CHL/AHL age debate rages on

TSR Features | 11 Mar 2012

Connolly has spent the entire season in the NHL as he is not eligible to play in the AHL due to his age.

A member of the Hockey Hall of Fame suggested underage players would be better off playing in the American Hockey League.

Steve Yzerman won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and has since become the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He said players who have been drafted into the NHL and have three years of CHL experience should be allowed to play in the AHL.

As the rules currently stand, anyone who is drafted into the NHL from the CHL cannot be assigned to the AHL until they are 20 years of age.

What Yzerman is proposing would allow players to join the AHL a year earlier.

As the sixth overall pick in 2010, Brett Connolly was the first ever draft selection Yzerman made. Yzerman has kept Connolly, 19, with the Lightning all season rather than returning him to his WHL team, the Prince George Cougars. Connolly, who was a prolific scorer in junior, has struggled to produce offensively in the NHL. He has just 11 points in 53 games for the Lightning, and is averaging less than 11 minutes per game.

Yzerman said players like Connolly would be better served playing professionally in the AHL rather than struggling to keep up in the NHL.

“We’re not trying to raid junior hockey, but we look at Brett, he’s played in junior hockey for three years,” Yzerman said during an interview with the Vancouver Sun on Feb. 3. “Part of the reason we wanted to keep him is we felt like it was time to play against stronger competition and at a higher pace.”

Hockey analyst and scout Craig Button said he disagrees with Yzerman’s position that players with three years junior experience should be permitted to play in the AHL. Button said he felt it would be detrimental to player development if the proposal went through.

“It is an age-old proposal that has been made numerous times over the years. The CHL would have a big problem if this came about,” said Button. “The AHL is a league that requires lots of maturity and the vast majority of 19-year-olds are not ready. I prefer letting kids mature amongst their peer group. You can’t speed up maturity.”

Scott Campbell, creator and managing editor of The Scouting Report, agreed with Button that it would be bad for business if the CHL allowed its top players to play in the AHL. Campbell said removing the most talented players from the junior ranks would ruin the product of the CHL.

“By stripping CHL rosters of 19-year-old players the CHL would be losing their top players, which has strong ripple effects to consider,” said Campbell. “Suddenly, the league is more watered-down, less talented and would see the cyclical nature of the league further impacted as more and more players would only become two-year guys. The CHL is big business and the owners will never agree to a rule change that will essentially gut the league of its top players.”

However, Campbell notes the CHL is the only league from which players cannot graduate to the AHL at age 18 or 19. Players drafted from Europe, for example, have the option of joining their NHL team’s AHL affiliate. The NHL club must decide if it is in the player’s best interests to make the transition to North America sooner than later.

Drafted 60th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Tomas Tatar joined the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins the following season.

Tatar said he experienced some difficulties when he first came to play for the Griffins, but felt overcoming those difficulties was worth it to be able to continue his career in the AHL, rather than the Slovakian ExtraLiga.

“It was kind of tough. I didn’t really speak English at the time and the hockey style is kind of different back in Europe,” said Tatar. “It was kind of a tough change, but I made it and I’m happy and I was glad I did it that early.”

Tatar agrees with Button that physical maturity is a key to success when playing against much older competition. Strengthening his body is something Tatar has worked on since coming to North America.

“The game is way more physical and I’m not sure if I was 100 per cent prepared for the league because my weight wasn’t that high and I wasn’t that strong at the time,” said Tatar. “It was pretty tough.”

With the NHL’s CBA set to expire at the end of this season, there will be plenty of issues to work out. If Steve Yzerman has his way, young Canadian hockey players will have another option available to them.


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