Monday March 7th, 2016

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman revealed over the weekend that an NHL committee is investigating possible changes to the player development model across North America.

One avenue in particular immediately raised eyebrows.

“The biggest factor this could have on the league: discussions about moving the draft age up to 19," Friedman said on Hockey Night In Canada. "No guarantees it’s going to happen, but it’s something to be looked at.”

The NHL currently allows players who are 18, or will be by Sept. 15 the year of their draft, to be eligible for selection.
 
The appeal of such a change to NHL teams is obvious. Having more time to assess a prospect would minimize the early-round draft mistakes that can derail the momentum of a franchise and would afford teams an opportunity to take better stock of late-bloomers.
 

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While those benefits seem straightforward, altering the system wouldn't be easily undertaken. A change like that might prevent NHL-ready players from taking the next step in their careers. And that could provoke a challenge in the courts.

SI.com legal expert Michael McCann worked on the legal team representing Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in his challenge to end the NFL rule requiring a player to be three years removed from high school in order to be draft eligible. He says any change in the draft age that was unilaterally imposed by the NHL would almost certainly run afoul of U.S. antitrust laws.

"There are various cases, including the Spencer Haywood case from the Supreme Court, which have held that it is unlawful for competing businesses (including competing sports teams in a league) to join hands in imposing eligibility restrictions," McCann said. "Such a bright-line, inflexible restriction based on age rather than talent or skill is considered more anti-competitive than pro-competitive since there are clearly players who are young that are good enough to make it. It wouldn't be hard to show that is true in the NHL, given the success some 18-year-olds have had in the NHL."
 
But if the age restriction was altered through collective bargaining with the NHL Players' Association? That's a different story...probably.
 
"Generally, when owners and players collectively bargain rules of employment, those rules are exempt from relevant antitrust scrutiny when those rules primarily impact a player's wages, hours and other working conditions," McCann says. "In the Clarett case we argued, among other things, that a rule that primarily impacts those not yet in the league—the players who because of the rule can't be in the NFL—should not be considered exempt from relevant antitrust scrutiny. The NFL argued that such a rule is nonetheless exempt because unions can in some cases negotiate on behalf of those not yet in the league. The NFL won, but that is only the decision in one federal court of appeal (the Second Circuit). We believed and still believe the outcome might be different in other federal circuits."
 

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Even if it an NHL change is collectively bargained, it's possible that it eventually could face a court challenge. But that might be avoided by the implementation of a hybrid system. For example, one that would allow 18-year-olds to be selected only in the first round. After that, a player would have to be 19 or 20 to be eligible. That would allow "early" entry for exceptional players such as Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Aaron Ekblad who are capable of making an immediate jump to the pros, while creating time for the next tier of prospects to be properly vetted.

 
"The more flexible a rule is—[like] one that permits 18-year-olds to be drafted so long as they are picked in the first round—the more likely it would withstand antitrust scrutiny in the event it is subjected to it," McCann says. 
 
Would the NHLPA play ball if the league chose to go this route? Probably. There's no real downside from a union perspective and it might be able to use its leverage to shorten the draft to six rounds from the current seven. That's a move that would create 30 more free agents with a chance to better their compensation via competition for their services.

The NHL's committee is still a long way from making its recommendations, but don't be surprised if this one gains some traction.

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• Leave it to Roberto Luongo to have a laugh at his own expense after being left off the roster for Canada's World Cup entry.

Unfortunately for Bobby Lu, an over-35 side isn't an option. But if it was, it'd be a pretty competitive group ... at least if it followed the U23 model and took players from both Canada and the United States.

The strength of the side would be between the pipes. Alongside Luongo, who ranks top-10 in wins (27) and save percentage (.922) and just outside on goals-against (2.33) this season, the Golden Oldies could rely on Craig Anderson (27 wins), who will be 35 by the time of the tournament, and Ryan Miller who, at 35, is right at his career average in both GAA (2.67) and save percentage (.914). All three have international experience—Luongo bested Miller in the 2010 Olympic final in Vancouver—and each of them is capable of carrying the mail.

The team would have some skill up front, but speed and depth down the middle would be issues.

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The first line might feature Joe Thornton, 37, between Patrick Marleau, 36, and Shane Doan, 39. Thornton is having a Selke Trophy-caliber season, playing relentlessly in all three zones. His 62 points are good for seventh in league scoring and have him on pace for 79, which would be the most he's tallied since 2009-10. Doan has 24 goals this season, and is on track to top his personal best of 30, set back in 2005-06. Marleau's wheels are as swift as ever, and with 19 goals he's dangerous in all situations.

The team could ice a solid second line with Jarome Iginla, 39, (19 goals), Jason Chimera, 37, (17) and Mike Ribeiro, 36, in the middle. The bottom six could feature Chris Kunitz (36), Brad Richards (36), Alex Tanguay (36), Joel Ward (35), Mike Fisher (36) and Vernon Fiddler (36). Not fearsome by any means, but accomplished and responsible.

The back end would be led by Brian Campbell (36) and Francois Beauchemin (35). Both players lead their teams in time on ice and are used in all situations. Beyond them, the team would rely on a mix of John-Michael Liles (35), Dan Boyle 940), Brooks Orpik (35) and Willie Mitchell (39). Not a particularly mobile bunch—in fact, they'd probably get turnstiled by the speed of their opponents—but there's something to be said for experience in high-pressure situations.

Not a bad group overall, but it‘s probably just as well that they'll be watching on TV with the rest of us.

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• All eyes are on University of Minnesota-Mankato defenseman Casey Nelson, the player widely regarded as the top college free agent available this spring. "He's a highly mobile defender who [can] generate offense with a crisp pass or a hard, accurate shot from the point," a scout told SI.com. "He thinks the game well in his own zone ... and plays with a bit of an edge."

With four goals and 20 points this season, the 23-year-old junior won't match last year's 33-point effort. But the development in his overall game, especially in terms of improved defensive work, has some NHL teams picturing him as a future second-pair option. The Canucks, Sabres and Jets are all thought to be ready to bid for his services when the season comes to an end for the Mavericks.

The numbers game

• Speaking of the game's grand geezers, Jaromir Jagr has passed Gordie Howe into third on the NHL's all time points list, with 1,851, and he did it in his 1,613th game–154 fewer than Howe played (1,767)–while moving ahead of Ray Bourque (1,612) into ninth place on the games-played list.

​•​ Coyotes captain Shane Doan skated in his 1,451st career game, tying Teemu Selanne for 23rd on the NHL's all time list.

•​ ​Bruins bench boss Claude Julien is now the winningest coach in franchise history, having passed Art Ross with his 388th triumph behind Boston's bench. 

Hot links

• Good news for fans of the Boston Bruins. The team has declared war on ticket scalpers, canceling hundreds of season ticket accounts. Here's what it all means.

• Even the players who don't make a World Cup roster might take home a fat bonus check as a result of the upcoming tournament.

• Pro tip for expectant parents: If you name your newborn after a pair of Washington Capitals, they just might send you a gift.

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• Bad news, Canadiens fans: Three would-be Habs are featured on this list of 10 prospects whose stock has dropped the farthest over the past year. At least they took one Bruin with them, eh?

• Mike Hoffman's scoring touch has him in the mix for Team Canada's World Cup entry, but he can't get off the fourth line in Ottawa.

• Here's the thing with tanking for the draft: When you race to the bottom, you leave yourself a long way from the top.

•​ The regression everyone feared is happening for Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk.

• All my years of coaching, I've never seen anyone bring a bucket of KFC into the room after a practice. After watching this commercial, I might have to give it a shot.

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