Could the NHL change the draft age from 18 to 19?
TSN’s Bob McKenzie spoke about the possibility on Tuesday night’s edition of Insider Trading. Former third-overall-pick Pat LaFontaine is leading a group of stakeholders that includes the NHL, NHLPA, CHL, USHL, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, and NCAA to discuss a “whole new development model.”
According to McKenzie, the model would go from age five to age 20, and would include changing the NHL Draft-eligible age to 19, with “some obvious exceptions for exceptional players.”
The system would likely feature an expanded version of the CHL’s Exceptional Player Status. Normally, players aren’t eligible to play in the WHL, OHL, or QMJHL (the CHL’s three leagues) until they’re 16. However, there is a process (outlined extensively by McKenzie here) where players deemed exceptional can begin to play Major Junior at age 15. Players and their families apply to the CHL and Hockey Canada, and the player is examined on and off the ice to determine if he truly is exceptional. So far, only six players have ever applied, with John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day, and 2018-eligible Joseph Veleno being successful candidates. The first thee on that list went first overall in their OHL and NHL draft years, while Day went fourth in the OHL draft was a third-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2016. While it’s still early in his career, McKenzie noted that “some were questioning whether he was as blatantly exceptional as Tavares, Ekblad or McDavid.”
Changing the NHL Draft age would drastically change the way the draft is conducted. Looking back over the past two drafts, top selections like McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine would likely have been able to still be drafted at age 18. All four of them have been successful in their rookie seasons, and were clearly NHL-ready at age 18/19. While McDavid was a CHL exceptional-status player, the other three played NCAA, Swiss National League, and Liiga in their draft years. The NHL and other stakeholders would need to find a way to coordinate with all leagues to determine which players are truly exceptional and deserve to be drafted at age 18.
While the above mentioned players would still have been drafted at 18, elite prospects like Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Jesse Puljujärvi, and Pierre-Luc Dubois may have been forced to wait an extra year, depending on the rules set out. As it stands now, several teams have issues with how the NHL-CHL agreement is laid out, as it forces 19-year-old draft+1 players to either play in the NHL or CHL when the AHL may be the best for their development. Strome is a current example: he’s posted 129 and 111 points in his last two years in the OHL and has nothing to gain from returning to junior, where he will dominate and potentially learn bad habits because of how dominant he is at that level. Strome has just one assist in six NHL games this year, and would be well-served by 40 games in the AHL to learn the pro game. That’s currently prevented by the NHL-CHL agreement. On one hand, it’s easy to see that CHL teams don’t want to lose their brightest stars before they absolutely have to, but at the same time it may not be in the player’s best interests to go back to junior. Changing the draft age to 19 could alleviate this issue, with drafted players only playing one more year of junior, at most, before turning pro.
LaFontaine and the stakeholders will meet again on Wednesday. On Insider Trading, McKenzie said they’ll “need to get some traction soon if it’s going to happen.”
The NHLPA would also need to agree to the change in collective bargaining when the current CBA expires in 2022 (both sides can opt out two years early). Convincing the Players Association that players will have to wait an extra year before making an NHL salary could be a tough argument, but it will be interesting to see how the discussion goes over the next little while.