By Jason Menard
As fans and supporters of the game of hockey, we’re all interested in protecting the game at all levels. But are we doing so at the expense of the players? And is it now time to recognize special players as such – and not hold back their development?
Currently, players with junior eligibility who don’t stick on a National Hockey League roster must be returned to their junior-level hockey club, as opposed to being sent down to a team’s minor-league affiliate. But is this really the best option for all of these players – and is it finally time for one of hockey’s sacred cows to be put on ice?
By sending a player back to junior, an NHL club is able to avoid having a year count against the player’s rookie contract. And, in consideration of the new collective bargaining agreement which sees players eligible for unrestricted free agency far sooner than before, that extra year can mean one more year that a player will suit up for the squad in the prime of his career. Essentially, they get a year’s development on a junior team that essentially provides them an extra roster spot for their minor league franchise. Think of it as the hockey equivalent of a tax shelter – you get all the benefits of the player’s development, without the necessity of losing a contract year.
For the junior squad, it’s a no-brainer. Generally, the players that are on the NHL bubble are the ones who will find their way on to the team’s top lines, turning what may be a moribund franchise into a Memorial Cup contender. The fans benefit by seeing their elite athletes and favourite skaters back in their local uniforms, up close and personal.
But what about the players themselves? Once all the business and financial interests have been met, where does the player’s development fit in? And who’s to say that sending a player down to the junior level isn’t simply wasting a year of development in a sport that offers notoriously short careers. Is it not time to admit that age ain’t nothin’ but a number when it comes to certain special hockey players and a one-size-fits-all approach to eligibility may, in fact, be hindering these players’ development?
At the end of this year’s NHL’s training camp, we’ve seen two players come agonizingly close to sticking with the big club, only to be among the very final cuts back to junior: Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Rob Schremp who was returned to the London Knights, and Montreal Canadiens’ highly-touted rookie Guillaume Latendresse who was sent down to the Drummondville Voltigeurs – both despite having outstanding training camps that almost found them on an NHL roster.
In the end, for both players, the numbers game had much to do with their demotion – unfortunately, it wasn’t the numbers they were putting up on the ice, it was the numbers on theirs and other players’ contracts. Whether there were other players on the cusp with guaranteed contracts, one-way deals, or simply the realization that these players would benefit from more ice time than what they would get on an NHL roster, both players found themselves back in the junior ranks — back in familiar haunts with markedly different results.
Latendresse, visibly disheartened by his demotion, struggled a bit at first but has picked up the pace to record nine goals and eight assists in 11 games. Conversely, Schremp has been toying with the opposition, registering 14 goals and 41 total points in his 10 games back in the green and gold. Which begs the question that if these players are either bored or dominating in the junior ranks, is their respective development being best served by playing with other 17-20 year olds? Will the Colorado Avalanche’s Wojtek Wolski progress as rapidly in Brampton following an impressive NHL stint that saw him rack up two goals and four assists in just nine games?
Or should these players be allowed to ply their trade in the American Hockey League – the NHL’s primary development league – against older and more talented players? Should they receive the benefit of developing their skills against a consistently higher level of competition, comprised primarily of other NHL wannabes and used-to-bes?
Yes, the fans in London, Drummondville, Brampton, and other junior cities would lose out on seeing some of these special players for another year. But junior hockey will survive. The loss of Rick Nash, despite remaining eligibility, didn’t hurt the Knights’ chances during last year’s Memorial Cup run – organizational depth, solid coaching, and astute management were as important to the team’s victories as any particular player.
The fans support the logo on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Junior hockey fans, who are remarkably devoted to these players who spend three years – maybe four tops – with their club, should want the best for these young players. And the best isn’t always a return to junior.
Obviously, we don’t want NHL clubs decimating the junior ranks, populating the professional leagues with junior-aged players, but perhaps it’s time to offer clubs a special designation that can be applied to one prospect a year – should they so choose. This designation would allow NHL clubs to apply the tag to one borderline player and have him play in the AHL (or whatever minor-league affiliate).
That way, the truly special players who have learned all they can from junior, will be able to progress against more skill-appropriate competition. The junior ranks wouldn’t be devoid of all talent – and even the NHL teams may not choose to use the designation each year.
In the end, the NHL teams that have drafted these players have only one interest – to make sure that the player maximizes his development to become a functioning member of the NHL squad. They’re not going to take a kid who’s not ready for prime time and put him in a league where he’s over his head – but they should also be allowed to move him to a level where he’s not skating rings around the competition.
And that’s truly in the players’ best interests.
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