I was thinking about this concept the very day last week when the Maple Leafs released their Rookie Tournament roster for the annual weekend get-together in London, where Toronto’s younger players will be joined by those from Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and Montreal.
Now, Auston Matthews won’t be there, but he has a pretty reasonable excuse given he’s been conscripted into duty for Team North America (along with Leaf Morgan Rielly, and a bevy of other shooters under age 23) at the exact same time. If there was no World Cup, would the Leafs have him in that tournament? Hmm, still not so sure they would. There’s a thing called “asset protection” and any remotely minor tweak or hard hit Matthews absorbed at that tournament would be questioned, and perhaps rightly so.
Mitch Marner IS going to play in the tournament at Budweiser Gardens, and he’ll not only the most-cheered for Leaf as a former London Knight, but his performance at the tournament, and, of course, in subsequent exhibition games soon after will be highly-scrutinized.
Given the belief is that William Nylander will certainly be on the big club and expected in uniform Opening Night October 12th (yes, I hate the late start to the season as much as you do – the World Cup should be starting Labour Day weekend as every other Canada/World Cup has, but good luck getting the NHLPA to forces players away from one last waterski run at their cottages!), it’s Marner who will be the most-debated player on the roster, as to whether he’s dressing against the Sens in Game 1 (and staying up), dressing in that game, soon to be headed back to the OHL, or headed back to the defending Memorial Cup champions in London before that time.
Now, few disagree, Marner, in three seasons, and especially late last season, and certainly in the OHL playoffs, demonstrated there’s little more he can do in that league. He was beyond dominant — and with 242 regular season points combined the past two seasons, and a mindblowing 44 points in 18 playoff games this past year. It should be noted the Knights almost certainly lose Coyotes second-rounder Christian Dvorak, a 2nd round pick from 2014, and it’s very much up in the air whether Calgary sees fit to keep this summer’s 6th-overall pick, Matthew Tkachuk, or send him back to London in search of more seasoning and a far less lame nickname than “Tkachuky Cheese”. Awful, people. Awful.
But unfortunately for Marner, and the Leafs — there’s no in-between as there was for William Nylander, meaning Marner cannot play for the Toronto Marlies, maybe where the organization might most prefer to see him play this year, in a perfect world. After all, it’s a step up — playing against men in a fast-paced, now more skill-oriented league than ever, and there’s obviously an easy proximity for a recall to the Maple Leafs, if it’s seen to be the best fit for all, or even if injuries rack up.
It should seem logical, but the NHL/CHL agreement prevents it, and though not utterly unreasonable in its principles and purpose, it’s still fair to ask in 2016 if it’s a bit outdated, or if exceptions (and yes, exemptions) should be provided for the rule. After all, the OHL has made “exceptions” for 15 year olds to play in its league where they see fit. If they hadn’t — John Tavares stays in the OHL for only two seasons (as Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty both did) and not four — he was a late birthday.
Without going through the Agreement in too much depth — the basics are simple. If you are either drafted by and playing for a team in the OHL, WHL, or the “Q”, you can’t play minor league hockey (AHL/ECHL/Other) until you’re 20 years old, or you’ve put four years of Major Junior time in. Putting it that way, if Tavares had been seen as “not ready” even a year after the Islanders drafted him in the Fall of 2010, he could have gone to Bridgeport to play, but not the year he was drafted as an 18 year old.
There is wiggle room for European-born players but only if they’re drafted into the NHL before they’re drafted by a CHL team in their yearly summer Import draft. Leafs fans will remember that Jiri Tlusty fell into this arrangement back several years ago. He was a 13th overall pick of the Maple Leafs in 2006 (ya passed on Claude Giroux, ya dummies! Oh well, most teams did), and was drafted by Sault Ste. Marie in the Import Draft — thus, the Leafs got to see Tlusty as an 18 year old at the AHL level for six games, and the remainder of the season in the snowy Soo.
David Krejci could have done the same for the Bruins but the organization and the player both opted from Krejci to stay in Gatineau for both full seasons following the Bruins drafting him, and it’s hard to argue that didn’t work out well.
