If Jonathan Drouin had been allowed to play the 2013-14 hockey season for the Syracuse Crunch, rather than the Halifax Mooseheads, would he be in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup right now rather than at home in Montreal, skating and waiting for a trade?
If, rather than dominating a major-junior league known for its lack of defense, Drouin had been developing the defensive skills he allegedly lacks by playing against larger, more experienced professionals, might this season have played out differently for him?
Drouin is hardly the only prospect who could’ve benefitted from playing his draft-plus-1 — or even his draft-plus-two — season in the AHL, rather than returning to his major junior league. Max Domi spent two seasons in the OHL after he was drafted, but it isn’t farfetched to think that if he’d spent his first post-draft season in the AHL, he would’ve made the Arizona Coyotes roster last season. Other players who come to mind include Leon Draisaitl, Jared McCann, Daniel Sprong, and even Nail Yakupov during the NHL lockout of 2012-13.
However, none of these assignments were an option thanks to the CHL/NHL transfer agreement. The agreement states that any player drafted and playing for a CHL team is ineligible to play in the professional minor leagues (AHL, ECHL) until they are 20 years old (by December 31st of that year) or have completed four years in major juniors. In other words, if you’re drafted out of a CHL league and don’t make the NHL, sorry buddy — it’s back to the WHL, OHL, or QMJHL for you.
For the benefit of future players like Drouin, Domi, or Sprong, it would behoove NHL teams to propose an amendment to that agreement: that each NHL team be allowed to assign one CHL-eligible prospect to the AHL per season.
While abolishing the transfer agreement altogether would allow for freer movement, there are players who need that extra year or years in major-junior for development purposes. If the agreement was abolished entirely, those players may be assigned to their NHL team’s AHL affiliate before they’re ready, depending on the competency of their NHL team’s player development staff. This could lead to major setbacks in their development, loss of confidence, or at worst, injury from going up against men in a faster, more physical league.
Instead think of this: teams choose one prospect each year they feel would benefit more from a season in the AHL than in their respective major-junior league.
An agreement like that would make a significant difference in the way teams are able to develop their top prospects.
Most top prospects who get sent back to major-junior are cited as being “not up to speed yet in their own end”, or “not ready to make the jump”. In most of these cases, the defensive zone is the one real area these players are seen as being deficient, and going back to their major-junior league — particularly when it is the QMJHL — and dominating in the offensive zone all season isn’t going to solve that problem.
Playing professional hockey in the AHL against more experienced players and a higher level of competition night in and night out, however, might.
It can’t be said for certain that a player like Jonathan Drouin would be depended upon nightly in Tampa’s lineup if his 2013-14 season had been played in Syracuse rather than Halifax. But given that Jon Cooper publicly criticized Drouin for poor defensive play — something he was never going to improve in the QMJHL — it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
Giving elite-level prospects an extra year of professional development before subjecting them to the NHL could make all the difference in their play throughout their rookie season, which, for that kind of talent, tends to come sooner than later.