CHL or AHL: Where should our prospects develop?

What to do with teenage prospects...

Note: The views in this column are my own and do not reflect the views of other Cannon staff, nor an official position of the site.

There was some good news from the CBJ pipeline last weekend:

For those who no parlez le francais, this is saying that 2016 3rd Round Pick Vitalii/Vitali/Vitaly Abramov earns the trophy for scoring the most points in the QMJHL this season. He scored 46 goals in addition to 57 assists, for a total of 103 points in 65 games. This comes after scoring 38/55/93 in 63 games last season. Clearly he has nothing left to prove against the competition in Quebec, right?

WRONG, at least according to the leadership of the Canadian Hockey League. By agreement with the NHL, any player from the CHL that is drafted by an NHL team must remain with their junior team until age 20, unless called up directly to their NHL team. In other words, the only U20 players eligible for the AHL or ECHL come from the NCAA or Europe. As of last year, there was no indication that the arrangement would change any time soon.

Does this arrangement make sense? What more can Abramov possibly gain from another season with Gatineau? Has Pierre-Luc Dubois benefited from a year in which he was traded from one junior team to another? The stats certainly suggest the opposite. Either he’s not as good as advertised or he is good enough but is stagnating in that environment.

I propose that the NHL make better advantage of their own existing development pipeline. If the AHL is too much of a leap for a teenager, then why not the ECHL? Currently it is an island of misfit toys full of players who are has-beens or never-will-bes. Why not make it the first stop for freshly drafted prospects?

This setup is not without precedent. Just look at baseball. Players can be drafted out of high school at the same age that hockey players become draft eligible. Obviously those players are not MLB ready, but they can get better development in the minor leagues than in college. They earn a salary (though still a woefully insufficient one), they play more games, they get daily access to team-appointed coaches and instructors, and most importantly they play against fair competition. They go up against players of the same talent level, whether that’s in low A, high A, or AA.

NHL teams are unable to work with their prospects on a daily basis. Columbus wants Dubois to play center. His new team has kept him there, but they were under no obligation to do so. A CHL coach is there to win. He is not going to want to answer to 30 masters if he has team full of draftees. A coach like John Madden, on the other hand, understands that player development is the primary goal of the Monsters, ahead of winning games.

In the Sportsnet article linked above, CHL commissioner David Branch mentioned that the NHL had not approached the CHL to provide special exemptions for the elite underage players to be able to play in the AHL. There are many people out there who think the current model works just fine, and has the best interest of everybody in mind.

Site manager Mike MacLean is among that group. He lives in a CHL market in Halifax, and has had the benefit of seeing players like Jonathan Drouin and Nikolaj Ehlers continue their development in junior after being drafted by NHL clubs. He says: The CHL is the primary feeder for the NHL, and the number of elite under-20 players that don’t make their NHL squad each year is relatively small. Mitch Marner from last season is one example.

The main argument from those who’d like to see under-20 players eligible for the AHL is that from a statistics perspective they’ve already proven themselves at the junior level, dominating their peers on the scoresheet. However, if an elite player doesn’t make his NHL squad at 18, spending an extra year in junior isn’t just about numbers, it’s an extra year to develop physically, and most importantly, as a person. Developing in the AHL is great from an organizational systems perspective, but an extra year in junior allows a player the “room” to work on specific components of their game as-instructed by the team that drafted them, and at that age an additional year of maturity goes a long way.

These kids are just that - kids. Thrusting them into a professional situation before they have it sorted out between the ears can be dangerous. Rushing a prospect to the pros before they’re ready, whether that’s the NHL or AHL, has proven time and again to be incredibly risky. If a player is truly ready for the pros, he’ll be on the NHL squad.

Additionally, there is the risk of the CHL suffering from all of the elite talent leaving the moment they are drafted. As it stands now the truly talented youth who are destined to make their NHL clubs at 18 are only in junior for two years, or three if they get a special exemption to play at 15. What makes the CHL special is the drafted 18-19 year olds who are the stars of the league, who not only allow the CHL and their clubs to be successful from a business perspective, but it makes the teams a vital component of the community. Fans and businesses that support CHL franchises rely on the marketing power of an NHL-drafted player developing in their town. Given the fact that the CHL provides a vast majority of the NHL’s workforce, it’s in the best interest of the NHL to ensure the CHL is a healthy and successful entity.

I think this fear is overstated. Is college football diminished by top talent leaving after their junior season? Not significantly, no. As a class of talent leaves, a new class of talent arrives to take their place. Sure fans hate to see certain players leave, but they are a fan of the school first and foremost. They know it is not the final destination for those players. Canadian fans could get used to having players for just 2-3 years, and know that there will be fewer 19 year olds in the league.

As for the young players adjusting to a professional environment, we see that in other sports. One-and-dones play in the NBA. Recent high school graduates get drafted and signed by MLB teams and spend time in rookie leagues or low A learning to be professionals and playing against appropriate competition - all under the watchful eye of their parent club.

If the NHL adopted this system, the play in the AHL should improve. Imagine the Monsters of this year being able to replace Lukas Sedlak with Dubois. Imagine next year replacing Sonny Milano with Abramov. I worry that Dubois will be forced to be on the Columbus roster next year, but still won’t be at the level to get the minutes he needs. He would be stuck in a fourth line role, which I think would be worse for him than getting first line minutes in Cleveland. Ditto for Abramov, who needs to bulk up before getting regular minutes against NHL veterans.

Free Abramov. Free Dubois. Let the kids Cleveland.

What do you think?

How should teenage prospects be developed?

Leave them in Canadian juniors23
Let them play in the AHL114
Other (share your proposal in the comments)4

Subscribe to The Cannon

Don’t miss out on the latest articles. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only articles.