Q&A with GM Eric Joyce: "We will compete every day to win"Sep 14, 2016
Since his promotion to Florida Panthers’ Assistant General Manager in May, Springfield Thunderbirds general manager Eric Joyce (pictured right) has had little time for rest in the offseason. The Panthers’ AHL club relocated to Springfield for the upcoming season, with the team’s formal announcement coming just days before the NHL Entry Draft, an event in which Joyce was heavily involved.
In addition, as part of the Panthers forward-thinking front office, Joyce was instrumental in the Panthers’ offseason roster restructuring, particularly on the back end with veteran defense acquisitions in Jason Demers and Milton, Mass. native Keith Yandle. On top of the moves at the NHL level, Joyce also had a significant hiring task in naming Geordie Kinnear as the first head coach in Thunderbirds history.
Coming off a franchise-record 47 victories and 103 points in 2015-16, the Panthers’ organization figures to field another strong affiliate in the American Hockey League with the Thunderbirds. As the Thunderbirds prepare to chase an eighth Calder Cup for the city of Springfield, Joyce took some time to sit down with “Voice of the Thunderbirds” Ryan Smith to discuss the state of the franchise, the AHL affiliate’s relocation to Springfield, as well as the unique and analytical philosophy of the Panthers’ hockey operations staff.
SMITH: It has been a whirlwind last year for the Panthers organization, with the NHL team fresh off its best season in history, as Atlantic division champions. The AHL affiliate in Portland was also a playoff team. After their playoff run concluded, then the rapid transition from Portland to Springfield kicked into gear, so there really has been little time to take a breath for you… What were your initial reactions to learning that the group in Springfield had made the investment to take on the Panthers’ affiliate?
JOYCE: It’s 50-50. We enjoyed our time in Portland, just like we enjoyed our time in San Antonio. Each location offered our team something unique that I think our players appreciated. When you look at Springfield, it’s incredibly rich in history and I think our guys will enjoy playing in front of the fans up there that really get behind a team with so much history. It’s a good place to train our guys. It’s going to be exciting for them to play every day at the MassMutual Center where a lot of great things are happening to help the city of Springfield really come back to the prominence that it deserves. It’s known for its innovation and many inventions; our guys are excited to play there. The goal is obviously to get down and play in front of the fans in Florida, but at the end of the day, it’s a good place to start that process.
SMITH: Springfield is a town that has had an AHL franchise for 73 seasons, and as you mentioned in a previous video for Thunderbirds TV, the area falls under the category of the 3 M’s of hockey, Mass, Minnesota and Michigan. How, if at all, does a legacy of hockey in the market impact the motivational level of the team?
JOYCE: I think the guys appreciate the history of Springfield; I think they appreciate the fact that they’re playing professional hockey in an area that has a tremendous amount of history, but again, I think the goal for all of our players and what we train them to do is to work hard enough to get down and play in front of the great fans in Florida, too. That’s what every player on our team wants – the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League – and playing in Springfield gives them an opportunity to play in front of a group of fans that love the sport and hold our players accountable, which is a beautiful thing.
SMITH: From there, the first steps were securing the logistics in Springfield and then appointing a head coach. You elected to go for Geordie Kinnear, a rookie head coach but a man who has almost 20 years’ worth of experience in the American League as a player and as an assistant coach. What criteria did you find in Geordie that made him the right fit for the Thunderbirds?
JOYCE: First and foremost, (Geordie’s) philosophy is one of development, and we say in our organization that development is a fine line between allowing guys to make some mistakes at the American Hockey League level, but also holding them accountable to what the team goals are. In order to do that, you have to win more than you lose. He understands that, but he also understands that it’s a process for players as they make the jump from college or major junior or wherever else, to professional hockey and he’s excited about working with guys on an individual level.
Number two, technically and tactically, I think the way he thinks the game is exactly how our head coach and assistant coaches up in Florida think the game. It’s a transition style of game; defensemen get involved, they move the puck up. It’s possession, it’s generating opportunities and scoring chances, and it’s playing in the other team’s zone more often than not. That’s important because philosophically, that’s what we want to try to impose on other teams. When guys get called up (to the Panthers) from the American Hockey League, they need to step right into that type of role and that type of philosophy.
Lastly, having talked to many folks throughout the NHL and AHL, I don’t think there’s a higher quality character guy than Geordie. He’s held in the highest regards from everyone that I’ve talked to. It’s just his time to take over a team and he’s ready for it. He’s motivated, he’s excited, and I think all three of those things fit. He really became an easy choice for us.
