popular player.
- If you find a good player at the right price sign them right away.
One thing is certain, Steve Martinson will have the same type of team as
he always has. They will compete hard, be physical and be difficult to
play against. The team will be tough but also skillful. He recruits guys
that understand you must work hard, be in great shape, follow the
system, be a team guy and finish checks. He builds his teams to have
depth rather than a few super stars. This approach has worked for 18
years and it will work again as he puts together the 2014-2015 team.