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Rolling the Dice

As Paul pointed out last night, Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson has suggested changing the age at which teenage hockey players are draft eligible from 18 to 19.  He cites a statistic indicating only 12% of Canadians play in the NHL before age 20.  He also uses the draft class of 2003 to support his argument, claiming the 2005 NHL lockout forced many current NHL stars to spend another year in junior hockey, which supposedly benefited their development.

I’m not so sure it’s fair to draw a correlation between the amount of time a player spends in junior with his performance as a professional.  Some players spend five years in junior hockey, and have incredible overage seasons, but obviously that doesn’t guarantee them success at the NHL level.  With that said, I understand why 18-year-olds are being rushed into the league faster than ever before, and I can also see why Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League is dismayed by the situation.

If an NHL team thinks an 18-year-old draftee is going to be an impact player within a few years, that player is going to be given an opportunity to make the club as a teenager.  Granted, that player isn’t expected to be a top-liner right off the bat, but the goal is to help him become accustomed to his team, his coach, and the league as quickly as possible.  It’s a huge gamble, but the thinking is, if the player is good enough, he’ll be ready to break out by year two. 

Steven Stamkos is a perfect example.  Barry Melrose, in his brief tenure at the helm of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, felt Stamkos should’ve been sent back to Sarnia of the OHL early in his rookie year.  Stamkos wasn’t scoring, wasn’t making plays, and was clearly not ready for first line duties.  A year later, he’s one of the best goal scorers in the game, and in hindsight, Melrose looks like a blithering idiot. 

It’s always driven me crazy when pundits try to explain why a hockey player is or isn’t successful.  Analysts always like to use Josh Bailey as an example of a player who was rushed into the league.  A first round draft pick in 2008, Bailey has failed to reach his potential during his first few years on Long Island.  He bottom out last season, spending part of the year in the minors. 

Everyone seems to think Bailey’s struggles can be blamed on the Islanders’ refusal to send him back to Windsor to enjoy one final dominant season in the OHL.  Apparently, Bailey wasn’t given the opportunity to properly develop as a player, and as a result, may never recover.  Not once has anyone suggested that Josh Bailey just might not be a good NHL player.  No, that can’t be. 

Nobody seems to think Patrice Bergeron was rushed as an 18-year-old.  Funny enough, Bergeron was a late second round pick, having enjoyed a fairly unspectacular 17-year-old season with Acadie Bathurst of the QMJHL.  In fact, believe it or not, Bergeron was actually cut by Bathurst as a 16-year-old, as his coaches felt he wasn’t ready to compete at the major junior level.  Two years later, and he’s a full-timer in the NHL.  You figure it out.

In the end, I have no problem with raising the age of draft eligible players.  It would no doubt improve the junior hockey product by leaps and bounds.  But I think Bob Nicholson is being disingenuous when he says the purpose of his proposal is to help maximize the development of young Canadian hockey players.  I think he’s simply going to bat for the CHL, which is losing more and more of its teenage stars to NHL clubs than ever before.

There’s no definitive proof to support the argument that an extra year of junior will help more Canadians stick in the NHL.  Nicholson says increasing the draft age will help teams draft more effectively, as scouts will have an additional year to better gauge a player’s true potential.  It’s a shoddy argument, at best.  What will a scout see in an 18-year-old than he doesn’t see in a 17-year-old?  More points, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the player is any closer to developing into a future pro stud.

The draft is always a gamble.  The fact of the matter is that most drafted players never compete in the NHL, and that’s not going to change, regardless of the eligibility age.

Filed in: | Tasca's Take | Permalink
  Tags: draft+age, junior+hockey, nhl+draft


Da lil Guy's avatar

I see two problems -

One is that other leagues may undercut the NHL and sign players earlier.

The other is that we’d need another lockout year for this to work.

Posted by Da lil Guy from Guelph, Ontario on 10/16/11 at 01:39 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.