Should the NHL and AHL Invoke an Exceptional Player Rule?

Hello everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but mostly because without hockey going on I’ve hit a writing block.  That being said, the rise of Connor McDavid and watching college football and basketball has got me thinking about one of my favorite topics:  Player development.  Frequent visitors of this site (Hi Mom!) might remember my idea that the CHL should either allow first round picks to go to the AHL immediately for a price, or create another division of 18-20 year olds with less teams in order to accelerate the development of true NHL talent, rather than forcing them to either move to the NHL against grown men or continue to dominate 16 year old kids as an overager. While this may never happen, many people are in favor of AHL development of players, even when the franchises themselves are forced to rush players to the NHL before they are completely ready.  Perhaps the NHL should adapt a policy similar to the CHL’s “Exceptional Player Rule” in order to protect the league and the players from rushing a player to the League too quickly, and thereby hurting the team and the player.

In the CHL (Canada’s overarching national junior league) players are not eligible to be drafted until the year in which they turn 16.  This is to protect players from being forced to play against more fully developed players, both physically and mentally, before they are ready.  Before 2005, players in the CHL were allowed to play a number of games as a 15 year old.  The CHL currently places a cap of three 20-year-old or overage players per team, while only four 16-year-olds are permitted. While fifteen-year-old players were formerly permitted to play a limited number of games per season at the CHL level, starting in 2005, the CHL began to offer “Exceptional Player Status” to 15 year olds, but otherwise restricted players from playing CHL games before reaching the age of 16.

The granting of “Exceptional” status is very rare, and in fact only three players have ever been granted the status. The first player to be granted this status was John Tavares, now of the New York Islanders, followed more recently by Aaron Ekblad in 2011 and most recently by Connor McDavid in 2012.  Even with only three players in 7 years being granted this status, the CHL is worried it’s being given out too frequently.  The idea behind the rule is that while the truly exceptional talents, guys who are leaps and bounds better than their peers are ready to move on, but that players who still have much to gain from playing against their own age group are protected from teams looking to improve at their expense.

Where am I going with this? While it’s not a direct parallel, I believe the NHL, AHL, and CHL could come together and develop a system that allowed the truly elite players (potential star players) to continue to develop their game against better competition in the AHL, while the run of the mill type players could stay in the CHL, and of course the truly rare “superstar” type player would be granted “exceptional” status at age 18 and be allowed to move directly to the NHL.  In a moment I will break the idea down in further detail, but first allow me to lay down the basics of my plan:

  1. The first overall pick each year would be automatically granted “Extraordinary Player Status”, allowing them to move directly to the NHL or AHL, at their team’s discretion.
  2. The second overall pick is eligible to receive “Extraordinary” status, so that in the case of a player like Evgeni Malkin the player is not forced to play in the AHL merely because two such talents came out in the same year.
  3. Picks two through 10 are automatically granted “Exceptional Player Status,” These players are, at the discretion of their NHL club, able to play in the AHL at age 18.
  4. After 41 games, at the request of their NHL club, all players with “Exceptional” player status are reviewed to be permitted to join the NHL.
  5. Picks 11 through 30 are automatically eligible to join the AHL (given Exceptional Status) the year after being drafted.
  6. Picks 31-60 are automatically eligible to join the AHL after the second year after they are drafted.
  7. Remaining picks, like now, are eligible to join the AHL or NHL after they complete their junior eligibility.
  8. Each AHL team would be allowed to have one 18 year old, two 19 year old, and up to four 20 year old players.
  9. All players are eligible for review to be promoted to the NHL 41 games into any AHL season, but with the exception of “Extraordinary” players, all players must play at least half a season in the AHL before moving to the NHL.
  10. Three years after being drafted, or upon reaching the age of 22, whichever is first, all players would be eligible to join the NHL.
  11. Players under 20 would not use the first year of their ELC during their first year in the AHL, would not count against the cap of the NHL club, but would be paid as though they were in the first year of their NHL deal.  After reaching age 20 they are treated as regular AHL players.
  12. Lastly, NHL clubs would pay a predetermined amount to their CHL clubs to make them whole for potential lost revenue from any player leaving their club for the next level.

  

While these rules may seem a bit convoluted when written poorly by an idiot in his mother’s basement, let’s look at the potential benefits to all of the stakeholders:

The NHL:  Just like now, potential superstar players would be able to enter the league immediately after being drafted.  It’s important for the NHL to have these types of players in the NHL for as long as possible, and as soon as they are ready.

Players with potential to be impact players in the NHL would get the opportunity to further develop their games under the tutelage of their NHL teams in a professional environment, and would be eligible at certain points in their development to be elevated to the NHL.

