A few weeks ago, reports came out that Hockey Canada's President Bob Nicholson had made a proposal to the NHL to raise the draft eligibility age to 19. I initially ignored the proposal, thinking it was borderline ridiculous, and instead focused on my three part series on how to improve the current development system. However, raising the draft age has started to get some traction, with Elliotte Friedman reporting that NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr met with Nicholson, with Nicholson himself saying he has gotten support from NHL GMs, league executives, and the IIHF.
Let's leave out the antitrust argument that exists with prohibiting legal age players from playing professional hockey strictly due to their age (that is above the legal limit), and just focus on the points that Nicholson is addressing. His main argument is
"I think right now it's like a hundred-yard dash for our players to be moving up a division," Nicholson told TSN Radio's Bryan Hayes Monday. "We should slow that down and make sure that players stay at the level they should be at and become superstars."
Going back to a piece I wrote a while back on the CHL-NHL agreement, here is how many 18- and 19-year-old players have played in the NHL since 2001:
Season 18-year-old players 19-year-old players
2009-10 2 10
2008-09 2 10
2007-08 1 9
2006-07 1 5
2005-06 1 0
2004-05 Lockout Lockout
2003-04 3 7
2002-03 2 7
2001-02 2 5
2000-01 2 7
And that's not just using the CHL as an example, but all players, which totaled 76 players or 8.44 per season. Using those same years, for the CHL players only, comes out to:
Group Average GVT Number of players
CHL Players 4.11 61
Age 18 4.25 14
Age 19 4.07 47
That's 61 U-20 CHL players per season not considering repeat appearances from the 18-year-olds. The criterion for both of these tables was a 20 games played minimum, to avoid the 10 GP threshold before a player likely gets sent down. This comes out to 6.78 players per season, who average a little over 4 GVT a year. While that isn't great, it doesn't seem like these kids are over their heads on average though they certainly aren't bringing significant contribution to the table. Most of these players are the "exceptional" kind, but are usually too far behind in their development at age 18 and age 19 to maximize their high-end talents.
However, Nicholson is not even targeting those prospects, as he says here
"I think the one key thing is there has to be an exceptional rule for 18-year-olds, so the first round you could draft 18-year-olds. That would take care of all the good players."
So at this point, I have no idea what in the world Bob Nicholson is trying to accomplish here. He's not going after the top players who make it to the NHL, so what exactly is the goal here? To get the rare case of a U-20 player who a team incorrectly keeps in the NHL when they're not ready, is that not a first round pick? At just over eight U-20 players a year, who are for the overwhelming majority first rounders, professional talent evaluators on NHL teams will miss on one, maybe two players at most per season in regards to if they're ready or not, and sometimes the reasons for keeping a player aren't 100% development-related. So is Nicholson trying to jump through the hoops of pushing the legalities of a 19-year-old draft just to "save" the one or two players per year
if even that? That's just judging by U-20 standards, when if you just look at 18 year olds, which this new rule would target, there were just 16 players in the NHL over that nine-year span. Something doesn't smell right, and this next paragraph quoting Nicholson from the Yahoo article I linked confirms that:
"I've been asked, 'are you doing this for the World Juniors?' No, you're not. There are 10 [teenaged] players playing in the NHL, including three 18-year-olds
if they can play in the NHL, we want them to play in the NHL. We just think there's too many young players, not just in the NHL draft but through the whole system, playing up and we'd like that to be the exception."
Players who are under 20 barely if ever get unnecessarily rushed info full-time NHL duties unless they are true high-end talents. This only seems to be a significant problem with CHL players. Out of the 76 players under 20 in the nine-season timespan mentioned above, 61 came from the CHL. Part of that is due to the fact the CHL is a significant producer of top talent, but the other factor is the current CHL-NHL agreement that keeps drafted CHL players under 20 from advancing to the AHL. The average GVT of U-20 CHL players in that nine year span was 4.11. For non-CHL players it was 4.71 with a sample size of 15 over those nine seasons.
