“We fear the unknown because we can’t anticipate the outcome,” Anonymous.
Human beings are very leery of change. A study actually showed that uncertainty is even more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen. So I understand why the NHL is hesitant to make the draft age one year older.
However, there is no sane defence not to. It will help more than just the NHL.
The draft has changed often over the years, so it’s not like it can’t change again.
My proposal is a very simple one. Increase the draft age to 19. You can do it over a two-year period.
Currently, players must be 18 years of age by September 15th of the draft year to be draft eligible. So the 2019 draft was for 2001 players, who were born between January-September 15th, as well as any other players from 2000, 1999, 1998 who weren’t drafted. NHL amateur scouts were essentially scouting 17 year olds. They aren’t even adults, yet hockey believes the best course of action is to spend millions of dollars scouting 17 year old teenagers.
Of the 217 kids drafted this past June, 136 were born in 2001 (62.7%), while 58 of them were 19 years old, 21 of them were 20 and two players were 21.
How many of the 2001 kids will play in the NHL this season? Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko seem like sure bets, but based on previous history there likely won’t be many others. . So why not move the draft age one year later? There are many benefits.
From a marketing standpoint it will make the draft much more interesting for fans, because you will have more players ready to join the NHL three and a half months later. It will increase the hype, but more importantly, it could give players, specifically those in the CHL, more time to develop (more on that below).
Over the past five seasons the list of players who debuted in the NHL in their 18th birth year is very short.
2018: Rasmus Dahlin, Andei Svechnikov, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
2017: Nico Hischier.
2016: Patrik Laine, Jakob Chyrchrun, and Jesse Puljujarvi (only played 28 games).
2015: Connor McDavid and Noah Hanafin.
2014: Aaron Ekblad and David Pastrnak (he played 25 games in AHL, was then recalled to NHL for 46 games).
2013: Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Barkov.
An average of two players over the past six seasons and it has been that way for many years.
The easy solution to ensure elite players like MacKinnon, McDavid and Dahlin can still play at 18 is to allow drafting an 18-year-old within the top-five picks of the first round. Only Chychrun (16th) and Pastrnak (25th) were drafted outside the top-four picks, and Pastrnak was able to start in the AHL. It is very rare, to have an 18-year-old who wasn’t drafted in the top-five to play, so moving the draft age back will not limit work opportunities.
The reality is the vast majority of NHL draft picks are still playing in junior, NCAA or Europe when they are 18.
MOVE AGE TO 19…
The process to push the draft age back isn’t difficult, but changing the mindset of NHL decisions makers might be, however, some are more open to it now.
“I have been resistant in the past about increasing the draft age,” said former NHL GM and current TSN analyst Craig Button. “I was too narrowly focused on the NHL alone though. Increasing the draft age has a trickle down effect for junior, midget and even bantam to a degree. I’m fully on board with increasing the draft age now,” continued Button.
A current amateur scout, who didn’t want to go on the record, said. “In many cases you are almost guessing on what a player at 17 will look like when they are 21 or 22. You can see hockey sense, vision and other aspects, but projecting physical improvements, and how they grow mentally, is a big guess. An extra year would help the players as much as it would help the teams make better assessments on draft day.”
I would implement the change to the draft over a two-year period. Make the cut off April 30th the first year, and December 31st the following year. For instance, for the 2020 draft only players who are 18 by April 30th, 2020, are eligible. Any 18-year-olds born in January-April of 2002 are eligible. The rest will wait until the 2021 draft.
Then for the 2021 draft, only players who are 19 by December 31st, 2021 are eligible.
The draft class of 2022 would be 2003 birth years and 2002 and 2001 players who still haven’t been drafted.
“I’d be in favour of it (moving draft age to 19),” said Spokane Chiefs head coach and former NHL assistant coach Manny Vivieros. “It gives so many kids than extra year to mature and develop. So much can change in one year for many of them.”
There are other benefits to moving it back one year, specifically for CHL players and teams.
Right now if a CHL player is drafted in his 18 birth year, the NHL team only has two years to sign him or he returns to the draft. And if he is signed, then the first year of his contract begins (although he would only receive his signing bonus, not base salary) when he is 20, even if a NHL team wants to place him in junior. Many teams will put a 20 year old in the AHL, and often many of them aren’t ready. They get crushed. Many never recover, play two more years in the AHL, or ECHL and aren’t re-signed.
