The Backcheck: Picking Apart the NHL’s Development Model

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[Every week, Sportsnet’s  Eliotte Friedman writes a column called “30 Thoughts” and it’s basically the NHL article I look most forward to, as it gives—you guessed it—30 tidbits about the goings on the NHL based off of info Friedman has gotten from his sources.

In the past, former TheScore.com writer Justin Bourne wrote the second article I most looked forward to, “Thoughts on Thoughts” in which Bourne picked his five favorite Friedman thoughts and elaborated.

Unfortunately for those who loving reading Hockey articles—but fabulously for Justin Bourne himself—Bourne was hired by the Toronto Marlies as their video coach and so his article has ceased to exist.

However! As is the American way, I shall not let a good idea go to waste!  So for this column, “The Backcheck,” I am going to rip off Coach Bourne and basically co-opt his idea for TheThreeFour.com’s purposes.

Each week, following Elliotte Friedman’s wonderful piece, I will go back (get it? Backcheck?) through—however many—tidbits that interested me and give my opinion on them. It may be five, like Bourne’s; it may be 1, who knows? Whatever topics need to be elaborated on shall be.]

This week’s 30 Thoughts: Making the NHL’s development model better

Friedman’s column this week is pretty juicy, as it touches on something I’ve been hearing in the rumor mill for a couple years, so bear with the length, but a large part of this section is worth reading, if you haven’t already.

Months after returning to the NHL from an executive stint with the Buffalo Sabres, Pat LaFontaine quietly reached out to several of North America’s top amateur and junior leagues with a question: “What can we do to make our developmental model better?”

“We were told, ‘No idea is a bad idea,’” one representative said, declining to comment on the record. “If we stay quiet, we’re not going to improve things.”

LaFontaine, the’s NHL Vice-President of Development and Community Affairs, put together several meetings that involved the league, the Players’ Association, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, the United States Hockey League and the NCAA. It was held last spring, and another “NHL Development Summit” is scheduled for early May.

Reached Saturday, LaFontaine didn’t want to say too much. He echoed a quote he gave to ESPN.com’s Joe McDonald, that “discussions remain preliminary, and we are looking at everything in an attempt to improve how we develop players.” He was also concerned about speaking out of turn. Even though he’s passionate about this project, he knows nothing will happen without approval from higher up the food chain.

Last month, Hockey Canada President & CEO Tom Renney told NewsKamloops reporter Gregg Drinnan that, in an effort to get 16-year-olds out of junior hockey, he pitched the idea of a “midget super league” at the summit. (Renney, saying he did not “want to contaminate the process by saying too much publicly,” declined to speak further.)

That’s an intriguing idea. But, from an NHL perspective, the newsiest item surrounds the draft. Current rules allow anyone who turns 18 by Sept. 15 of the draft year to be taken. But, there’s conversation about going to age 19 across the board.

What’s most interesting is that several sources believe this talk is serious, and, while it would be a mistake to say anything is imminent, many of the stakeholders would like to see it happen. Apparently, it’s been a topic of conversation at NCAA and CHL games in recent weeks.

From executives to agents to coaches, they’ve heard the rumours. One NHL goalie coach reached out to suggest that even if skaters are still allowed to be drafted before age 19, netminders shouldn’t be.

“Their development takes longer and they get less looks…at age 17 and 18,” he said. “Seems to be there would be less mistakes made on goalies if they have more ‘junior mileage.’ How do you know if he’s any good when all scouts see is size and pre-game warmup?”

Like I said, I’ve been hearing rumors about LaFontaine’s desire to make changes for a couple years now. Since he’s been quiet about the exact changes he desires, the rumors have been pretty widespread. I’ve heard everything from making Major Junior a U18 league, allowing Major Junior players 18 and over to either go to the NCAA (something all Major Junior players are currently prohibited from) or pro—meaning NHL, AHL, whatever; if you’re good enough to play in a Pro league at 18, you can—to the ideas Friedman has presented in his column.

For my part, I’m kind of torn on which way I want the changes to go, if I want there to be any changes.

I’m a big fan of the midget super league idea (midget hockey is currently split into two sections, minor and major, and range from ages 16-18), but my biggest issue with it is, some kids who get to enjoy the experience of midget hockey would get pushed out, because of all the 16 year olds not playing Junior taking up the roster spot.

Those kids, now exiled from midget, would have to find somewhere else to play—a lower league— which would push kids out from there, and so on and so forth.

I’m all for reform, but we have to keep in mind that there are “not-elite” players in minor hockey that we shouldn’t be taking the game away from. There are not enough super-talented 16 year olds to make a league solely consisting of them, so some midget players, normally not slated for a super league, would have to be included, and that will trickle down and hurt the game at the grass roots level.

If they can figure out a way to keep minor hockey at all levels intact, say if they make the super league only for 16-year-olds, so basically a minor midget league, than that could work.

There are a ton of 16 year old kids who skip minor midget and play major right off the bat, as well as 16 year olds in Junior leagues, so that amount of kids might be enough to base a league off. Then, the roster spots left by the 16 year olds who are no longer in major midget could go to the 17-year-old minor midget players, and for the most part, grassroots hockey wouldn’t be tarnished.

