There has been much talk recently regarding the possibility of increasing the age of eligibility for the National Hockey League Entry Draft to 19.
At first glance, this idea just seems like another manifestation of the NHL’s compulsive desire to fiddle. “Let’s make the net bigger”. “Let’s make the crease smaller”. “Let’s switch around the divisions”. “Let’s ruin the World Cup format with Team Some-of-Europe and Team Young-Guns-But-Only-If-You-Are-23-And-Under-And-Not-Some-Foreign-Guy”. Seriously though: has the league ever thought of just leaving things alone? Even just for a while?
The three main reasons for this proposed change are the notions that general managers and their scouting staffs would have a larger body of work from which to make decisions come draft day, that it would increase the level of competitive play at the junior (and collegiate, for that matter) levels, and that NHL teams would have to pay their players for one fewer year.
First of all, NHL draft rules state that any North American player between the ages of 18 and 20 can be selected, along with any European player who has not yet entered the NHL. Therefore, there is already a large window of opportunity for NHL teams to identify late bloomers and hidden gems. It is down to their front offices to identify the best possible players, whether they be 18 or 19, 28 or 29, 38 or 39. Do your jobs, or get someone who can.
Secondly, I understand the desire to maintain good-quality hockey at the developmental level, but, dear NHL, I would absolutely LOVE to know how you are going to go and tell someone like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel that, as legal adults, they can’t play in your league. What more are these supernaturally-talented players going to learn in another year of junior or collegiate hockey? What if sending them back actually stunts their development? And, pray tell, what happens when junior-age players start flocking to the European leagues, à la Auston Matthews – or the KHL? Even worse, with the latter league’s ability to (mostly) pay its players comparable salaries to those of the NHL, what would be the incentive to come back? What happens if the next McDavid plays his entire career for HC Sibir Novosibirsk? You want good quality developmental hockey? Let 18 year-olds into the AHL! (for the uninitiated, the minimum age to play in the American Hockey League after having been drafted out of Canadian Major Junior is 20)
Oh, to be fair, there have been various compromises floated, such as allowing 18 year-olds to be drafted, but only in the First Round. This suggestion is equally ridiculous; how much difference is there, really, between players at picks 30 and 31 of a draft? Come on, now. The NHL struggles to gain traction in many non-traditional hockey markets. Making things more complicated and inherently inconsistent does nothing to garner new fans, and just confuses and or infuriates the ones the league already has. It is really getting embarrassing for hockey fans to admit that they follow the NHL.
As for junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League is already plenty competitive. Yes, it can, at times and in certain areas, struggle to get people to care. But that isn’t the fault of a lack of talent. I feel like making some simple changes, such as altering the format of the Memorial Cup to something resembling March Madness (idea courtesy Jeff Marek on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast) would go a long way towards growing interest in the often-undersupported CHL.
Drafting is inherently risky. Has this guy who has succeeded in Major Junior already reached his ceiling? What if he becomes complacent after being hyped so much at such a young age? Will that kid who has committed to college flunk out in his first semester? However, the same argument can be made for most things in life. “If I take money out of this bank machine, what if someone comes up behind me and steals it?” “If I pick Anaheim in the Playoffs, what if they have to play a Game Seven?”
Raising the draft age to benefit NHL teams is akin to saying to the government, “Nahh, give me another year to pay my taxes. I just feel like I would be able to do a better job if you gave me another year. Oh and I’m also not going to pay you for that extra year.” Certainly, this may be ideal. But this is also not how the world works. You sit down, fill out the needlessly complicated forms, send them in and hope for the best. Most years, you get a tax return. Sometimes, you get audited. Sometimes, you get thrown in jail. That’s just the way life works.
If NHL teams aren’t happy with the players they have selected, the Entry-Level Contract stipulations give them an easy out. Or, they can always do what the Leafs did this past offseason and fire almost their entire scouting staff. After all, if some NHL coaches and general managers haven’t embraced analytics, it stands to reason that their scouts haven’t, either. Who knows, maybe some teams still have a cadre of crusty, narrow-minded employees who like a guy with a “good stick”, who is “hard on the puck” and who scores well on the “eye test”. But I digress.
Put simply, to those advocating for an increased draft age: stop whining and accept the fact that nothing in this world is a certainty. And please, PLEASE, stop your incessant fiddling with our game.