We live in a day and age where the North American sports landscape extends beyond simply the highest professional level. Where college students playing for no compensation (on the forefront anyways) can draw equivalent or better TV ratings than the world's elite players being paid enormous sums of money. Outside of hockey, watch the reaction in the US to NCAA March Madness in basketball, or the hoopla over the BCS Championship and bowl season in general in football, and you get a pretty good idea of how much these 18-21 year old players can mean to the general public. While NCAA hockey has not reached that plateau yet, there is another entity that produces high-quality amateur hockey and draws a large audience, which is the Canadian Hockey League.
Before proceeding and drawing the wrath of Canada and those who passionately cheer on their hometown QMJHL, OHL and WHL clubs, let it be said on the record that I think the CHL is a terrific league and product. The hockey is as high-quality as you'll find in that age bracket in the world. The fact that it's even within breathing range of some European professional leagues in quality (as per Gabe Desjardins and Rob Vollman's look into league equivalencies) is a testament to the CHL and of course to Hockey Canada. The games don't have the tight, refined structure of professional hockey, which lets the players who are so advanced and talented for their age, create a fantastic product. They are the premier junior developer of NHL talent, produce multiple high-quality events like the Super Series, Top Prospects Game and Memorial Cup and overall have done a terrific job as an amateur league.
So where's the problem? Is there even a problem? Depends who you talk to.
From a CHL standpoint, everything is great. The league gets national Canadian television coverage, and for a few events, even American television coverage. They pull great attendance numbers for an amateur league, and for a country that has struggled to maintain more than one pro sports team outside of hockey, the CHL has a staggering 51 teams throughout Canada, and an additional nine teams located in the United States.
From an NHL standpoint, yes the CHL does produce a lot of quality players for the league, but there is one small little hitch. In what has no formal name or any public, published details, the CHL and NHL have a formal agreement that keeps Canadian Hockey League players from advancing to the American Hockey League until they're 20 years of age. The deal in essence states that any player drafted out of the CHL cannot play professional hockey unless they are going to be 20 years old as of December 31, or if they are chosen to play in the NHL. This rule does not apply to players drafted outside the CHL (USHL, Europe, etc.) that afterwards decide to come to the CHLWashington's John Carlson is an example of this.
This deal as it stands now is a huge detriment to player development for NHL clubs and a fair portion of their prospects. Too often, prospects get stuck between being too good for the CHL or not good enough for the NHL. With the former, if they don't go to the NHL, they tend to waste a development year dominating their competition and not being pushed very much to continue learning. On the flipside, some prospects tend to get rushed to the NHL way before they're ready and get overwhelmed by the sudden jump in league quality. None of these assertions are absolute, but they happen to a large enough portion of players that need a middle ground that it has become a serious issue. Before going on, it should be worth noting how many players have actually gotten to the NHL at ages 18 and 19 post-Lockout:
18-year-old and 19-year-old players entering the National Hockey League
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
Player criteria: A minimum of 20 games played
The 2005-06 season is low due to the missed year, but overall the numbers are very low. Not surprisingly, very few 18 and 19 year old players are ready to play in the NHL. This totaled to 76 players playing in the NHL at 18 and 19, with 61 being players who came from the CHL. Here is a summary of these players GVT productions:
Young CHL and non-CHL players entering the NHL, and their GVT
Group Average GVT Number of players
CHL Players 4.11 61
Age 18 4.25 14
Age 19 4.07 47
CHL Players Minus Dan Blackburn 4.49 59
Age 18 4.91 13
Age 19 4.37 46
Non-CHL Players 4.71 15
Age 18 5.05 2
Age 19 4.66 13
CHL Forwards 3.45 40
Age 18 5.30 11
Age 19 4.52 33
CHL Forwards Minus Crosby+ Stamkos 3.45 40
Age 18 4.03 9
Age 19 3.28 31
CHL Defensemen 3.81 15
Age 18 2.75 2
Age 19 3.98 13
Non-CHL Forwards 3.81 15
Age 18 5.05 2
Age 19 4.94 10
Non-CHL Defensemen 3.73 3
Age 18 N/A 0
Age 19 3.73 3
The 18 year old numbers are higher than the 19 year old numbers because for the most part, lottery picks dominate the players who make it at age 18. There's an obvious sample size issue with the European players at that age as well for defensemen as a whole. There's also a semi-notable gap between CHL and non-CHL players, especially when you factor out Crosby and Stamkos, who were irregularly dominant at very young ages.
