This year’s top draft prospects are currently having their heads scrambled by their prospective employers at the NHL combine and many decisions will be made in the next few months. The players themselves also need to figure out where their development will be best served and with players jumping from the NCAA to major junior, an inequity has become more pronounced recently: The kids drafted outside the Canadian League can go to the American League as teens, while their major junior counterparts must wait.
At 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds, defenseman Jamie Oleksiak possesses a frame that is surpassed by just a handful of NHL players. It’s part of the reason Dallas selected the Toronto native with the 14th pick in the 2011 draft and why he will turn pro next season, either with the Stars or their AHL affiliate in Texas.
Oleksiak ended this campaign in the Ontario League with the Niagara IceDogs, who acquired him during the season from Saginaw. But it’s only because he was drafted out of Northeastern University that Oleksiak was eligible to play for the AHL’s Texas Stars this past season as a 19-year-old (though he didn't). If he had been in major junior all along, his first year of pro eligibility would come next year. And that's kind of dumb.
While it’s great for players such as Oleksiak or Washington’s John Carlson, it seems unfair that Boston Bruins pick Dougie Hamilton would have to return to junior next season if he doesn’t make the big squad, just because he was drafted out of OHL Niagara.
By all accounts, Hamilton’s size and skill (he’s 6-foot-5 and nearly 200 pounds) mean he will crack the B’s blueline next year, but I’m sure the Bruins wouldn’t mind the option of sending him to AHL Providence to play against men.
The NHL has an agreement with the CHL that its prospects must remain in major junior until they are 20 or have played four full seasons. This rule, of course, is to keep talent in major junior. But is it outdated?
Prospects today are much more prepared physically than even 20 years ago and thanks to Goliaths such as Oleksiak and Hamilton, they’re often bigger than most NHLers. In Europe, top prospects play against men all the time – Tampa’s Victor Hedman and New Jersey’s Adam Larsson being two of the more high-profile recent examples. Those two D-men also boast big frames and high skill levels.
With Oleksiak in particular, the Stars were happy he was dealt to Niagara mid-season, but wouldn’t have minded seeing him play against men, either.
“He could have gone to the AHL this year,” said Les Jackson, Dallas’ director of scouting and player development. “But he was going to a good coaching setting and with all those guys playing at the world juniors (four other IceDogs played for Canada), that was confirmation he was with a good group.”
Still, it was nice for Oleksiak and the Stars to have options. Pundits will tell you that no player has been ruined by being developed longer, while many who were rushed have, but that’s the problem here: The AHL represents the perfect middle ground between junior and the NHL and it’s not available to everyone.
The perfect example is Toronto’s Jerry D’Amigo. Drafted out of Team USA’s national team development program, he spent one year at R.P.I. before deciding to leave school. He turned pro and joined the AHL Marlies as a teenager. When his results were middling, he went to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers midway through the campaign before heading back to the Marlies this season. He’s now in the Calder Cup final and boasting 13 points in 13 games.
D’Amigo needed a little more time before becoming an effective pro, but because he and the Maple Leafs had options, the stocky left winger was able to navigate those waters.
Carlson went from the United States League’s Indiana Ice to the London Knights after he was drafted by the Capitals, but jumped to the AHL Hershey Bears after one season. He actually joined Hershey in the playoffs and won a Calder Cup as a teen, then came back the next year and did it again for the repeat. Now he’s Washington’s best defenseman.
The CHL is not suffering for talent – just ask Miami University, which has lost Tyler Biggs, Connor Murphy, Ryan Hartman and now Patrick Sieloff to major junior the past two summers – so why not allow the option for the exceptional to become pros as teens? The stakes in the AHL are lower than the NHL and the kids can always come back to junior if necessary, but at least they’d have the choice.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.