Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is playing his rookie NHL season as an 18-year-old. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bob Nicholson made a lot of waves this weekend when he brought up the idea of the NHL going to a 19-year-old draft and though I believe the Hockey Canada president has the best of intentions, I still don’t see the point.
Some have claimed Nicholson simply wants the Canadian League and, by extension, Canada’s world junior team, to benefit from an extra year of service from stars such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jeff Skinner. But an examination of what Nicholson is actually proposing puts that fire out quickly.
For legal reasons (see Ken Linseman’s WHA lawsuit), the NHL can’t ban 18-year-olds from service and Nicholson has noted an exceptional player – or perhaps all 30 kids picked in the first round of the draft – would be exempted from the age hike.
Which kind of brings the whole notion into question. Under this new system, Nugent-Hopkins and Skinner would still have been NHL rookies at 18. Really, the crackdown would only affect a player such as Ryan O’Reilly, who beat the odds in 2009 by going from the second round of the draft straight to the Colorado Avalanche.
O’Reilly, in fact, is the perfect example of why this proposal is flawed. The Colorado center earned his roster spot thanks to dogged two-way play, earning a defensive role on the team’s third line and helping the young Avs to a surprise berth in the playoffs. Despite his youth, he was trusted with nearly 17 minutes of ice time a game – about a minute less on average than fellow 18-year-old Matt Duchene, who also did big things for Colorado that year.
The fact is the NHL is already governed by a process that sends teens back to junior if they’re not ready – it’s called natural selection. Jonathan Huberdeau looks like a world-beater with a great future as a member of the Florida Panthers, but GM Dale Tallon also saw a kid who needs to pack on some meat to his frame. No worries. Huberdeau simply returned to the Quebec League’s Saint John Sea Dogs, who become a very real possibility to repeat as Memorial Cup champs thanks to his return, as well as welcoming back fellow first-rounders Nathan Beaulieu and Zack Phillips to the fold.
Smart GMs know when to bring a kid along. The New Jersey Devils, for example, have mined the NCAA for talent to great success over the years both via draft and free agency and have a pretty simple policy to ensure the best odds of success: “We never encourage a player to leave college early,” said GM Lou Lamoriello.
To be sure, players have been rushed to the NHL. But much like overpayment in free agency, you cannot save owners and GMs from themselves. In general, draft selections are getting much better as time goes on and that will help the process. This year, seven of the top eight picks (Huberdeau was the exception at No. 3) made their team’s opening season rosters. Ryan Strome of the Islanders didn’t end up playing, but New York rightly felt the atmosphere-soaking would help in the long run before he was returned to junior.
Go back to 2006 and a top five of Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel still looks pretty solid. But delve further and you’ll come across the 1989 draft, when the first nine defensemen taken were Adam Bennett, Doug Zmolek, Jason Herter, Jason Marshall, Linsay Vallis, Kevin Haller, Jason Soules, Jamie Heward and Steve Bancroft. The first blueliner taken in the second round? Adam Foote. Nicklas Lidstrom was taken in the third round that year, 53rd overall. Back in 1985, the first three centers selected were Dan Gratton, Ryan Stewart and Glen Seabrooke. Joe Nieuwendyk went 27th that year.
So let’s just accept that with players getting better prepared for the NHL life at an earlier age and teams getting better at choosing the truly elite, things are probably fine when it comes to the draft age.
Ryan Kennedy is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.