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Rushing Young Prospects Into The NHL, And Why Teams Do It

NHL teams are faced with tough decisions when 18-year-old prospects try to push their way onto pro rosters. The options are few, and many NHL teams make hasty calls that can negatively impact player development.

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Almost every time a team makes a selection in a top 10 or 15 spot in the NHL Entry Draft, they're doing so because they've paid handsomely. They've either had a horrible season, after which that draft pick represents the only hope for success in the future, or they've ponied up something of high value to grab a pick from one of those failing teams.

So when that pick turns into a real, live, breathing human being, the excitement is always palpable. It's understandable that every fan wants that player to jump right into an NHL uniform, take the league by storm and lead the team to a Stanley Cup.

After all, you were an early first round pick.. Who cares if you're 18 years old? You're our savior.

You'd think that most NHL teams would be able to resist the temptation. Sure, in some cases, it makes sense that an 18 year old kid makes the immediate jump to the NHL. Sidney Crosby comes to mind. But in most cases, this isn't like the NFL or the NBA. Guys aren't ready to make that jump right away.

And NHL teams force them into it anyway.

Part of the problem lies in the rules, especially when it comes to Major Junior players. When these guys are in their draft year at age 18, the transfer agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League outlines that those players cannot play in the American Hockey League. It's either NHL or back to Juniors, where any top draft pick is already way too good for the competition.

This rule makes sense for the Junior clubs. They have rights too, and for NHL teams to grab their players away and shove them into a different league at a relatively early age infringes upon those rights. Junior clubs are just trying to protect their assets, and they shouldn't be blamed for that. 

But it puts NHL teams in an awkward position. Once you've drafted a player, you want to immediately start the clock on indoctrinating that player as a piece of your organization, preparing him for a long NHL future. You don't want to let them go back to Juniors where they're no longer under the control of your organization.

Most of these guys aren't ready for the NHL, though, and that's exactly where the severe problems begin.

Our fantastic Winnipeg Jets blog, Arctic Ice Hockey, put together a list of 18-year-olds who made the jump from Juniors to the NHL since 2008. They make the argument that these players shouldn't make the immediate jump because that burns one year of their entry-level deal, and it's just not worth it for bad teams that are bound to miss the playoffs to lose a year of cheap production from their entry-level players. 

While that's certainly a strong argument, and we can't say we disagree, we think there's even more at stake. Even when teams are making a run at the playoffs and can use these 18-year-old players, history shows that the vast majority of these guys aren't ready for the jump, and that can have a negative impact on their development.

There's the other quirk in the rule that allows these players to play nine games in the NHL without a year of their contract being burned, and teams often use those nine games as an evaluation period to see just how guys can handle the transition to the NHL. That puts players and their teams in a lose-lose situation.

Let's use Mark Scheifele, the 7th overall pick in June's draft who just signed an entry-level deal with the Winnipeg Jets on Monday, as an example. Scheifele has shown glimpses of brilliance during the preseason with the Jets, and as the first draft pick of the new team, he's not only a saving grace but he's now their native son. Expectations are through the roof.

If Scheifele makes the team and plays well in that nine-game evaluation period, it'll be expected. Well, you know, he was a 7th overall pick. OF COURSE HE'S GOOD! But if he has issues, everybody is going to question what went wrong. They won't chalk it up to him being an 18 year old kid. They'll chalk it up to the Jets making the wrong pick or the Scheifele not having what it takes. Expectations are scary things for hockey prospects.

And even worse yet, if he looks good early and the team keeps him for the entire season, it's probably only a matter of time before he comes back to earth and looks human again. Ask Tyler Seguin all about that. (Alright, he won a Cup so I bet there are no regrets -- but whatever.)

In those cases, players can start to question their own ability and question whether or not they're good enough to be in the NHL. The media certainly doesn't help matters. 

In reality, there are only a handful of 18-year-old players that are good enough to play in the world's best hockey league. Maybe two players from every draft year have that skill, and in some cases, the number is even fewer. The ideal situation for most of these guys would be to pick up some seasoning in the AHL before making the direct jump to the NHL, but the rules don't allow that. 

So for now, until those rules are changed, teams have a tough decision to make. While it's understandable that they want to keep prized prospect possessions under their own watchful eye, that's usually not the best course of action. They should resist the urge. 

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