Potential Problems in Raising the NHL Draft Age

Bob Nicholson, the president of Hockey Canada, has an interesting idea regarding the NHL Entry Draft. Nicholson, a man of great influence in the sport, has proposed to the NHL a plan to raise the Entry Draft age from 18 to 19 (or more accurately, the players would have to be 19 by the start of NHL training camps) as part of the next collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players association.

The nine-page document that Nicholson has sent to the NHL and NHLPA has not been made public, so it’s hard to understand all of the nuances of this plan, but it’s one that deserves careful consideration.

On the surface, it actually sounds like a very reasonable idea. The plan is not without selfish motives for Hockey Canada, but the reasoning behind it appears genuine.

Per the plan, players would spend an extra year in Junior or college or with their European club, while NHL teams get an extra year of evaluation. That’s the most basic description of this plan.

Where the plan appears to get a little sketchy is in the implementation of an “exceptional player rule” not unlike what we have seen in the past in the OHL with John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad being granted admission into the league a year earlier than normal.

The plan would allow for a certain number of 18-year-olds, those perceived as most ready for the NHL, to be selected in the first round.

All of this sounds OK, but when you look at it a bit longer, the cracks begin to show.

The positives as viewed by proponents of the plan:

Proponents of this plan feel that with an extra year of evaluation, NHL teams will “miss” less with their projections. Around 50 percent of all players drafted into the NHL make it to the league, which sounds worse than it really is. What will have to be proven by Hockey Canada is how big of a difference there is in a player from his 18-year-old to his 19-year-old season. I’m not denying that there is, in fact, a difference.

Players’ development curves vary, but even the good ones at 19 are often still growing into the player they will be in the future. That said, the 18-year-old season has proven to be a great indicator of what a player will become as well. You look at the 18-year-old seasons of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, etc., and you see a player that is ready for the NHL, and obviously they’d all be considered exceptional players via this new rule.

There will always be hits and misses in the draft no matter the age of the player, I’m not convinced there will be significantly less misses if the draft age is raised.

When you think about actual misses, you’re usually talking about the first round, which has an exceptional track record of success. There will always be busts like Alexandre Daigle and Hugh Jessiman, but there have been far more hits.

Additionally, there haven’t been an abundance of second-year-eligible players selected in the draft. Meaning there haven’t been a whole lot of 19-year-old players that showed a whole lot of difference from one year to the next.

An interesting potential positive to come out of this according to Nicholson is this: The rush to get to the NHL will be slowed and therefore would trickle down to the lower developmental levels.

That’s a bit of a tough sell for me. I don’t know that delaying the draft age by a year will cause everyone to slow down in their rush to become better players. Hockey parents and kids, often wrongly, will rush to play up a level so that player is challenged, even at the youngest ages. Sometimes it works, many times it doesn’t. I don’t see how this new rule would change anything.

Here are some of the big problems as I see them…

Implementation

The biggest hurdle this plan may face is in the implementation of the rule. How would the NHL go about putting this new rule in place without skipping a draft year? Is it in the NHL’s best interest to let an entire year pass without its teams building their prospect pipeline? Would there be any long term effects?

If the NHL were to immediately implement a draft in which 19 year olds were the only players eligible, that group of 19 year olds would have already been picked over in the previous year’s draft. It might create some opportunities for kids that weren’t yet drafted, which is a great off-shoot, but it would not significantly build an NHL team’s pipeline with what essentially would amount to second-tier or even third-tier prospects in rounds 1-7.

The plan will also likely face stiff opposition from the NHLPA for various reasons. The agents probably aren’t going to like this one too much.

All that said, the NHL would have to consider whether or not implementing this rule is worth it in the long term, because it certainly wouldn’t be in the short term. If the league deems this a better alternative, it would have to endure the growing pains. I just don’t know if the league is willing to rock the boat for something that may only marginally benefit itself.

In other words, is the undoubted hassle going to be worth it?

Exceptional Player Rule

I somewhat take issue with the notion of adding an exceptional player element to the NHL Draft. It’s good to get the 18-year-olds that are perceived to be ready for the NHL have a shot, but how does this rule get properly and fairly put in place?

The questions I have:

Who will be responsible for deeming a player exceptional? Will it be the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, an independent third party, a conglomeration of NHL scouts, or perhaps  the individual teams?

Scouting is an inexact science, so what would be the criteria for a player being deemed exceptional? There have been plenty of draft picks that have been selected on the merits of high upside as opposed to NHL readiness, for instance Blue Jackets 2010 fourth overall pick Ryan Johansen.

Would an NHL team be able to select an 18-year-old player they have no intention of bringing up tot he NHL team the following season? If that’s the case, what made that player exceptional in that team’s eyes?

I’ll reserve further judgment on this particular topic until more of the plan is revealed, but I have a real problem with making this a bit of a hybrid draft in which certain players and also certain teams are granted special privileges.

Impact on the NCAA

This part of the plan is difficult to predict. The general thought process is that this rule would benefit the NCAA, as it would be able to keep players longer. In theory, that could be true, but it is not a guarantee.

Draft status matters to players, rightly or wrongly. Top prospects will do whatever they can to raise their draft stock. The current age limits for the draft are actually quite beneficial to 18-year-olds. Playing in Junior hockey or even in high school or prep hockey, allows an 18-year-old to compete with players of a similar age and similar physical maturity. Because of that, players are able to showcase their talents, while also developing their game.

In college hockey, the jump from Junior A to college is often a significant one. There isn’t as much of a gap as there once was, but the wide range of ages in college hockey offers for a fairly unbalanced gap in the physical maturity department.

