Say it out loud and it sounds daft. If you are 18 or 19 and were drafted from a team like the Vancouver Giants, you can’t go and play pro hockey at any level outside of the NHL for two years.
This arrangement is due to a nearly four-decades old deal between the NHL and Canadian Hockey League — the organization that governs this country’s three major junior leagues.
The purpose of the deal is to raise the prestige of Canadian major junior hockey, by prohibiting Canadian and American players drafted from a CHL club from playing in the AHL, the NHL’s primary professional development league, until they’re in their age-20 season.
In the short term, it may marginally raise the quality of CHL games, and in theory help pull in more fans to major junior stands, something owners in those leagues like.
But it doesn’t do anything in the long run for the player — and that’s without getting into how it’s an anti-worker policy, one that keeps young Canadians from earning a wage, unlike their European peers.
What makes the Canadians so different?
It’s the only prohibition in place in the NHL’s development path. If you’re drafted from a European league — and a good portion of those 18 year olds are already playing pro hockey — or even from American junior hockey or Canadian Tier 2 junior hockey or NCAA collegiate hockey, you can step right into the AHL.
Few would argue that a kid playing in one of those other junior leagues — or even that every 18- or 19-year-old CHLer — is ready for pro hockey, but they could in theory.
That young Finnish or Swedish stars, like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen or Mikko Rantanen, have started their North American professional careers in the AHL while still teenagers further highlights the folly. There’s no reason to think comparable Canadian teenagers like Jake Virtanen wouldn’t have benefited from making a similar step before they turned 20.
Data collected from drafts between 2005 and 2014 by Hockey Graphs’ Prashanth Iyer suggests the agreement is putting major junior draftees behind their peers in terms of long-term development, suppressing their hopes of NHL stardom.
Iyer has discovered that prospects playing pro hockey in Sweden and Finland are able to make the jump to the NHL faster than kids drafted from CHL clubs. And the deeper you get into an NHL draft, the better the long-term upside for defencemen drafted from places such as Finland and Sweden.
“The CHL was always worried about the AHL,” Iyer said in a phone interview. “But really they should be worried about these other leagues.”
Because there’s nothing stopping players from outside the CHL from playing pro as teens, or more drastically, moving to Europe where you can immediately start making a wage — which Auston Matthews did before being drafted in 2016 — Iyer wonders if the non-CHL route will become a more common path in the years to come.
His data reveals a striking story about European draftees, especially for the later rounds.
Roughly one-third of defencemen drafted as 18 year olds from the Finnish pro ranks in the fourth round or later made the NHL by the time they’re 22, while nearly 20 per cent of drafted Swedish defencemen playing pro hockey as 18 year olds are in the NHL at the same age.
In comparison, just five per cent or so of the defencemen drafted from a CHL club in the later rounds made the NHL by the time they turned 22.
When it came to forwards, there was more uniformity in the development curve for later-round draftees: about 25 per cent of prospects drafted the Nordic professional ranks made the NHL by age 24; at the same age about 20 per cent of CHLers had made the show.
In the first three rounds of the draft, where just about every prospect now plays at least a game in the NHL, Finns and Swedes made the league faster, with roughly 50 per cent of defencemen drafted out of one of the Nordic pro leagues making it by the age of 22. CHL defencemen took two years longer to return the same success rate.
“Finnish and Swedish defencemen, they have the freedom to advance when they have to,” Iyer pointed out.
It’s not that Swedes or Finns have any special technique in developing hockey players — it’s simply that young hockey players from those two countries are playing and behaving as professionals at the age of 18 and sometimes younger.
NHL clubs often talk about how hard the transition is to professional hockey. There’s no reason for young North Americans to be held back as they have been.
CHL president David Branch, who announced earlier this year he’s stepping down as head of the organization, tried to defend the CHL’s prospect development record.
Canadian teenagers, he implied, shouldn’t be asked to behave like professionals.
“I still feel that the best place to play as a teenager is the Canadian Hockey League,” he told The Canadian Press in 2016. “You’re playing with largely players your own age, you’re still allowed to be a young guy and once that’s gone, it’s gone. You don’t get it back.”
Once upon a time that Branch tale might have held water, but in today’s modern hockey world there’s too much money at stake to keep holding these kids back.
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