Before I get started with my proposals, I need to state as a disclaimer that I am fully open to changes in the minor details of these proposals. The following is not meant to be a firm structure. Rather, the importance of the following is the major principles that I am trying to address. I will state details for the sake of completeness, but I am fully open to changing the minor details, but not the major principles. For example, as you'll read below, I don't mind switching the jobs per say that I assign to the AHL and ECHL.
I should also state that I have drawn a lot of inspiration from the current MLB prospect system development model. Obviously, I wouldn't copy it fully as some components I don't agree with or some wouldn't transfer over completely, but if any detractors of the following proposals think that it looks too much like MLB's system
it was intentional.
The first and most important component of what I think would address a great deal of the current prospect development issues is that most prospects after being drafted, should have to sign with their NHL teams and begin their pro careers within a very short amount of time. No two extra years in the CHL, no college career, and no staying in Sweden for a season. Once you get drafted, you get a little time to negotiate a deal over the summer and then you must begin a professional hockey career in North America playing for pro hockey teams that have a direct affiliation with the club that drafted you. This would obviously create a huge ripple effect on the CHL as it would end the current CHL-NHL agreement, something I'll detail later.
The purpose would be to create a system that would have all NHL prospects under one roof, even if it's divided into multiple teams at different levels. NHL teams would be able to control and influence their prospects' development immediately and directly very shortly after they are drafted.
There are a lot of fine details to go over for such a proposal. The league structures would need to change, the contract limits and structure would need to change, the Entry Draft would need to change, development processes would need to change, and pro scouting likely would change too. Also we need to take into account the effects on places like the NCAA and CHL, the latter of which would be significant when it comes to evaluating pre-draft prospects.
So with that being said, let's get going.
The proposal would see the minor leagues of the NHL expand into three leagues.
One minor league would be an Under-20 league, meant for 18- and 19-year-old prospects signed to minor league contracts. Currently, the NHL uses a September 15th cutoff date on their entry draft. While there is no full public explanation for this that I am aware of, one industry source tells me it is to make sure players are coming into camps at 18 years or older. I personally don't care about that issue, but if they wanted to continue pushing that button, players could always wait until they're 18 after they've been signed before they can start playing and be brought in for training, which is a clause that can be included in the contract.
The purpose of the U-20 league would be to create a competitive environment for players that are not ready to face older players. However, the season would be lengthy, say about 70 games, with 30 teams and each would be a direct affiliate of one NHL team. The players would not be forced to remain in this league for the duration of the season, and if their development progressed well they could be promoted to a better minor league or to the NHL and could be sent back as well. This league would be able to be filled due to the fact they would be getting players globally, and because of changes to the Entry Draft which I'll detail in the next column.
Another league would be an all-age minor pro league, whose primary emphasis would be on being a house for the best young prospects in the game. While it would allow players of all ages with a pro contract, the focus would be on developing prospects in their early 20's and the elite U-20 players who have progressed past the U-20 minor league but are not ready for the NHL. Again, there would be 30 teams, with each being a direct affiliate to an NHL team. All prospects would be allowed to move freely from this league to the league above it, the NHL, down to the U-20 league or be sent back to this league. For the sake of giving it a name, this league will be referred to from now on as the ECHL as that is a recognizable name.
The final minor league would be an all-age league like the ECHL, but it would be a league whose primary focus would be on housing the minor pro players, rather than the legitimate NHL prospects. It would feature much older, physically developed players who have become permanent minor leaguers, NHL journeymen, etc. This league will be referred to from now on as the AHL. The AHL would be able to send players to the NHL, while also being able to receive players from the ECHL and Under-20 league. However, if they would want to send signed players back from the AHL to the ECHL or Under-20 league, it would be suspect to certain details, which I will elaborate on in the contract segment.
These three leagues would comprise the new minor league system for the NHL. With just about all prospects signing right out of the draft, and with an expanded draft haul (which is what I will detail in the next segment), it will allow NHL teams to form multiple deep rosters filled with the best talent from across the globe. These players will then be under direct development control right after their draft, playing with familiar faces through their minor league years, being pushed and challenged significantly on a development basis, and having their development be the number one priority for their minor league teams. After a player has proven he is ready to advance, there will be an avenue available for these players to steadily climb and face new challenges.
As I said before, these are not absolute solutions. There are obviously the hurdles of forming the third league, having to create a deeper hockey operations staff for NHL teams and the funds that go with that amongst other details although the new revenue from marketing the quality of the talent in these new leagues will likely help that aspect.
The next segment will address changes proposed for the NHL Entry Draft and changes that would need to happen with pro contracts in terms of substance and overall structure.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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