Tuesday, September 9, 2008
TPS Top 5 Tuesdays - 5 Ways to Change Junior/College Hockey
Every week The Pipeline Show will have a new Top 5 on various issues and to start it off we're going to tackle a trendy topic but with our own unique slant. Lately we're seeing a lot of lists of how people would change the NHL, well with our focus we're setting our sights on a different age group. This week we offer up our Top 5 ways we'd change Junior and College hockey.
1) Allow players time to make a decision - Kids shouldn't have to decide at 16 what their hockey future is. I think you should be able to play in the CHL until you are 18, and still have your NCAA eligibility. Of course this is an NCAA issue and they consider CHL like a pro league because players get paid (I guess they don't realize that Junior A players also get paid) Let's not rush kids into making a decision at 16.
2) Year end league battles - I would like to see league champions face off when their season is over in at least a 1-game showdown, if not a best of 3 series. For example, the Memorial Cup champs would take on the NCAA Frozen Four winner. How about the top USHL club skating against the RBC Cup victors (awarded to the top Junior A team) Or the Air Canada Cup champions given to the best Midget team in Canada battling the best high school team from the States. At the very least, Notre Dame should take on Shattucks in a mid season classic on a pond in Saskatchewan in the middle of February.
3) Less hockey in the Summer - We need to stop burning out our kids. No more summer evaluation camps for our national team. So many kids are playing year round and now some - see Stefan Legein - are packing it in. Do we really need a summer evaluation camp when we have all star games, the top prospect game lengthy playoffs in both the CHL and NCAA and the December camp? I might be okay with the Ivan Hlinka which is a U-18 tournament but that's it. Let kids have a break and not skate all year. Besides some kids who have a bad summer camp, head into the season without confidence, so why do we want to add more pressure to 17 and 18 year olds?
4) Bring back All Star game format - Years ago the CHL had league wide all star games, where different divisions from different leagues would face off against each other. Let's get rid of the Canada/Russia travelling tour and instead put bragging rights from different leagues on the line. I remember years ago the OHL's Western Conference took on the WHL's Eastern Conference in Red Deer, and it gave me the chance to see a young Dustin Brown and Rick Nash in person. Give fans a chance to see players they've heard about and will see in the NHL, rather than an inferior Russian team with guys who will be pumping gas in a few years.
5) Raise the draft age up - Especially in the Western Hockey League, draft kids that are 15, not 14, you'd be surprised what an extra year will do for a kids development. Look at Cam Lannigan of the Edmonton Oil Kings. As a 14 year old goalie he was 5 foot 11 inches tall. A year later at training camp he was 3 inches taller. Lannigan was drafted in the 6th round as a 14 year old, but would likely be in the top 2 rounds had he been selected a year later. I would also entertain the idea of upping the NHL age to 19. Although there does seem to be a youth movement going on right now in the NHL, how many 18 year olds really make an impact their first year in the NHL. On the flip side, there are a lot more cases of kids getting rushed - Marc Andre Fleury, Gilbert Brule - and stunting their development. Drafting at 19 gives NHL teams a better indication of a players development and will cut down the "bust picks" by a greater number.
A couple of mine are going to follow in line with some of what Dean said, partly because he’s so smart but mostly because we agree that they are issues that really need to be addressed.
1) Raise minimum age of NCAA commitment to 17 – Like Dean said, right now kids are having to give verbal or written commitments to schools at ages as early as 15 or else they risk losing their spot at a premier NCAA program. But honestly, what kid at 15 really knows what he wants to study at college or what institution is the best to get that education? For that matter, how do they know at 15 that they need to go the college route instead of the quicker CHL path? A 17 year old would have a much better idea as to which path makes the most sense for him. If you legislate it so that NCAA programs can’t recruit high school kids until they are seniors (17-years-old in most cases) then it would be an even playing field on both sides of the border.