Finally, the NHL would be able to improve its product by ensuring that its youngest talents are not rushed prematurely to the NHL at the expense of future talent, like the NBA in the late 1990s.

Remember, this is why the NBA enacted a rule to prevent players jumping directly from high school to the NBA.  For an example, look at Kevin Durant in the NBA:  In 2000, a talent like Kevin Durant would have gone directly to the NBA.  Because he was in the first generation of star players who spent a year in college, a whole new subset of fans became Oklahoma City fans after watching him grow up in college.  This is good for the growth of the sport.  Hockey can tap into that same emotion by allowing the city of Glens Falls to watch Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn or Scott Laughton grow up in their minor league.

The AHL: The AHL would benefit from an influx of better talent, which would further serve its role as the top minor league in the world, and help it develop better players for the NHL.  Fans in both the NHK and AHL cities would get a chance to grow an afinity for players that would otherwise completely miss this stage in their development.  Say you’re a Flyers fan in Philadelphia: until this year, watching the Phantoms was brutal, and keeping tabs on a prospect in the CHL was fucking impossible.  The best players on the Phantoms were going to be lucky to sniff the bottom of an NHL roster, and our best prospects were on local cable in Canada.

I remember watching the 2005 Phantoms and falling in love with AHL hockey, knowing that I was watching the future stars of my team.  When the Phantoms moved to Glens Falls, I lost any ability to easily follow the future stars of my team.  Furthermore, the 2005 Lockout allowed me to watch legitimate future NHL players, rather than the Phantoms of last year, which were full of black aces and Matt Fucking Walker.

Having our future players on display in the AHL would encourage NHL teams to keep their minor league teams in nearby smaller cities to encourage the development of the local fanbase.  Who doesn’t love watching a local kid make it to the big club?  Think of Brian Westbrook, a Villanova kid who became a star with the Eagles.  That type of tie in with the local community is great for both the AHL and NHL.

The CHL: The limit on the number of underagers, as well as the cost of the salary for an AHL player under the age of 20 will limit the number of players taken from the CHL into the AHL or NHL.  Also, the predetermined cost for taking a player into the NHL/AHL will continue to support the CHL teams, while giving younger players the opportunity to play bigger minutes.  From a Flyers’ perspective, think of Scott Laughton:  Laughton spent the past two years stuck behind over age players in the CHL because they were ineligible for the AHL but not NHL quality players.  A player like Laughton is at a disadvantage under the current system because his development is hindered by the overage players in the CHL.

The Players: If you’re a true NHL talent, this system is clearly better for your development as a player until you are NHL-ready.  You would enter the AHL earlier, playing against better competition while being paid an NHL salary in your teen years.  If you are a marginal NHL player, your development would be helped by gaining more valuable minutes in the CHL during your overage years as the best players have left for the AHL.  If you are a career minor leaguer, well this kind of sucks.

The Fans:  The benefit for the fans of all professional hockey are evident: ECHL teams would have better players because the top of the AHL rosters would be the teenaged stars of tomorrow, rather than career minor leaguers or low end NHLers.  The fans of AHL teams would get up to three years of watching the stars of tomorrow develop their skills before moving on to the NHL.  For those of us that live in cities with NHL teams, the first three years or so would be a drag as the number of quality players coming into the NHL trickled to a temporary stop, but this temporary stop would end shortly, leaving us with players who have developed faster and more effectively under the tutelage of their parent organizations.  Instead of most every NHL caliber player being given the role of top 3 forward in the CHL, these players could begin to prepare for their eventual NHL role at the ages of 18-19.

 

Another benefit to growing the game of hockey would be the opportunity for the AHL to take a break during the World Junior Championships, lending the players in the AHL to the World Juniors.  For you Americans who aren’t even aware of what the WJC are, this event is on up there with Olympics when it comes to following by our friends north of the border. At the end of the year, players in the NHL/AHL could be sent to the World Championships, once again offering the best U20 players in the world to a higher level of competition than they see under the current format.

Another advantage of the “Exceptional Player” Status would be the fun fanbases would have waiting to see if their player had been granted the status after 41 AHL games of the AHL season.  Just imagine the Red Wings fans bitching about how the NHL hates them when their elite prospect is denied status.  Consider the streets of Montreal burning because…well, any reason really.  It’s Montreal.  Wait until the fans in Toronto flip out on Burke when he doesn’t apply for their stud prospect to gain the status because “Exceptional Player, My Ass.”

In conclusion, player development in the NHL is the best of any sport in North America until the age of 18, but development from ages 18-21 isn’t nearly as good as it could be.  Certainly generational talents have no problem with this, but the elite and exceptional players could be developed more effectively during this crucial time in their professional development by making the jump from CHL to AHL/NHL competition.

 

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