On many occurrences per season, I end up following or being involved in the debates and discussions that surround the current prospect development world, be it the CHL vs. NCAA debate, the CHL-NHL agreement, the quality of the AHL, or the Russian transfer issue. It seems every league has its problems, so consequently, it's rare that a prospect is predominantly in an ideal development environment during their entire pre-NHL career. This is why the current NHL prospect development system needs change. In fact, it needs drastic change, and the sooner it happens, the better. While the wheels aren't falling off the truck, the truck right now is an outdated machine that gets to where it wants to go very slowly and doesn't always get its full shipment to its destination.
I have not been a fan of the current prospect development model for a long time, between the talent drainage of the AHL, the prospect wasteland of the ECHL, the CHL-NHL agreement that puts prospects between a rock and a hard place in regards to quality of competition, the inability to get college players into pro camps, the teeth you need to pull to get Russians to transfer, and the leverage Europeans use against their own NHL clubs to remain overseas and burn an ELC year. The predominant factor is that NHL teams are not able to control their prospects on a day-to-day basis. They lack a hands-on approach in critical development years for a large majority of their prospects, who spend most of their non-NHL life outside of the direct control of their NHL team.
The following three columns are a detailed proposal of how I would go about making significant changes to the current NHL prospect development system. This first column will be outlining the problems presented by each of the current main development leagues.
Canadian Hockey League
While every league has created some issues in the modern day NHL prospect development dilemma, a major chunk stems from the CHL and its three component leagues, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League.
The CHL has become a giant in the prospect world, possessing a rather significant image that attracts a lot of attention for non-prospect development reasons. It has become a breeding ground for a huge amount of top NHL prospects.
One of the major issues hurting player development that stems from the CHL is the current CHL-NHL agreement that keeps players drafted out of the CHL from entering the AHL until they turn 20 years of age. Consequently, the CHL has so many of the world's top talents at the age of 18 and 19 who play in the league post-draft. Those two years are extremely critical development years for hockey prospects and NHL teams more or less cannot control the finer details of their development because their ice time and team factors are decided by a third party.
While their level of competition is elite in regards to U-20 play, another issue with the CHL is that a lot of the top 18- and 19-year-old drafted prospects are not challenged enough, which isn't the best for their development. I touched on this issue a while back. I asked Hockey Prospectus colleague Kent Wilson, who is pretty knowledgeable in the field of psychology and learning, about that topic, and his response was:
"Players will have a problem improving if they are in way in over their heads or way above the competition. In the situation where the players are rushed to the NHL, the attainment of improvement seems impossible. In the situation where they stay in the CHL, they don't need to improve, so development stagnates. Ideally, players must be challenged enough to be forced to improve, but not so much that the competition is way over their heads."
I'm sure a lot of readers are familiar with the rock and a hard place some prospects get stuck between when they're too good for the CHL or not good enough with the NHL. That typically happens to very good prospects, but it happens to a lesser degree with simply good to average prospects. Referencing that same column, I looked at how many drafted NHL prospects in the three CHL leagues were scoring at certain rates. At the time of that writing, 34% of drafted prospects in the OHL were scoring at a point-per-game rate, coupled with 35% in the QMJHL and 39% in the WHL. The CHL does have a much higher scoring context than the NHL, with a goals per game rate of 3.63 in a league like the OHL last year as opposed to 2.80 in the NHL, but the NHL saw merely 15 point-per-game players last season amongst those with at least 35 games played. Using a 35 GP threshold in the AHL, we saw only three NHL prospects score at a point-per-game rate. If you wanted to use 10 GP as a very low threshold, seeing as there's more player movement in the AHL, that numbers only jumps to six.
We could argue over the small details of those numbers, but I don't think it is an outlandish statement to say that a lot of the above-average players in the CHL are able to score at a high rate and are simply not challenged enough by their quality of competition especially when they hit their 18- and 19-year-old seasons.
In summary, the main issues with the CHL when it comes to NHL prospect development is that the quality of competition is too low at times for many of its better, older prospects, and it prevents those prospects from advancing to a new league that is not the NHL but rather a middle ground, where they can continue to get challenged and develop but not be overwhelmed.