As far as the NHL draft switching from 18 to 19, I’m not so sure I care about that as much as I think the September deadline is ridiculous. Why not just do it by year? This wouldn’t make the draft age older, but having that deadline just doesn’t make sense to me. 18 years old, 19 years old; to me it doesn’t make that much of a difference. If they really wanted to make a change, they’d switch the draft to being 21.

At 21, no matter where the kid played he’d be of legal age to do anything but rent a car, so you wouldn’t run into trouble there, and—more importantly—that’s when you see a real development change in a man.

The drastic changes in development—strength, smarts, etc—a man goes through from 18 to 21/22 are gigantic, as are the changes from 21 to 24 years old. Think about—if you’re a guy reading this—how much smarter you were at 21 compared to when you were 18. Or 24 compared to 21. How much stronger you were, aware of your surroundings. Those are HUGE differences. 19 compared to 18? Barely a difference. This change seems like it would be made just for the sake of making a change, or for the sake of the NHL being able to say, hey, we tried. If they really wanted to make a change to the draft age for some sound reasoning, they’re going to have to change more than just one year.

Lastly, as far as the goalies are concerned, yes they do seem to take a lot longer to develop compared to skaters, but there’s no way that’s going to get passed. Why would the NHLPA agree to forbidding a certain position the ability to make money at an earlier age? Ain’t happening. If a skater can be drafted at x age, then you can damn well bet the goalies will want to be drafted at the same time. It’s almost ridiculous that someone in Hockey would think that’s a possibility.

What would I like to see happen?

Well, definitely not the allowance of Major Jr players to the NCAA. Not with how the NCAA is currently constructed. Maybe if NCAA DII came back will full force, it’d be ok, but again, if that were to happen, some NCAA DI players would move down to NCAA DIII and that would take spots away from current NCAA DIII players. It would make both levels a lot better, but I think some part of the focus in making the development model better should be placed on keeping as many legitimate opportunities for players to play open as we can.

I think an easy fix would be to look at the NFL and NBA and take some of their ideas. Now, the NHL could put a stipulation that a player has to have x amount of years played in Major Junior or the NCAA before being allowed to enter the draft, but with how the game is constructed all over the place (and the fact that the NHL draws players from all over the world, much more than the other two leagues), it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But I do think there’s a way to make declaring for the NHL draft a thing.

First, let’s deal with the younger side of this.

In Major Junior, there’s a stipulation which allows players under the age of 16 to enter the league. It’s called Exceptional Player Status, and whether or not a player is granted this status is based off their talent, their academics and their maturity level. Basically, a player can apply for Status, they go through a gigantic process, and are told yes or no. Only five players have been granted Status—John Tavares in 2005, Aaron Ekblad in 2011, Connor McDavid in 2012, Sean Day in 2013, and Joey Veleno in 2015—and everyone else has to wait until their 16 to play in the league.

So my thought is, why not allow this at the NHL level? Make the draft age whatever you want; 18, 19, 32, whatever, but allow for exceptional status players to be drafted as soon as they’re deemed talented enough.

Everyone complains about the NBA’s one-year-of-college-before-eligible because it leads to one-and-dones in the NCAA, but really, having a strict age limit is no different. Guess what, just there are some players in NCAA BBall who only play because they have to, there are Hockey players in both Major Junior and the NCAA who are just stupidly better than everyone else, and are only playing because the rules don’t allow them to be Pros.

I honestly don’t know how many players would be deemed exceptional enough to be drafted to the NHL early, but why not make it at least an option?

The second part of declaring for the draft would affect older players. In NCAA Football, you’re eligible to declare for the NFL draft once you’ve gone through three years of college ball. So, after three years, even though you have one more year left of school, you’re allowed to go to the NFL.

Each Bowl season, college coaches get all of their Juniors’ draft grades and the coach lets the player know, “if you were to enter the draft, you could expect to go in x round.” If the player likes what he hears, he declares for the draft. If the grade isn’t as high as the player wants, he doesn’t enter the draft, goes back to school, and enters the draft following their final year of college.

Why not implement this into the NHL draft. Again, pick whatever draft age you want, but also allow a window, past that draft age, for a player to declare for the draft. If the player is in Major Junior at 18, he has two more years of Major Junior eligibility, so give him a two year window in which to declare for the draft. If he really wants to go in the 1st round and at 18-years-of-age, he’s given a 3rd round draft grade, he can forgo the draft, go back to Major Junior and try to improve his stock. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t—that’s not the point. The point is it would be up to the player, not some age-requirement system.

For players who go the NCAA route, sometimes they’re in the NCAA at 18, sometimes they’re not. Giving them a two year window allows them to either access themselves at that level because they went as true freshmen, or, it allows them to at least get to their school before having to be drafted. Again, if they like their draft grade at 18, go for it. Enter the draft. But giving them a window allows them to have some sort of say of when they’re drafted.

What do you think?