2) NCAA allow 18-year-olds from CHL to play – For #1 to work you have to make another NCAA change and that, like Dean suggested, is to allow players to play in the CHL up to the age of 18 and still be considered eligible to play in the NCAA. The thought that the CHL is a pro league while the CJHL is not is just hypocritical. Are there players in the CHL that get paid extra? I’m sure there are but there are also players in the BCHL or the AJHL that do as well but the NCAA conveniently turns a blind eye. Why? Because if they cut off the flow of CJHL players heading south they’d be losing a third of their talent pool (maybe half), much of which are key players. Allowing players a couple years of experience in Major Junior would be beneficial to the player and to the NCAA program he eventually joined. It makes sense if only the NCAA would get off its flawed high horse.
3) Minimum 2-year mandatory commitment to play NCAA – Dany Heatley, Paul Kariya, Erik Johnson, Kyle Turris, Kyle Okposo… the list of 1-year-and-out collegians is massive. When you ask players why they chose the college route the predictable answer is “it was important to me to get a college education”. Well, it seems to me that unless you're Doogie Howser, you're not graduating in 1 year. How many of those types of players actually go for the education and how many go to enjoy the college lifestyle? Personally I see players bolting from college after a year as really detrimental to the NCAA program that recruited them. Plus, somewhere out there is a player who lost out on his chance at a scholarship when one of these guys moved in for a year. Therefore, I think it should be mandatory that if a player is going to commit to a NCAA program that he has to show some actual commitment to that program by staying a minimum of 2 years.
Dean brought up two good arguments against this idea when I talked to him about it yesterday; what about those players who grow up in, let's say Minnesota, and dream about playing for the Golden Gophers? To that I say great! Play for them but don’t cut out on them after a single year! If they really care so much about those programs they should realize the damage they do by leaving early. The other point Dean brought up is that forcing some guys to stay a second year might be detrimental to their development. Fair point but at the same time, in my world a player would know before committing whether or not 2 years in college would be too much or if he should be going the Major Junior route instead (because he'd be at least 17, see point #1).
4) Alter the ADT Challenge – Dean mentioned getting back to the old All-Star format and while I don’t disagree and think that would be great, another option would be to simply change the ADT Challeneg games a bit. The Russian team that comes over is normally so outmatched that the event is seriously flawed and few fans are even following it anymore. I say punt the Russians and bring in American competition.
I don’t know that a USHL All-Star team would be competitive against a WHL or OHL All-Star squad but perhaps if it was played using only draft eligible and un-drafted 19 and 20-year-olds it would provide another event for the scouting community. Not the stacked, already drafted WJC calibre teams that routinely demolish the Russians. I'm not sure how Hockey Canada would feel about that as the ADT games are often a type of dress rehearsal for the WJC camp in December.
The US National Team Development Program often has top draft prospects on it, maybe that would be another option. The one obstacle that might preclude this is again, NCAA regulations. Would playing in an exhibition against Major Junior teams violate eligibility rules? Not sure. It doesn’t seem to matter for international competitions like the WJC or the WJAC so maybe this would be accepted too.
5) NHL teams retain the rights to CHL players who commit to CIS programs – Right now NHL teams have to make a decision on whether to offer pro contracts to CHL players just 2 years after they drafted them. In some cases late bloomers get dropped because the NHL team can’t afford to be that patient with them by keeping them on their reserve list. NHL teams retain the rights to their NCAA draftees until after they graduate so why should it be any different with players who opt to go to Canadian University programs?
Just for the sake of argument I’m going to use Oilers defenceman Alex Plante as an example. He missed most of last year with an injury, is embroiled in a dispute right now with his WHL team and will not be playing for who knows how long? The Oilers have to make a decision on him before June 2009 and they have barely been able to watch him play since they drafted him! In 2009-10 Plante might have pro opportunities but I’m sure the Oilers would prefer to protect his rights without having to offer him a pro contract before he’s proven to be deserving of one. My solution would allow Plante to continue to develop his skills in the CIS while still having that safety net of a NHL team owning his rights. He’d still have the opportunity to participate in training camps where as he might not if he was simply a UFA playing CIS hockey. This plan would encourage more players to go the CIS route at the end of their junior careers, get an education while doing so, rather than accept ECHL contracts where there is no guarantee of a lengthy career. Considering the CHL will pay scholarships to all of their former players to continue on to CIS, it only makes sense for everyone involved.