O, the NCAA, you have so much potential. Your quality of competition is very high, you have major programs that fill up giant rinks, your TV future is bright, and the entertainment level of your games is quite good. However, you manage to take that package and just come up so short. Your schedule is too brief in regards to number of games, which is a big deterrent for many prospects and a prime criticism of your development ability. You don't let CHL players into your league, which would let you gain a bunch of talent once players reach the 20+ age stage, so players need to play in inferior leagues (although the USHL has become pretty strong) if they eventually want to become college players. Finally, you also don't let your players go to pro camps or play in the preseason like the CHL does, which is a major opportunity for a lot of prospects.
Europe and Russia
Europe provides a whole other dimension of issues towards NHL prospect development. Their pro leagues don't have the quality of competition issues the CHL does or the extremely lacking schedule the NCAA does (with the SEL's schedule is 55 games long, SM-Liiga 60 games, and the KHL 56 games).
However, the main issue with Europe is that they keep top prospects overseas. This is a problem on two fronts. One is that prospects don't get acquainted to the North American ice and style, which can range from a minor to major transition process, depending on the prospect. The other issue is that it simply keeps prospects away from NHL teams. Whether players are comfortable playing at home, want to continue playing for a certain European pro team for whatever reason (teammates, grew up watching them, want to win a certain championship), it keeps prospects from crossing the pond even if they truly want to become NHL players one day.
It's not as if the European pro leagues are poor quality. The SEL and SM-Liiga are of equivalent quality to the AHL and the KHL is notably beyond it (based on Robert Vollman's studies in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11). However, it's these little things that can be quite a problem in prospect development. This is apparent when prospects don't want to report to North America, and negotiate a loan out to their European clubs after signing an entry-level deal with an NHL team. Doing so allows them to go back to their comfort zone overseas, not play a North American pro season, and burn a year off their ELC.
There are obvious exceptions, such as Finland's mandatory military service, but aside from that, in an ideal world you would want your European prospects to come overseas permanently and ASAP. The non-Russian prospects are put on more of a timer as after two seasons they can re-enter the draft (see Tim Erixon) and it puts pressure on them to get an ELC done right away to shorten the low money years. However, Russians do not have that problem due to the lack of a transfer agreement. Still, when we're talking about the age 18-21 seasons, just getting an extra one or two of those on North American soil can mean a lot in those critical development years.
I don't think I'm being too harsh when I say for the most part the ECHL is where prospect stocks go to die. In 2010-11, 24 drafted prospects played at least 30 games in the ECHL, and only six scored at above a 0.75 point-per-game rate. In 2009-10, 11 drafted prospects played at least 30 games in the ECHL, and only three scored above a .75 point-per-game rate. While I can see how the ratio between the number of players and those with the high scoring rates may seem good, the fact is the ECHL is a league significantly below the AHL in quality of competition while the AHL is league flooded with prospects and the ECHL is barely getting any noteworthy players. With NHL teams bolstering many drafted prospects at the AHL level, if they felt some of their players were somewhat struggling or needed more ice time, they don't seem to send them to the ECHL, likely due to a lack of confidence in the league as a significant location for prospect development.
The AHL is more or less a product of everyone else's deficiencies. The average age of an AHL player this year is 24.33, but the youngest player is a 19-year-old who will turn 20 rather soon. Additionally, over 90% of the AHL is North American players, with the next highest nationality being Swedes at 3%. The league does have not high upside teenagers, and is predominantly North American built. Yet this is the prime development league for a very diverse league nationality-wise and the primary feeder of players in the NHL.
The lack of top-end 18- and 19-year-olds coming from the CHL and top European prospects not coming overseas has turned the AHL into a somewhat watered-down development league. When it comes to scouting, hands down there is nearly no league I dread watching more than the AHL. The high amount of lowly talented journeymen players and low-tier prospects make the quality of hockey poor due to the lack of top talent entering the league.
I'm pretty sure I've done a good job of seeming like a glass half-empty guy in detailing the holes of each major league that features NHL prospects. While some may look at this column and think that every league has pros and cons, I truly think it shouldn't have to be this way. We shouldn't live by a system that deliberately forces players to hurt their NHL careers in any form and we shouldn't have a system that doesn't allow players to be given the opportunity to develop into the best players they can possibly be as soon as they can possibly be because of exterior interferences.
There is a way to fix all this, and yes, it is something that absolutely requires fixing. Players should be able to be in environments that continuously push them at all times, they should be able to take part in pro camps, be a part of a pro environment, be able to have their ice time and usage context controlled for their absolute benefit and to be put in situations that adjust them fully for the NHL game.
You can get that all done at once, but it won't be easy. In the next column, I will outline how exactly we should go about this.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Corey by clicking here or click here to see Corey's other articles.