If you move the draft age back one year, and maintain the two year period to sign a CHL player before losing their rights, then they could play in the WHL, OHL or QMJHL at 19 and 20, then sign a contract and turn pro at 21. It gives the players a potential extra year of seasoning. It also doesn’t force teams to have a 20 year old count on their 50-man roster.
Curtis Hunt is the GM of the reigning WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders. We discussed age and maturity in the WHL.
“If you look at the teams who have success often they are laden with good 20s, and a group of really good 19s,” said Hunt. “The best teams always have older players. Are we (CHL teams) all better if we have a little bit older group, I think we are.
“There has to be a line we must be cognizant of. When you see cases like Brett Leason, and what he did in his 19 year, it shows how much players can change when they get older and get more opportunity in our league.”
Currently, only CHL players have to sign an NHL contract within two years of being drafted. USHL, NCAA and European players don’t and that is a benefit for NHL teams to draft them and not have to add them to their 50-man roster within two years. The current model punishes CHL players, and the league and the NHL should look at evening the playing field. Right now the system encourages NHL teams to have the vast majority of CHL players in the minors at 20. The new draft age could still allow a team to place a player in the AHL at 20, if need be, but if player who is 20, and signed, could still play in the CHL and not count towards the 50-man roster.
The trickle down effect of moving the NHL draft back one season means the CHL could also have a better product. They could increase the roster to four or five 20-year-olds and NHL teams would be more inclined to send players back to the CHL at 20. And I do not buy for a moment that players don’t develop at 20 in junior. Sure, the very few elite ones could handle going to the AHL at 20, but the majority would benefit from another year of junior.
The San Jose Sharks have already started to do this with their prospects. It worked out very well with Kevin Labanc, who had 107 points at 19, but they sent him back at 20 and he produced 127 points. He turned pro when he was 21, and he played 19 AHL games, scored 19 points, and was promoted to the Sharks during the season. They have done this with other prospects since then. Other teams have had the odd player try this route as well, but it would much easier to do it without them counting on the 50-man roster.
More 20 year olds in the CHL would mean fewer 16 year olds, many of whom don’t play that much or develop their skills playing 10-12 minutes a night. The belief you have to always push players up the next level ruins more players than it helps. The elite ones can handle it, but those players are rare. Having more 20s and fewer 16 and 17 year olds in Major Junior will help the league. The quality of play will be better, plus the young players can spend an extra year in Midget and become more physically and emotionally ready for the rigours of Major Junior.
“When I get to send a 16 year old to midget and they gets to play in every situation, special teams, protecting leads, that is experience they don’t always get at our level and no doubt that would help them. I think it would make the entire product better,” said Hunt.
“I think the Saskatchewan model is one of the best. There is a real commitment to player development. Ideally you want a player to play midget, maybe junior A for a year and then Major junior. That is best for the player, but the leagues have to follow those guidelines. Some elite players, of course, can move up quicker, but the vast majority of players benefit from more time developing.”
More time developing will help at any level, and most importantly at the pro level.
NHL Teams are more than willing to let players play in the NCAA at 20, but somehow playing in the CHL at 20 can stunt their growth. It is an archaic mindset among NHL people, some media and fans and it needs to change. Johnny Gaudreau played his third year of NCAA when he was 20 years old, I didn’t hear anyone claim it was hurting his development. Most said he needed more time to add strength.
So why wasn’t Kailer Yamamoto playing in the WHL when he was 20? Likely because he entered the league at 16 and had already played four years. If he joined at 17, he could have played his 4th year at 20. I don’t see how this would somehow alter is development negatively. I’d argue it would enhance it. He would be more physically ready to handle the size and strength of men in the American League and/or NHL.
NHL DRAFT HISTORY….
Let’s look at what are considered the two best drafts in NHL history; 1979 and 2003.
They have one common thread. We’ll start with the 2003 draft.
Only three players were in the NHL at 18 years of age — Eric Staal, Nathan Horton and Dustin Brown. And Nikolai Zherdev played at 19. Then the lockout hit in 2004/2005, so no other players were in the NHL as teenagers. They were mainly in Europe or still in junior. No other draft class in history had only four players 18 or 19 years young in the NHL.
