Should NHL Entry Draft be Altered in New CBA?

With each passing day, it appears the NHL is taking more steps toward yet another lockout. Just like last time, there are expected to be a series of changes within the CBA both on the ice and in the way player contracts are structured. One of the significant alterations made coming out of the 2004-05 lockout was shortening the NHL Draft from nine rounds to seven rounds.

While the odds are still slim to make it to the NHL as even a seventh-round draft pick, there may be more reason than ever before to bring back the eighth and ninth rounds in the new CBA.

Sure it makes draft day longer, but there could be some significant benefits not only for the NHL, but college and junior hockey as well.

I recently contributed a story to U.S. College Hockey Online in which I spoke with Nate Ewell, communications director for College Hockey, Inc., Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves and Miami bench boss Rico Blasi. All shared very interesting thoughts and ideas on some alterations to the CBA that could benefit college hockey.

Many of the ideas expressed were presented to NHL GMs and administrators way back in June of 2011, but with the collective bargaining negotiations currently ongoing between the NHL and NHLPA, they’re worth exploring more. One of the key proposals was making some type of alterations to the NHL Draft.

Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at some of those proposed changes.

Before I get into some of the changes proposed in the piece, one of the obvious questions you should be asking is, “Who is college hockey to make demands of the NHL?” Well, they’re not making any demands really, but have been vocal about changes they would like to see and according to Ewell, the GMs were quite receptive of many of the ideas brought forth. The other thing that is important to consider is that college hockey produced 30% of the players that played in the NHL last season. That’s a significant figure.

The NHL has a vested interest in the success and quality of college hockey because it impacts their product. There are provisions built into the now-expired CBA to help the Canadian Hockey League hold onto players longer if they don’t make the NHL club. While the NCAA’s rules would put limitations on a similar arrangement, there are other ways the NHL can help out the NCAA.

After the last CBA (and this is in the story you can read at the link above), the thought was the changes made to the entry level contracts would benefit college hockey, but just a few years into the agreement, it became clear that the ELCs made it more appealing to sign players younger and made college free agents extremely attractive.

As a result, many players, and this is as much on the NHL teams, are probably signing too early. The current system in place creates competition, which creates leverage, but also quite a bit of pressure on a player. You’d have to think NHL teams would much rather have those college free agents under contract instead of running the risk of losing them in a recruiting battle with other teams, potentially costing more money on that initial ELC (which does have a cap on it) than they were hoping to spend.

So, yes, college hockey certainly has selfish motives for wanting alterations for the draft, but there’s reason to believe some of the proposals could vastly benefit the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL as well.

Ewell pinpointed the draft as not only the place where changes could have the most impact long term, but also where change was actually quite feasible and maybe even desired by NHL teams.

“I think looking at the draft is foremost in our minds from a college standpoint because that’s where you can have the biggest effect,” he said. “There’s a number of different ways the CBA could address that.

“From our standpoint, I think what we’d like to see is more players subject to the draft,” Ewell said. “Whether it’s adding rounds or changing the age of the draft in some way — making it later or adding a year so that you would [be required to] get drafted before you can sign as a 21-year-old or something like that — could certainly help.”

The idea of raising the minimum draft age to 19 has been around for some time, and has been a widespread desire among college coaches. I think there could be some unintended consequences that would actually hurt college hockey if this were to happen, but I definitely understand the rationale behind it. Additionally, this is something even Hockey Canada would like to see.

Should the draft age be raised, the CHL won’t lose its best 18-year-old players, which is currently happening. Guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Gabriel Landeskog and the like would all remain with their junior teams a year longer, thus improving the product on the ice.

It also benefits Hockey Canada and USA Hockey in that its best players under the age of 19 will be available for their National Junior Team. It’s hard to believe, but a guy like Tyler Seguin has yet to represent Canada in an IIHF sanctioned event. That’s a guy you’d certainly like to see in the WJC.

The college coaches believe this rule might help retain freshmen who bolt on their college commitments after the NHL Draft. However, as I explain in the link above, they might end up losing more players looking to raise their draft profile at age 19 in the CHL, as opposed to playing college, where they might not be able to shine as much against older, stronger competition. It’s just one thing to keep in mind.

There’s also the question of whether a player changes so much between ages 18 and 19 to warrant such a change. It’s something that would require a lot more research, but as a player ages, you’re definitely going to learn more about his ability and how he projects, obviously.

The most intriguing idea, in my opinion, however, is that of extending the draft back to nine rounds instead of seven.

The draft as is, with seven rounds, seems really long and the odds of making it to the league as a seventh-round pick are not good. That said, every year I come away from the draft thinking, how did this kid or that kid not go?