Here's the problem. Due to the giant ball and chain the CHL has on the NHL's ankle with their "no player can play in the AHL until 20" agreement, what exactly is this "but through the whole system"? There's only one other component to the system when it's not the CHL or NHL and that is the AHL. While the agreement between the former two leagues prevents U-20 players from going there, it does not prevent players who were drafted outside of the CHL, who then played in the CHL in the following season to then go to the AHL before the cutoff date outlined in the agreement.
Here are examples of those who have played in the CHL, and then have gone to the AHL before they were 20:
Name Drafted (age) Year in AHL
John Carlson 2008 (17) 2010
Evgeny Grachev 2008 (17) 2010
Andrei Loktionov 2008 (17) 2010
Jerry D'Amigo 2009 (17) 2011
Jeremy Morin 2009 (17) 2011
Now, it should be noted that these are more or less all the examples from the last few seasons, but those are five quality prospects and a few of them are of the very high-end variety. Outside of D'Amigo, all the other prospects spent their first post-draft year in the CHL, while D'Amigo was loaned out there in his second post-draft season. They went to the CHL after being drafted from the US or Europe. Under the new proposal by Bob Nicholson, they would not have been allowed to go to the AHL.
However, in a case of raising the draft age, we're going to deal in small numbers, and frankly this seems like a main incentive, as watching top players leave the CHL at 18 or 19 due to the fact they were not drafted in the CHL has been an issue the league has not hid their distaste for.
This proposal would also potentially draw top American players scared of getting small minutes against much better players in their draft season as freshmen in college.
Going back to the quote I published at the top of this column:
Nicholson told TSN Radio's Bryan Hayes Monday. "We should slow that down and make sure that players stay at the level they should be at and become superstars."
This frankly sums up this whole discussion in a nutshell. Bob Nicholson and Hockey Canada don't care about the players as much as they do their precious Junior league. Raising the draft age to 19 solves exactly zero problems if there's a "exceptional player" rule if the problem you're trying to address is good players leaving too early to the NHL beyond 10 games. However, if that's not the problem they're trying to solve, it will make sure that any non-Canadian who transfers to the CHL at 18 is locked in there for two seasons and it will likely draw more top American prospects.
Even if all of this was the actual "problem", the implications under the current proposal with the exceptional player exception would cause a very minimal change at the NHL level, and at the development level as a whole, it may only truly hurt a couple of prospects over a several year basis. However, on the flipside, it will likely only truly aid a couple of prospects over a several year basis.
None of this is the actual problem, though. The problem is the rock and a hard place good NHL prospects get stuck between when they're not good enough for the NHL and too good for the CHL, which happens with significant frequency. When I ran the numbers last winter, 34% of drafted prospects in the OHL were scoring at a point-per-game rate, coupled with 35% in the QMJHL and 39% in the WHL.
The CHL needs to change their grip on the NHL, as opposed to complaining about the grip the NHL has on their players. Arguments such as players need to slow it down are very poor considering how much precedent there is in a sport like baseball for hundreds of players going minor pro at 17 and 18 years of age, never mind how many youngsters are able to make the transition to the NHL. Saying that players need to be superstars also goes against common learning principles in that players need to be challenged to continue developing, not to be at a level way beyond their peers.
As I said in my piece on the current development system, this is how I think one should look at the goals of player development:
"NHL teams need to be able to control players' usage to maximize how much they're challenged, and have the ability to influence their development on a day-to-day basis. Players also need to be in a pro environment, be able to participate in prospect activities during the offseason, and be able to have new, more challenging avenues available to them when the current challenge is overcome. They need to be able to have all of these elements, not just some, to truly maximize their development."
This proposal by Hockey Canada accomplishes none of this and only really adds benefit to the CHL and Hockey Canada. For a while now, I have been under the perception that the CHL has the NHLamongst many otherswrapped around their little finger, and all the song and dance around this new age-19 draft eligibility has done nothing to deter me from that perception. If this idea gains any more traction, it may be about time to break that finger.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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