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Why are High-End NHL Prospects Snubbing the CHL?

When it was confirmed recently that top 2016 NHL Draft prospect Auston Matthews will be playing for the Zurich Lions in the Swiss professional league during the upcoming season, a trifecta of CHL snubs had been completed.

Following this year’s OHL Priority Selection Draft, it was reported that Ryan McLeod — the third overall pick in the draft and the first-ever selection by the Flint Firebirds since moving from Plymouth, Michigan – would not report to training camp. The main reason? Flint is nowhere close to his home in the Greater Toronto Area.

A similar situation occurred just two months later during the QMJHL Draft when Shane Bowers — who was ranked third by Central Scouting– made it known that he would not play for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and would instead suit up for the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL this fall.

So it leaves CHL fans and higher-ups alike wondering: why all the snubs of what has become arguably the most highly-touted major junior hockey circuit in the world?

Looking at the Matthews situation, it makes sense that the dynamic center chose to play in Europe — and no, it will not be the start of a new trend. Matthews missed the cut-off to be eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft by just two days. Born on September 17, this ’97 birthday is stuck in a draft class of primarily ’98s. And since there is no exceptional status to grant a prospect entry into the NHL early, the Scottsdale, Arizona native is forced to play his entire draft year as an 18 year-old. A unique situation, but especially unique for a player of his caliber.

The reason this is a one-time deal and something the CHL should not fear is because the combination of Matthews’ exceptional NHL-readiness and the rarity of a birthday so close to the cut-off makes him an extremely rare case. College hockey was originally the route most had expected Matthews to take (there were reports that he had a short-list of destinations he was considering), and then there were the rumors that he would play in the WHL (with some speculating that it would require Everett trading his rights elsewhere in order for him to play in the Canadian Hockey League).

I do think he’ll learn a lot under [Crawford]. Assuming that Marc treats him like a normal player, he’ll play with a couple of good players. Zurich has a good team, and has been good the last two years. It’s very competitive, and there are a lot of Swiss players capable of playing in the NHL, so that’s the positive I see in this. He won’t be just playing with guys his own age. He’ll be a step above that so this will push him.

– U.S. National Junior Team coach Ron Wilson

In the end, he chose the closest thing to NHL hockey he could realistically find, and who can blame him? He will be making $400,000 and will be under the direction of former NHL coach Marc Crawford, learning how to improve his all-around game rather than focusing on the one-dimensional aspect of offense in the CHL (he already covered that aspect of his game with his 116 points in the USNTDP last season).

While it’s a bummer that we won’t get to see Matthews in action in North America during the 2015-2016 season (except for the U20 World Junior Tournament), the fact that he chose another alternative shouldn’t concern the CHL.

But when McLeod made it known that he will not report to the Firebirds this fall, it was tough for the OHL to swallow.

Some believed it was a ploy to get the Firebirds to trade him to the Mississauga Steelheads, where he could join his brother Michael (a top 2016 NHL Draft prospect) and be in close proximity to home. That sentiment was further explored by Battlefords News-Optimist contributor Craig Beauchemin shortly after it was reported that the top 2018 draft prospect had no intention of playing for the Firebirds.

Beauchemin cited the case of Victor Mete, who he said ‘threatened’ to explore other options such as the NCAA after reportedly proclaiming that he had no desire to play for the Owen Sound Attack, the team that drafted him. Beauchemin further explained that the Attack shortly thereafter traded their top prospect to the London Knights, where he promptly reported for training camp.

The Knights organization is quite possibly the most attractive option for top prospects in the OHL. They are perennial contenders, as Beauchemin explained in his piece, so it’s no wonder a guy like Victor Mete wanted to go play where he thought he had the best chance of winning an OHL championship and/or a Memorial Cup championship.

Refusing to report can be somewhat damaging to a player’s reputation in certain situations. Matthews was never really expected to suit up for the Everett Silvertips, mainly because he seemed to be going down the path of playing college hockey. But in the cases of both McLeod (who has yet to make any sort of commitment as far as where he is playing this season) and Bowers, there were hard feelings left between team and player.

Bowers was a candidate for being the number one overall pick in this year’s QMJHL Entry Draft. However, when Joseph Veleno was granted exceptional status, Bowers slid to number four and was selected by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. It was speculated ahead of the draft that he was another risky prospect who may not commit to the team that drafted him, but that scenario played itself out not too long after the draft.

The parents and the agent have informed us that Shane will not be reporting to our camp. We’re surprised and disappointed because Shane is a Nova Scotia resident who is from just four hours away – it’s surprising also because on draft day Shane spoke to different media and said he didn’t see a problem playing in Cape Breton.

– Cape Breton Screaming Eagles head coach and GM Marc-Andre Dumont

Bowers also cited lack of proximity to his home in Nova Scotia as a reason for not playing for Cape Breton. There was talk that he was leaning toward the USHL all along, but had he been drafted by the Halifax Mooseheads, it’s not likely that he would pass up the opportunity to play for his hometown team.

Overall, though, let’s not lose faith in the draw of the CHL. Some top prospects may choose other options, but the doomsday scenario of a mass exodus from Canada’s top junior league that some have hypothesized is a bit exaggerated.

  • Tom S Hunter

    For every guy who ‘snubs the CHL’ there are multiple guys who are ‘snubbing’ the NCAA for the CHL. Four guys jumped to London alone in the last month. Tkachuk, Jones, Piccinich and Sherwood

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