Joe Dibble likens building the roster of a North American Hockey League team to a game of craps.
Perhaps the only difference is gamblers in Las Vegas can step away from the table whenever they please. Dibble and the rest of the Janesville Jets’ brass can rarely, if ever, stop rolling the dice.
After the dust settles on a busy nine-month season that includes its own transactions, junior hockey teams spend the offseason signing players to tenders, putting together a list for the NAHL Draft and holding camps to set their rosters up for the next season.
“It’s a crapshoot, because Corey (Leivermann) and Lennie (Childs) are both really good at their jobs and both went out and identified talent, and we all also have connections to find the kids that we’ll draft,” said Dibble, the Jets general manager, referencing the team’s head coach and assistant coach. “But we’ll never know if they’re going to end up in Janesville until after the USHL camps or even later … in September or October.”
Every NAHL roster can be broken down into players in four categories: returning players from the previous season, players that signed tenders, players that were drafted and players that make the team through a tryout camp.
Returning players are self-explanatory. They are players that have been part of previous rosters.
Just because a player was on the roster last year, however, does not insure they will make the team again.
Each NAHL team can tender 10 players per year—though three of those 10 have certain restrictions.
Essentially, signing a player to a tender means that player won’t go into the draft, and if they play this season in the NAHL, the team they signed with owns their rights.
The benefit to the players in that case, Dibble said, is they get to choose their landing spot rather than wait and see who picks them in the draft. Teams can also trade tenders to another team that might want an extra.
Players who do not sign a tender can then be drafted in the NAHL Draft, which was held last week. Again, a player from the draft might wind up not playing in the NAHL this season, but if they do, the team that drafted them owns their rights.
Next month, the Jets will host their main camp at the Janesville Ice Arena. Returning players, tendered players and drafted players will all attend, along with other players hoping to earn a spot through a tryout and other younger players hoping to get noticed for the future.
After camp, the Jets will have the base for their initial roster, though it remains fluid into the early portion of the season as USHL rosters are pared and NAHL deadlines to trim rosters come and go.
Back at it
Dibble coached the Jets from 2012 until 2017, also playing the role of general manager during a time when the franchise was known as one of the league’s best in terms of player advancement.
Dibble was brought back as GM in January of this year, when Leivermann replaced Gary Shuchuk as the team’s head coach midway through the season.
Childs had been hired as an assistant two months earlier.
“The relationship we have between the three of us brings a little bit different dynamic than most GM/head coach roles with other teams in the league,” said Dibble, who lives and works out of Minnesota. “I was a coach, and I understand that Corey and Lennie are the guys that are going to be with the players every day. … I want to be more of a supporting cast to those two. Corey knows that I think this is his team. You tell me if I can help in any way, or if there’s players you want me to go find, let me do that and you worry about coaching and developing and winning.”
Being in separate places can sometimes make for challenges. During the draft, Leivermann and Childs were in North Dakota, while Dibble was in Minnesota, so they were on a conference call throughout the process.
But Dibble said the situation is also unique in that the team can get eyes on lots of potential players. He can scout in Minnesota, while Leivermann and Childs are just up the road from Chicago, for instance.
“It’s been great to have Joe, because he knows the league, knows Janesville and knows the philosophy of our ownership group,” said Leivermann, who was first hired as a Jets assistant under Dibble. “I’m still trying to grow and learn and get the best advice I can. So it makes my life easier to have Joe there, but he has also let me run with it, too.
“I’m excited for this year and to see if we can build the Jets brand.”
Dibble described this year’s roster build as a bit of a “rebuild stage.”
“The way the team was built last year was going a little bit older and getting away from the way things were done in the past,” Dibble said. “There isn’t necessarily a wrong way or right way, but I think the focus in regards to young talent, development and advancement, it went a little bit of a different direction.
“Our focus is getting Janesville back to being the No. 1 destination team in the North American League as far as getting commitments (to college) or getting drafted in the USHL or even the NHL.”
Dibble said the Jets used the NAHL Draft this year mostly to go after young players—those at the front end of the 16-to-20 age group that comprises junior hockey.
If those players—or the Jets’ returners or tenders, for that matter—are good enough that they wind up making a USHL team, the Jets will never see them. But if those players need a year or two of experience before working their way up, they’ll get that experience in Janesville.
That’s where the gamble comes into play. However, given the Jets’ philosophy, if they never see a player because he makes it in the USHL, they don’t consider that gamble a loss.
“If they do make the (USHL) team, that’s what we’re hoping. We want them to go to the USHL and make it,” Dibble said. “But that, in my opinion, is what makes Janesville such a great landing spot. We have an ownership group that understands priority No. 1 is the kids.
“Does everyone want to win a championship? Of course. But the ownership group in Janesville, they’re never going to put a trophy or banner you hang on the wall in front of the future of a player that puts on a Jets jersey.
“Some teams will stay away from high-end young kids because they’re losing that tender or that draft pick. In Janesville, we don’t have a problem with that. We just want to make sure that if they end up in our league and really have that young talent, they wind up in Janesville.
“We’re willing to play that dice game.”