On June 26 the worst kept secret in the hockey world will be revealed when the Edmonton Oilers end months of inevitably and select Connor McDavid with the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
As with any draft, the discussion this year has (rightly) revolved around the prospects – who will go third overall? When will the first defenceman go? – rivaled closely at times by the subject of tanking (see: Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs). But one topic that has undeservedly fallen off the agenda – and should be discussed more – is that of the draft age.
For decades now the rule has been that a player must be at least 18 years of age on or before September 15th to be eligible to be selected. Perhaps it’s time for a change, though, as each year it becomes increasingly clear that predicting the way a 17- or 18-year-old’s career will pan out is just complex guesswork.
That isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions to the rule. For instance, it’s clear McDavid and Jack Eichel – the consensus 1st and 2nd overall picks respectively this draft – have otherworldly talent and will almost certainly light up the league for years to come.
But having a few exceptions doesn’t justify maintaining the status quo – even if changing the rule prevents the one per cent of the one per cent from turning pro immediately. It’s about time the NHL realizes this and modifies the eligibility rules such that a player must be 20 on or before Sept. 15 (although a modification of the CHL’s age rules would also need to occur to allow for this).
The change would give players more face time with scouts – which would benefit both parties – and allow more time to develop before going pro – something they would already be doing after being drafted anyway. That extra scouting time could drastically change the outlook of the draft, given how tough it is to predict the career trajectory of any player, much less one who is 18.
Drafting a 20- or 21-year-old still offers no guarantees, but it’s a more exact science than picking kids. To prove it, the following is a small sampling of (relatively) recent first round busts: Lauri Tukonen, 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings (2004); Zach Hamill, 8th overall by the Boston Bruins (2007); and Nikita Filatov, 6th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets (2008).
Most teams have no shortage of players ready to step in at the NHL level, irrespective of anyone they draft, so it’s not as though there is a pressing need for draftees to make the jump right away. And although in some cases raising the draft age may not change much in terms of a player’s stock, in other cases that extra time could provide valuable information – for better or worse.
But if the league is dead-set on keeping the draft age at 18, another change – raising the minimum playing age to 20 – offers a couple of benefits. It would protect the younger players who, for the most part, cannot compete physically with the older players (allowing the former more time to bulk up). It would also offer teams the ability to claim players they like early in their careers.
The NHL has a tendency to be change averse in certain aspects – maybe a result of the old boys’ club mentality – but this is one change the league should get in front of. Players are only getting bigger, faster and stronger with each passing year, which only poses more problems for the young players just entering the league.
Connor McDavid may be able to handle the rigors of a full NHL season at 18, but few others his age can.