As for NCAA players drafted in the NHL, they’re not bound by any agreement with the CHL obviously, so when they choose to leave school, they can play in the NHL, they can play in the minor leagues, but unlike the CHL, they instantly become professionals, and thus ineligible for a return to the NCAA. When players like Mike Komisarek and Mike Cammalerri left University of Michigan, no doubt they thought long and hard about whether it was the right thing, but soon their bank accounts and level of success told them it was. Komisarek was able to split his first pro season between the Canadiens and Hamilton, but worth noting also he was drafted 7th overall in 2001 as a 19-year old, a year older than most of his contemporaries in the same Draft.
This is a real slippery slope — I see it all the time in the NCAA with basketball. It is real hard to develop a rooting relationship for fans of players staying in school only a couple years, or worse yet one. Was Andrew Wiggins really ever at Kansas for anything more than prepping for the NBA? Not really? The player drafted directly after Wiggins was Jabari Parker to Milwaukee from Duke and because of injuries, he only ever appeared in 35 games in a Duke uniform. We can’t have that in the CHL and no one’s advocating that.
While still in the OHL doing play-by-play, I witnessed it with Steven Stamkos — how bereft of talent or excitement the Sarnia Sting were before they drafted him, and after only two seasons, they were immediately less interesting (they actually only even won 4 of 13 playoff games played during the two Stamkos seasons).
But couldn’t we argue Marner is a much different case, and if there isn’t a blanket modification of the NHL/CHL agreement, couldn’t it be adapted to allow a player after three full seasons of junior hockey, and especially if it contains the accomplishments and accolades Marner has earned, to be able to play a certain number of AHL games in a given 19-year old season? 10? 20? Maybe a certain amount of AHL games for a 19-year old before a certain date, but by that date — he has to be with the NHL team, or is returned to the CHL team for the playoff run and the entire postseason? February 1st? February 15th? I don’t have a deadline in mind, but I really do believe, each NHL team should get to pick one designated player to do this with.
CHL players already can be called up in their 19-year old season for playoff duty and it’s an awfully exciting thing after a player’s team gets eliminated in his junior team’s playoffs to move on up and chase the Calder Cup or Kelly Cup.
Now, this isn’t me telling you I don’t think Marner’s ready for the NHL. Many believe he is, though some believe he will struggle as a younger player, and expectations towards success should be tempered considerably. But what I am telling you is that I think the Leafs would prefer the option to have him in the AHL. Marner himself may prefer it, if the alternative is playing sparingly for the Leafs in the early part of the season — remember, everything possible is going to be done to ingratiate Matthews and Nylander into the Leafs top power-play unit and, obviously, their Top 6 forwards, and obviously, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and (brace yourself) Leo Komarov factor into those depth chart discussions as well.
Maybe I’m thinking too much of the London Knights and the fact they won’t suffer terribly on the ice or the box office if Marner doesn’t return — winning and developing is what they do, so the pain of Sarnia losing Stamkos after two seasons, or Guelph with that gaping hole on their blueline post-Drew Doughty’s departure won’t be as acute.
But we’d agree Arizona would love an AHL “option” for Dylan Strome this season, the Flyers with Ivan Provorov, where hopes were high he’d challenge in last year’s camp for a spot on the big club — it didn’t transpire and he spent the full season with the Wheat Kings in Brandon. And now that Kingston’s Lawson Crouse has been moved to Arizona (Bolland!!!), is there room for Strome and Crouse both on a young Coyotes roster already with Domi and Duclair? I’m eager to watch that play out.
In the Maple Leafs 2008-09 season, rookie Luke Schenn would have been an ideal choice to send down to the Marlies during either stretches where he struggled or longer spans when the Leafs didn’t have games. Schenn was rarely sat as a healthy scratch that season – it may have happened once or twice at most, but the convenience of getting him some Marlies games during those times may have paid considerable dividends.
Look, I think this rule was put in place, yes, to protect CHL clubs from losing a prized asset after only two seasons, that’s fair for the organization and certainly the fans of that team as well — but for players at age 19 (and here comes the old argument!) who can vote, drink, go off to foreign lands to serve our country, surely some say should belong to them and the team that gratefully pays the bills for them, yes?