Per AHL By-Laws, the age limit for eligibility to compete in the American Hockey League is 18 years or over, on or before September 15 of each season of competition.
However, that only applies to players drafted outside the Canadian Hockey League.
For example the NCAA or European drafted players
Those drafted while playing for CHL teams, incorporating the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL), and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) can only turn professional in the minor pro leagues (AHL/ECHL) when they turn 20 (by December 31st of that season) or have played four seasons in the CHL.
Understandably, the CHL wants to protect the competitive nature of their leagues and the undoubted money and status procured from having the best young players, therefore they do no want their top talent leaving as soon as they get drafted. For that reason, the CHL and NHL reached the above agreement.
A team can choose to play their young draft pick in the NHL before he’s eligible for minor pro hockey at any time after being drafted. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are both very likely to take that exact step in 2015/16.
There are of course many examples of players at the age of 19, having played three years of junior, who are in a state of limbo. Not considered ready by their NHL teams for any number of reasons, but yet another year in junior where there will dominate seems a waste for their development.
It’s an issue that’s become more widely discussed and tossed around for a while now and perhaps the rigid rules and agreement between the CHL and NHL needs adjusting. I’m sure many an NHL team would like some flexibility in the matter.
Born in Calgary, William Nylander moved to Sweden with his family after playing some early junior hockey in North America. Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 while he was a member of Modo Hockey Club, Nylander joined the Toronto Marlies (Leafs AHL affiliate) last season at just 18 years of age, showing just how good he was and his readiness for the professional game.
Had his family stayed in North America, it’s likely the young Swede would still be playing in the CHL and that’s why he’s an interesting point in case.
Possibly an anomaly, rather than likely to set a trend at this stage is Auston Matthews, an 18 year old projected to be a top pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
An American born Centreman, Matthews chose to sign a one-year professional contract with ZSC Lions in the Swiss National League A, instead of joining Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League .
Now not every young player is good enough to play pro overseas at such a tender year, yet alone have the courage to up-sticks but you have to wonder how much of his decision was based on the fact of not having to play another two seasons of junior after being drafted.
Certainly a kick in the teeth for the CHL and some food for thought.
Now the agreement in place and AHL rules are not just to protect CHL interests. There is also the interest of the young men, jumping from junior to pro-hockey, which can be a bigger gulf to some than others.
The opening night of last season provides a warning tale as renowned thug and enforcer Trevor Gillies took it upon himself to challenge Rochester American’s left winger William Carrier.
Now Carrier was an AHL rookie at the time, making his debut no less and made the smart decision not to fight his bigger and more experienced opponent. Despite his refusal to engage the then Adirondack forward, Gillies threw the young man to the ice, grabbing hold of Carrier’s head and slamming it into the ice as hard before throwing countless punches.
With that being said, that’s the exception to the rule but it should not be forgotten if any changes were to be implemented.
What I put forward is that every season or every other season, an NHL team is allowed an exemption rule for one of their young draft picks. In the same way players like Connor McDavid have been given an exceptional player status in junior hockey (http://www.ontariohockeyleague.com/article/ohf-announces-exceptional-player-status-for-connor-mcdavid/119258).
So at 19 years of age, or after three years in junior the player chosen could skip the last year of junior and join said NHL teams affiliate. Perhaps limited to something like 70-75% of that teams regular season’s game with no call-up allowed to the NHL would be a fair compromise and make the decision as to whether to do so a tougher call, while protecting the players all-round interests.
Now this is all conjecture on my part and I’m sure as many reading this will agree as disagree vehemently. It’s certainly a hot topic for many fans of NHL teams rebuilding through the draft.
The rules mentioned in the beginning of this article only apply when players are looking to start a season with a team outside the NHL.
Players from OHL, WHL, and QMJHL are allowed to and routinely join AHL teams after their seasons end for the remainder of the AHL team’s season on an Amateur Tryout Contract (ATO).