SMITH: The backstopping of this team appears to be in good shape, with Mike McKenna and Reto Berra conceivably in positions to be contesting for the net in Springfield, all dependent on the health of Roberto Luongo. Would you consider the crease to be a strength of this team heading into camp?
JOYCE: You can always look at things on paper and say it’s a strength or a weakness, but you never really know until the games are played. I think both (Berra and McKenna) have a tremendous amount of experience. Sam Brittain is another guy we have high hopes for, and Colin Stevens is a kid who has won championships at every level. There’s four guys right there who are capable of stepping into the crease on any given night. The name of the game is internal competition, and whoever performs the best and most consistent is the guy who’s going to get the most opportunity. The great news is (Roberto Luongo) is progressing rapidly from his offseason hip surgery and should be ready for opening night. James (Reimer) gives us basically what I think is a number one goalie to back (Luongo) up, which I think is a great situation, and then whoever’s playing the best in the American Hockey League, should anything happen, is the guy that we go to. It’s going to be a good competition.
SMITH: Up front, much has been made about the Panthers’ depth and the rising stars that have made a big mark in Florida, from Aleksander Barkov to Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, Nick Bjugstad to name a few. Because of that, there figures to be a good spillover of prospect talent into the AHL. Without revealing too much and without jumping to conclusions of how camp will go, what do you make of the talent and depth of the franchise heading into the season?
JOYCE: It goes to our philosophy of trying to find the best hockey players we can for the market and what they’re worth, and then let them compete and dictate to us who’s going to get the most playing time. We think we have a great collection of young players, and whether those players are playing in Florida or Springfield, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of competition on a day-to-day basis. They’re going to learn how to practice and prepare, both mentally and physically. Their play will dictate where they’re at.
SMITH: Switching gears, a major trend in hockey particularly in the last 5-10 years is the presence of analytics in scouting and player evaluation. The Panthers are a franchise that has paid particular attention to analytics. In layman’s terms for fans who don’t know the jargon behind the analytic world, how is your's and Florida’s mode of thinking analytically different from observational “eye tests?”
JOYCE: When people say analytics, I think they want you to pit one versus the other, and in our system, what we try to do is, everything is an input. Data is an input; our prospect analysts, our gameday analysts, they all provide inputs. Our scouts provide inputs; our coaching staff provides inputs; management provides inputs. At the end of the day, we look at what we have and what we need, how much money we have to spend, and then we try to basket players categorically based on the different inputs and how we weigh them.
If I had to tell you what is weighed more, it depends on what the need is and how confident we are in either the scout or the data. Primarily, from our perspective, if a scout and the data are polar opposites, we generally tend to side with the scout.
I think our first-round draft pick, Henrik Borgstrom, is a primary example of that, where analytically, our prospect analysts were saying he’s a tough kid to predict because he plays in sort of an inferior league in Finland, and last year he was an overaged kid that went through the draft. But he grew nine inches, and (Panthers Finnish scout) Jere Kekelainen said ‘Listen, this kid is a gem. We need to take a risk on him,’ and we listened to Jere. A lot of that has to do with what kind of capital the scout has built up. Jere has a tremendous track record with our organization, so we put a lot of weight into what he says.
I don’t think it’s one versus the other. It’s an input into a system. We really value the process over the outcome in Florida. We try to look at every single input. It’s like when somebody buys a car. Some people buy cars because they like the way they look and they discredit the miles per gallon, or what the insurance is going to be on the car, or how much maintenance has to go into it. We are kind of those folks who say ‘Hey, we have to look at all of that too.’ It’s really nothing crazy, just decision making 101.
SMITH: I’ll end with a question identical to one I asked Coach Kinnear. If we sit down and have a conversation next June, outside of winning a Calder Cup, what would you most hope to be able to tell me about how year one with the Thunderbirds went?
JOYCE: I think it’s two things. First, that we competed every day to win, whether we are successful or not, a lot of different variables we can’t control go into that, but the fact that we showed up and competed would be most important to me.
Number two would be that we made the playoffs. There’s no guarantees in this game. Injuries happen to both (the NHL and AHL) clubs. The AHL is in a weird position where it has to worry about not only itself, but the NHL team as well. There’s a lot of unknown variables there, but I think it’s important that our team consistently makes the playoffs and competes for a Calder Cup because it reinforces all the things that the guys have to go through in order to get to the ultimate goal, which is to win a Stanley Cup.