The NCAA is a terrific road for development. It is a less effective route to showcase one’s talents.

Elite 18-year-olds will enter college as true freshmen. They will often be the least physically developed players on the team. Freshmen players also have a lot to prove. They are not guaranteed the same kind of ice time they would be in Junior hockey. With a 40-game schedule against older, stronger competition, it is difficult, though not impossible, for a true freshman to produce at a substantial rate.

Only the elite of the elite freshman will play a significant role on a college team, meaning that player gets substantial ice time, plays special teams and is used in all situations.

There are plenty of players that have been drafted by NHL teams that ride the bench as freshmen. Some won’t even dress. Imagine that scenario in a player’s draft-eligible season. Every game that player sits or rides the pine is another hit to that player’s draft stock.

Because of that uncertainty, I believe this rule would lead to more players choosing to play major junior, or potentially (but less likely) staying in the USHL an extra season.

The one thing this rule would cut down on is NHL teams drafting a college committed player and then advising that player to go the major junior route instead (as apparently happened with Jamie Oleksiak, J.T. Miller and Connor Murphy this past offseason).

However, if more players are choosing the Major Junior route instead of college anyway, will this situation ever arise again? Perhaps not.

Having been around draft-aged players over the last four years, it’s not hard to figure out how they think. It’s not hard to figure out what kind of advice they’ll receive from their advisers. Many will go whichever way they think will earn them the best shot at the highest draft position.

A potential example is Cam Fowler. Fowler was a late 1991, and therefore had to choose between Major Junior and college for which to play in during his draft-eligible season. He was committed to Notre Dame, but towards the end of his Under-18 season, the defenseman decided his best option to earn a higher draft standing and get to the NHL sooner was the CHL and he signed with Windsor. If this rule changed, I have a feeling there would be a lot more situations like this one.

College hockey would not lose every single kid. There are a lot of players that grew up wanting to play college. However, as this landscape continues to change, college hockey has a lot more work to do now then it ever has in keeping players.

We won’t know for sure what will happen, but this is a real concern college hockey should have about this rule. It’s something they need to examine closely.

There’s a very good chance the positives outweigh the negatives. Maybe you lose less guys like Justin Faulk or Nick Leddy after just one season. But you can’t lose players unless they get to campus first. This rule could lead to fewer ever getting there. Just something to think about.

As a bit of an offshoot…

This rule could go two different ways for the USHL. The first and most optimistic way is more players stay in the league for their draft-eligible year in order to showcase themselves in a draft season, which in turn could be a huge advantage for the league. Those players would be among the older in the league and therefore could produce at a high clip, giving themselves some draft momentum. The other way is that we rarely, if ever, see a prospect drafted directly from the USHL.

The league has gotten younger and younger over the last few years. It has been a great place for 17- and 18-year-old players to develop and showcase themselves. Most of the league’s exposure in hockey media is generated by its draft-eligible players, like Seth Ambroz last year and Jordan Schmaltz this year. You put those players in college and a significant amount of that draft-year exposure goes away.

It wouldn’t necessarily hurt the league financially, but it does take off a little of the shine. It’s something they’ll have to consider as well.

This new rule proposal could ultimately cause a cosmic shift in the player development leagues across North America and Europe. There are plenty of positives, but before everyone christens this as a great idea, it is important to take a diligent look at everything this proposal includes. Hopefully before the CBA negotiations, this proposal will see the light of day, and allow all of us a better idea at what it is trying to accomplish.

I’m just not convinced that the current draft rules are in need of changing. I’m all for forward thinking and never opposed to change, but I’m just not sure this is a slam dunk for the future of our sport.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL Draft, USA Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Potential Problems in Raising the NHL Draft Age

  1. Martin Breen says:

    Chris, your summary and analysis of this new proposed rule is excellent. I am not sure what I think about it other than the fact that I personally do not like that colleges are asking kids to delay entering college until they are “ready” which means older. Since 99% of college players will never play professional hockey, I don’t know why we are having kids play juniors until they are 20 and then going to college. Kids should go to college after high school at 18 or 19. Statistically speaking, every year a kid stays out of college the less likely he or she will go to college. Everyone focuses on the elite players who “make it” but no one focuses on the great majority who do not make it and God knows what happens to these players. I would like to see College Hockey Inc. (and USA Hockey) address this issue. Perhaps by creating robust college divisions, like D1, D2 and D3, kids will understand that they getting a college diploma and playing elite hockey are not mutually exclusive concepts.

  2. Al says:

    It sounds as if Paul Kelly and most other Div 1 college programs don’t agree with your skepticism. I do however have some skepticism. I think what you will eventually see is that there is a hidden agenda from Hockey Canada ala the CHL. There may already be a plan with CHL favorable transfer agreements. I think this would also help the CHL in the recruiting battle. For instance, Max Domi was sold the mantra about the lesson of Lucas Lessio. It is as such that if you want to go goof around (consider your college options) like Lessio did you will hurt your draft status and it will cost you alot of money. So from there, the sell will be that it is more important than ever to get yourself in a position to be included in that first round and the CHL is the vehicle to do that.
    This could also be a plan of strategic importance for the CHL as to address the problem of being diluted. Many people I talk to say there is too many teams.
    Another thing that doesn’t sit well with Hockey Canada, the CHL, et al is missing out on the past two gold metals at the “World Juniors”. This rule may help rectify that “problem”
    It could be a slippery slope for the CHL. I would think that some players are considering that by the time the draft rolls around they could already have two years of college education under their belts.
    I hope that things are well thought out by all before such a law is passed.

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