Too often we focus on the destination and not the journey of what makes a successful hockey player. The path one chooses to the NHL has a tremendous impact on how he performs once he gets there, and can drastically affect his career trajectory. Would Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, or Tampa Bay’s Triplet Line (notice the Stevie Y connection?) have had the same success if they were thrust into roles as 19 and 20-year-olds? Player development is one of the least talked about pillars of a successful franchise – and strategies are changing. With salary cap constrictions and increased speed of the game, it has now become common practice to have more than one rookie in the lineup. This is forcing junior players to be NHL earlier and changing the way they prepare for the big leagues.
The Canadian Hockey League (CHL), comprised of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) has long been accepted as a prospect’s “best route” to the NHL. This has been true for many reasons. The long, travel-heavy schedule (especially out West) mirrors the rigors of an 82 game NHL regular season and aids in developing a routine. Competing against peers and former first-round talent also allows players an opportunity to stand out among the crowd. Most importantly, the accessibility of the leagues for NHL scouts makes your visibility as a prospect higher than anywhere else.
However, the CHL is not perfect. The skill level between the best and worst players is much higher than most leagues, especially with the rule that prevents drafted players unable to play in any other league (other than the NHL). This has forced players like Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, Pierre-Luc Duboius and Sam Steel back to a league which they dominate. This does nothing to develop the athlete, as you only learn by playing against stronger, more skilled opponents. This one of the most glaring problems in current player development and a factor in the NHL considering changing its current draft age. An additional issue is that the CHL has implemented rules to cater to Canadian hockey players only.
While Canadians make up approximately 50% of the NHL, that number has been in a slow but steady decline. While the CHL has been an attractive option for some Americans and Europeans alike, it appears that in recent years some of the top hockey talents have opted for another route.
As you can see, there has been a decline in drafted players out of the CHL, and a rise from several European leagues. However, total numbers do not tell the whole story. Things become a little more interesting when you break the numbers down by each round of the draft.
If you squint you can see that not only are total numbers beginning to even out across league categories but also talent level between rounds. In the past, the early rounds of the draft were littered with CHL talent. As you move towards the present, you can see that each round is becoming more even with European leagues and minor leagues in North America grabbing a larger share.
Look no further than top rookies this season. Top Calder candidates Clayton Keller, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy and Brock Boeser all went the college route. This does not only apply to American players. Colton Parayko, Tyson Jost, Dante Fabbro and Cale Makar are examples of Canadians opting out of the CHL in hopes of a better development path through college. Meanwhile, superstars like Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Artemy Panarin and future stars like Alexander Nylander, Mikko Rantanen and Alexander Wenneberg honed their skills at home in Europe. One of the most unprecedented cases is the Leafs’ budding superstar Auston Matthews playing in the Swiss Elite League before his draft, and we all have seen the effect it has had on his transition to the NHL.
So what’s the difference? The benefits to playing in the NCAA are easy to understand – it forces top teenagers to match up against players up to four years older their senior. Teams are defensively sound, more disciplined and physically stronger. Tyson Jost cites this as the main reason he went the NCAA route. Although many players leave before finishing their degree, the NCAA also provides players with a post-secondary education that they can complete once their hockey career is over, as well as more contract negotiation rights when leaving school. This something agents cannot ignore. Money management and life after hockey are some of the most important things they instill in their clients. It provides their client with the power to choose where to begin their NHL career as we saw with Alex Kerfoot and Will Butcher this past offseason.
While European leagues provide similar benefits of playing against older (sometimes a decade or more) competition, they also have the added benefit of a larger ice surface. Confidence is huge in a young player’s game, and the ability to have an extra second to make a decision with the puck can allow a young player to try things he normally would not in North America. Europeans and Russians, in particular, have always preached skill development more than system development like we do in North America. An extra year or two honing their skills at home can have a huge impact on what quality of player a prospect will become. Look no further than players like Mikhail Grigorenko or Nail Yakupov. Let’s also not overlook the social stress on a non-English speaking teenager moving to a strange country all alone. With the NHL continuing to put a premium on speed and skill, this should continue to benefit players coming from across the pond.
There are several factors affecting this shift, the main one being an increased focus on scouting non-traditional leagues. A ripple effect occurs when scouts are drawn to smaller leagues to view players like Cale Makar and Colton Parayko and notice other players that impress. One has to believe the salary cap has increased the overseas scouting budget much like it has with analytics departments in the front office. It will be interesting to see how much momentum these trends keep up and if the NHL draftees continue to change the norm. It could mean big problems for the CHL franchises with diluted talent could hurting teams that currently struggle to fill the rink. Agents and parents should also pay attention to this shift so that they can direct the athlete towards his highest chance of success. We will continue dialogue the role of an agent in the future, but for now, it’s something to chew on.