You simply can’t overlook that fact as to why that draft class became one of the deepest in NHL history. Players were given more time to develop.
Of the 30 first round picks, 24 of them played 400+ games, and only three: Marc-Antoine Pouliot (192 GP), Shawn Belle (20) and Hugh Jessiman (2), played fewer than 240 NHL games.
Now let’s look at the 1979 draft.
First off, the 1979 draft only had 126 players drafted. Every player selected in the first round played at least 238 NHL games, and 18 of the 21 draft picks played more than 570 games. The age breakdown or drafted players is very different than today.
20 year olds drafted: 67
19 year olds drafted: 58
18 year old drafted: 1
So when the 1979/1980 season began there was only one 18 year-old in the NHL, Mark Messier, and he was picked in the third round. He was freakishly strong, but he finished 10th on the Oilers in scoring with 33 points. He scored 63 points when he was 19 and then at 20 years of age he emerged as a star, scoring 50 goals. Only ten of the 19 year olds played in the 1979/1980 season: Ray Bourque, Keith Brown, Laurie Boschman, Tom McCarthy, Paul Reinhart, Duane Sutter, Michel Goulet, Brent Ashton, Paul Marshall and Lindy Ruff.
The next season the draft expanded to ten rounds and 210 players were selected.
20 year olds drafted: 47
19 year olds drafted: 89
18 year olds drafted: 74
In one year the league went from drafting one 18-year-old, to selecting 74 of them. Much of that was due to increasing the numbers of draft picks from 126-210, and this started the trend in the NHL to drafting 18 year olds.
The next few seasons the number of 18 year olds drafted rose to 121 in 1981. Then from 1982-1986, when the draft increased to 252 selections, the increase of 18 year olds jumped to 142, 159, 163, 172 and 153.
Prior to the 1987 draft the NHL implemented a rule you could only draft 18 and 19 year olds in the first three rounds unless the player met qualifying criteria that dealt with hockey experience in major junior, NCAA, high school or European hockey. So between 1987-1981 the number of 18 years old selected dipped back down to 99, 85, 82, 92 and 94.
But prior to the 1992 draft they abolished that rule and players were available in every round. And no surprise, the number of 18 year olds being picked shot up again to 128 in 1992 and then 169 and 179 in 1993 and 1994, when the draft had 286 picks.
The number of 18 year olds selected from 1995 to 2004 varied between 116-151, due to the amount of draft picks ranging from 234 to 293.
Since 2005 the NHL has drafted between 210-217 players. It will remain at 217 until Seattle enters the league, when it will jump to 224.
This past season saw 217 players drafted.
20 year olds drafted: 23 (two were 21)
19 year olds drafted: 58
18 year olds drafted: 136
The NHL drafted 136 kids with a 2001 birth year, yet only two, maybe three, will play in the NHL this season.
Why is it necessary to draft 18 year olds? I see zero tangible benefit.
I would allow those rare, elite players who can step into the NHL at 18 be selected within the first five picks. This will eliminate any legal claim the NHL is limiting one’s ability to earn a living. The numbers don’t lie. We aren’t seeing more two or three now anyways. Despite all the advanced knowledge on nutrition, sleep, skill development and year-round hockey, the players today are not more NHL ready at 18 than they were decades ago. Most simply aren’t physically or mentally ready to play in the NHL. Which is fine. I don’t expect them to.
So move the draft age back one year, and with it you could change the narrative regarding CHL players.
Players in Europe, even in 2nd division leagues, or in the NCAA at 20 years of age aren’t considered to be stagnating, but if a player goes back to junior it is considered a wasted year. Why? One of the most important factors of development is ensuring a player remains confident.
Button said this about young players and their development.
“To all young players. Master your current level, because the next level will be that much harder, and in the case of the NHL, unforgiving if you are not ready. The vast majority of players need more time to develop, not less.”
NHL teams should remember this. The urge to want to push young players into pro hockey is ludicrous to me.
If more players were in the CHL at 20, the league would be more competitive and it would limit the amount of 16 year olds in the league. A win-win for all players, fans and owners of CHL teams.
Canada has been the driving force of the NHL for over 100 years. At the very least the NHL and NHLPA should want Canadian players to be on an equal ice when it comes to development and not having to rush them to pro hockey.
Embrace change. It will help the NHL, the players, the CHL and fans of both leagues.