Furthermore, there are more second- and third-year eligible players being selected every year, which is a good thing for them, but a lot of those guys selected very easily could have been picked in eighth or ninth rounds the year before.

The LA Kings drafted Tanner Pearson in the first round this season. He was on his third and final year of eligibility as a 20-year-old forward for the Barrie Colts. He’s an extreme example of a late bloomer, but the eighth and ninth rounds could potentially produce similar players as more teams are willing to take some of those high-risk, high-reward guys in the late rounds.

You’ll probably see less first-year eligible misses as a result.

If it sounds like an unnecessary addition, there are certainly benefits according to Ewell:

“[More players being drafted] would give players the security of knowing the team would be there for them if they stayed three years or four years,” said Ewell, who served as CHI’s interim executive director before the recent hiring of Mike Snee.

“It would give teams the comfort of letting players stay and develop in college where they don’t feel they need to sign a guy or lose them. It would help the veteran players, too, because the NHL teams aren’t using contracts on young players who really aren’t NHL-ready.”

There is a heavy flow of college free agents going to the NHL, many of whom are not ready, but feel pressure to sign to strike while the iron is hot, if you will. A player with his draft rights held by a team is not guaranteed to get signed to a contract, but as Ewell notes, there is added security.

The same would be true for players in the CHL. With more draft slots available, there might be a little security for a kid whose junior career ends at 20. Getting drafted increases the likelihood of getting a long look in the AHL, which at 21 is as good an extra audition for the NHL as you could hope for.

The NHL has limits on the number of contracts they can carry, but if there are more players with NHL draft rights, the teams can focus less on the undrafted free agents, because there will be fewer. NHL clubs also have the benefit of getting these players into their development camps to more closely track their progress. While they can invite undrafted players to camp, their contact is limited after that.

Lengthening the draft kind of sounds like an everybody wins situation.

There is a flexibility that I am sure NHL teams enjoy by the relative ease with which they can sign particularly college free agents, but in the long run could save some money. The max ELC a college free agent can sign is whatever the max a player drafted in the previous year’s draft can receive.

For instance, Torey Krug signed for a max ELC deal with Boston as a college free agent, getting a $1.7 million cap hit when his bonuses are taken into account. With the leverage of competition for his services, he got much more in the way of bonuses than he would have had the Bruins drafted him four or even two years prior when they had the chance.

Also, via NHL.com, here is a look at some current NHLers that were selected in the ninth round:

Tim Thomas (217th overall), Evgeni Nabakov (219th), Nikolai Khabibulin (204th), Brian Elliot (291st), Mark Streit (262nd), Jonathan Ericsson (291st), Sami Salo (239th), Matt Moulson (263rd), P.A. Parenteau (263rd), Steve Sullivan (233rd), and David Jones (288th).

That’s a pretty solid list of guys that would go undrafted if the current system was in place. Many of them may have received free agent contracts one day, but the point remains that plenty of good players are available in the late rounds and still leave for flexibility from the team that picks them.

Obviously for some of those guys, there weren’t as many teams in the NHL, but there are currently 210 players selected in a given draft year and you’d be surprised just how quickly that 210 goes, leaving many deserving candidates teamless.

The argument can also be made that the international player pool, as a whole, is deeper than it was eight years ago when the draft was shortened. Each of the leagues developing players has gotten better at it from college to major junior to the USHL to even the high school and prep school programs. Everyone has raised their game and developed players at a higher rate than ever before. Perhaps the draft should reflect that as well.

One of the other ideas brought forth by Ewell was potentially lengthening the age range as well. I’m less convinced we’ll see this happen, but currently players are eligible for the draft between the ages of 18 (by Sept. 15 of the upcoming season) to age 20 (if player has played at least one season in North America).

Players that are of age to be drafted can’t be signed to free agent contracts, so this would mean the NHL teams couldn’t sign until they’re at least over 21. This is one I don’t see happening as much unless the draft age gets raised to 19. However, a three- to four-year window for a player to be drafted and not be able to sign might not fly. Still a very interesting idea.

There are plenty of other proposed changes that you can read about over at USCHO, but the draft-related ideas are awfully intriguing and could have vast benefits for all parties. It is something that hopefully has been or will be carefully considered by the NHL.

The system as is, is fine, but it could be better and I think some of these changes will address those potential improvements. However, as mentioned by Mike Eaves in the USCHO piece, it might be a year or two into the new CBA before we can really tell if it was a benefit or not. You can’t always please everyone, but some changes could bring all entities a little closer together.

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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.
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