Of these 76 players, 21 of them produced a GVT of 6.0 or over (approximately 1 Win Above Replacement) and seven produced a 12.0 or over. 33 players produced a GVT of 3.0 or under and 15 produced a negative GVT. The average GVT of U-20 NHL players was 4.23. Only two 18 year olds had a GVT over 6.5 (Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal) with an overwhelming majority of the 18 year olds playing in the NHL being lottery picks with outliers like Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly. While we expect a fair number of these players that actually do make the NHL at such a young age to be of elite talent, when teams have a choice whether or not to keep the players up, it's startling how many players, many who were top prospects, burnt a year on their entry-level deals while struggling or barely producing.
Meanwhile, this year in the CHL, here is the number of drafted players and their respective scoring rates who for the most part dominate the top of their respective league's scoring leaders:
Drafted players and their scoring rates in junior
League Drafted Skaters Over 1.00 pt per game Over 1.25 pts per game
OHL 73 25 16
QMJHL 37 13 5
WHL 75 29 10
So on one hand, we have a small number of players being asked to play in the NHL who struggle to produce, and a large number of drafted prospects in the CHL who are producing at the top of the league. I don't think any of these statements are exactly exuberant, but it does illustrate the fact that there is a definite need for a middle ground for these young players. That middle ground is the obvious choice, the American Hockey League. Based on Rob Vollman's look into league equivalencies, the AHL falls nicely in between the NHL at 1.00 and the CHL, whose league equivalencies vary from around the 0.25 to 0.30 range.
So why does it matter if the players are over- or under-performing in the respective leagues? Aside from burning a year on the Entry Level contracts from those who play in the NHL, that should be the only negative, right? Well what about from a developmental standpoint? There are a couple of key factors, that for some players, keep the CHL from being the most ideal developmental league at ages 18 and 19.
The first factor is how much the player's ability to further his development is hampered by his learning environment. I asked Hockey Prospectus colleague Kent Wilson about this, and he replied:
"Players will have a problem improving if they are in way in over their heads or way above the competition. In the situation where the players are rushed to the NHL, the attainment of improvement seems impossible. In the situation where they stay in the CHL, they don't need to improve, so development stagnates. Ideally, players must be challenged enough to be forced to improve, but not so much that the competition is way over their heads."
That's not to say players who play in the CHL don't improve. Even while dominating, players can work on little things like faceoffs, defensive play and other aspects of play that usually need to be refined at that age. However, their learning environment does not lead to optimal development. This is not merely a hockey theory, but a general one about human learning. The best environment for people to learn is one where they are being pushed, but not so much that their chance of significant improvement is not attainable. Dominating in the CHL or struggling in the NHL does not fit this line of thinking.
The second factor which may be the most important is the incentive for development from parties that aren't the individual player. When the player is in the CHL, the team's primary concern is winning and revenue. While typically for drafted prospects ice time at 18 and 19 tends not be a huge issue in the CHL, it is at times for the mid-round picks and lesser talents on powerhouse teams. Also while NHL teams do have player development personnel who are in regular contact with their major junior prospects, there is definite value from having hands-on staff with your day to day team focusing on your individual developmental needs. The usage issue also exists at the NHL level, where again the primary focus is winning and revenue. An NHL team that is fighting for a playoff spotwhile still caring about the developmental needs about their top youngsterssometimes have to put those concerns on the backburner if they think the player will be a debit to the team's playoff chances.
