Late Thursday night/early Friday morning, reports came out that the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning have loaned 19-year-old forward prospects Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly to Team Canada for the upcoming IIHF World Under-20 Championship, otherwise known as the World Junior Championships. There was also speculation that top Panthers defense prospect Erik Gudbranson may get loaned out, but as of this writing he won't be.
At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal at all and rather just two 19-year-old players being given an opportunity to play in a better development environment. However, you almost never hear about an American, Russian, or Swedish prospect getting loaned out of the NHL to the WJC if they are an everyday regular. There was speculation about top USA defense prospect Justin Faulk possibly going to play for the Americans, but as long as he's not in the AHL and has a significant NHL role that likely will not happen. This is a Canadian problem, for reasons I'll detail in a little bit.
Let's first take a look at how the two aforementioned loaned players have done this season with some five-on-five results (with a threshold of 20 games played):
Stat (Team Rank) Brett Connolly Devante Smith-Pelly
TOI/60 11.09 (8th) 8.34 (9th)
Corsi Rel QoC 0.375 ()11th) -1.211 (10th)
Off Zone Starts % 49.0% (6th) 53.0% (3rd)
Relative Corsi -2.6 (7th) -19.0 (10th)
On-Ice Shooting% 6.98% 3.61 %
ESP/60 1.00 (7th) 0.58 (10th)
As expected for 19-year-old players, they are facing pretty poor competition and not getting a whole lot of minutes. They aren't putting up points, but also have pretty low on-ice shooting percentages that will likely rebound soon. Connolly is playing better and is showing that he should be a top nine forward on the team, which is what you would expect from a sixth overall pick and someone I thought was a top 15 NHL prospect this summer even at the age of 19.
What is clear for both players, though, is that they are not ready to be significant players in the NHL, the roles they provide are very replaceable, and they most likely would be better served being in an environment where they are not as overwhelmed by such a high quality of competition and were getting more minutes on a nightly basis.
It is rare for an NHL regular to get loaned to the World Juniorsnot one who is bouncing between the AHL and NHL, but one who has played more or less an entire season for a team. The only non-Canadian example I could find (thanks to Twitter follower @Grover_Sens) was Oscar Moller for Sweden in 2009 from the Kings.
I can't help but look at these two situations, and just more or less do some sort of face palm. Both of these players were held past the ten NHL games played mark, which is a signal from their respective NHL teams they felt they were ready for competition beyond the CHL level. Yet through a significant portion of games, they have yet to show that they are ready to play tough minutes through the eyes of their coaching staffs. I would not be surprised, especially in Smith-Pelly's case, that if the AHL route was open, it would have been explored a long time ago.
However, as I detailed in my three part series on reforming the NHL development system, the current agreement between the CHL and NHL to not allow U-20 players drafted out of the CHL to play in the AHL has created all sorts of problems. Just looking through the Team Canada Selection Camp Roster, I can easily spot a bunch of names who should be in some sort of minor pro league and are clearly beyond the CHL level such as:
And I'm pretty sure I could make arguments for others as well.
It's amazing how much developmental harm the CHL-NHL agreement does in terms of holding back 18- to 19-year-old CHLers and keeping many 19 year old NHL players from furthering their development in an environment best suited for their needs. This is a tune I keep harping on, but examples like these are not exactly going to lessen my points.
The way the CHL, AHL, and NHL do business needs major reform. Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson is an excellent example of how things should run.
Carlson was drafted outside the CHL; therefore, he was allowed to go to the AHL. He decided to go to the OHL at 18; he played well, but then decided he needed a new challenge. He went to the AHL at 19, also played well there, and got a three-game NHL sample before the World Juniors. He wasn't ready during the first half of that season to be an NHL regular, but he got quality ice time in a good pro league with a focus on his development. He then went to the World Juniors while under a pro contract but not in the NHL, played very well for the USA, then came back and earned a regular shot for the Caps. That was a series of decisions that made sense, was cautious yet kept making sure Carlson was being pushed but not overwhelmed. Brett Connolly, Erik Gudbranson, and Devante Smith-Pelly have not had that opportunity.
What pains me as well is that there's no discussion about the required reform happening. We're talking more about raising the draft age, which I addressed here, than we are about making the changes necessary to ensure the best CHL players are getting the development environment that is best for them. Until these changes do come, we will continue to have the development of great CHL talent hampered as NHL teams make development decisions between bad and worst when it comes time to finalize their roster or before the 10-game limit when Entry-Level Contracts officially kick in.
The fact that the Lightningwho just lost Martin St. Louis to injury and likely will lose Steve Downie to a significant suspensionwould freely loan away a forward who is eighth on their team in 5v5 TOI/60 so that he can get some good development in an environment where he can be a significant player and be challenged just shows that the current arrangement is simply ridiculous.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Corey by clicking here or click here to see Corey's other articles.