With all that being said, I think it is of imperative importance that drafted CHL players are allowed to go to the AHL whenever they feel ready to sign a pro contract. The skeptic will say, "Whoa, the AHL is of pretty good quality. What if the player wants to go to pro and start to be developed by his drafted team, but doesn't want to face really tough competition yet?" To which the answer is, go to the ECHL. The same skeptic will then say, "The ECHL? Isn't that where prospects and their respective pro futures go to die?" The answer to that is: yes, at the moment. The current proposal will significantly change the talent levels of both professional developmental leagues. At the moment, there are 37 drafted skaters playing in the ECHL. Thirty-seven! The talent pool in the ECHL is completely depleted (and to a degree so is the talent pool of the AHL) and has turned into a place where people can dump their organizational fodder. If there were to be a surplus of major junior players being brought into the professional fold, this would ultimately create a deeper professional talent pool and push out some of the older, less talented veterans hanging around the minor pro ranks.
Let's not fool ourselves either. If prospects are given the option to go pro, a large portion of them will do it. Reason being that their priority is to enhance their NHL future and not their CHL one and that NHL teams most likely will tell them what's best for their NHL future is to go to minor pro if the choice is between that and major junior. However, the beauty of major junior's age group is for the young players who simply do want to go yetthey can take that option as well.
The most important part of this whole proposal would be the fact that teams would be able to control and have a hands-on developmental approach with their prospects during critical developmental years. The value of that cannot be overstated. The lack of hands-on development has essentially made it non-sensible to deploy resources into player development and instead to put it into amateur scouting, since you can't touch the players for 1-2 years, which for top prospects is a significant time period in their development. Pro scouting also becomes much more difficult since less talent is in the minor pro ranks and instead is scattered across major junior, American D-1 college and European pro.
That, in my opinion, is a failure of a system that needs to be fixed, and while losing the CHL agreement won't fix all of that, it will fix a major part of it.
So why doesn't the NHL just cut the rope off from the CHL and tell them to swim? The reasoning, whether right or wrong, is laid out by Holly Gunning here:
"The NHL agrees to send the teenagers back because CHL needs these playersits top playersto make money. If the CHL didn't make money, they couldn't produce players. You scratch my back, I scratch yours."
I have a very hard time believing this. Not the fact that the CHL losing a fair proportion of their top players will hurt their finances, but that said claim is of such significant leverage for the CHL that the NHL agreed to the current system. The average CHL team is worth around $7M in value (stick tap to Neate Sager for that), players get paid under two grand per month give or take, leagues' average attendance numbers hover around three to four thousand per game, and they get TV coverage on several regional stations and at times even national ones. Given all that, even with expenses like the rinks and paying employees, I find it hard to believe that the CHL losing some of its best 18 and 19 year olds would cause the league to go under, because from the NHL's standpoint that should be the line where it starts to matter. The NCAA regularly takes some of the USHL's best young players, yet they survive in a much less popular league.
I really don't see the leverage from the CHL's standpoint at all, besides taking away the Top Prospects Game, which in the big picture isn't that big a deal. The other argument is that without a lot of their top players, the CHL will lower in quality and hamper the development for pre-draft prospects. That argument has some merit, but ultimately that still doesn't swing the scale in the CHL's favor when the alternative is complete developmental control of post-draft prospects. Unless there's a major piece of evidence missing from this picturewhich is possible given the somewhat secretive nature of the CHL-NHL agreementI fail to see why the NHL shouldn't terminate this agreement with the CHL as soon as possible and immediately start bringing 18 and 19 year old players who are willing and ready to the AHL or ECHL levels.
This change in structure would require an alteration to the NHL's current professional contract limit and resource allocation, but ultimately, I believe it is in the best interest of NHL teams. For the CHL and low-quality veterans in minor pro though, not as much.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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