Pros and cons about raising NHL draft age

Jack Eichel might be ready for the NHL at age 18, but some GMs might prefer him to wait. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Raising the NHL draft age is a notion that comes up every few years. It’s an idea that gets pitched to the NHL Players' Association, the last time in 2012, and ultimately shot down.

And right now, it’s percolating again in the NHL offices. It’s not a priority, but it is a subject of common discussion.

NHL general managers met in Florida last week, and this wasn’t a topic they discussed as a group. However, it is a topic they would be more than happy to rally behind if it gains any steam.

At least most of them.

When the idea of increasing the draft age by a year was suggested to Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, he corrected it.

“Two years,” he said, saying it would be better to bump the draft age from 18 to 20. “From a team point of view, you get a better handle on them. Those are a couple really important development years.”

From a team perspective, Rutherford is hardly alone in having the desire to want extra time to evaluate prospects. Projecting how 17- and 18-year-old hockey players will look and perform in their mid-20s might be one of the toughest jobs in sports. It’s why the success rate in the draft is so low. If a team gets two NHL regulars out of a single draft, that’s considered a success.

So yeah, most general managers would love to buy some more time to evaluate prospects.

“You’ll make less mistakes," said a Western Conference GM. "It wouldn’t cost us as much money. You’d have a longer look and the kids would mature more much like the other sports.”

“It’s always difficult at this age, drafting kids at 17 -- there’s so much projection that is involved,” said Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. “Anytime there’s development that can happen before you make your commitment, you stand to make better selections, more informed selections.”

Added Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan: “It’s more physical maturity. I think it would help out, for sure.”

So yeah, the guys whose job is on the line when it comes to getting talent evaluation right are in favor of more time to evaluate talent.

But at the same time, these same guys would offer up a limb to add Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel to their rosters right now. Some players don’t need an extra two years to develop.

Rutherford’s fix would be an exceptional player rule that would come with a draft age change, so guys like McDavid and Eichel wouldn’t have to dominate lower levels when they’re ready to play in the NHL.

“Every once in a while, you’re going to get two or three guys that are clearly exceptional player that are 18,” Rutherford said. “I would be fine with that. For the most part, I think it would be better for everybody if it would be moved a year or two.”

Well, perhaps not everybody.

The NHLPA, for one, has zero appetite to make a change.

“That would be a nonstarter,” said one source.

The belief is that Donald Fehr doesn’t have any motivation to make the change, and that it’s hard to imagine a scenario that would alter that stance. At 18 years old, the argument goes, you can vote, you can be sent off to war, you should be able to pursue a career in professional hockey.

One agent suggested, if there’s a change, there’d have to be a way to let players compete in the AHL while waiting, as there’s the real possibility their development would grow stagnant in junior hockey.

“There’s a lot they can lose playing junior as a 19-year-old,” he said, adding that there’s probably a rule change to be made immediately that would allow drafted players to play in the AHL at 19 rather than in juniors. “There should be an exception. One kid a year. It sets players back, mentally and physically. It can cost guys careers.”

Plus, as much as this rule change might help NHL teams in player evaluation, there are some general managers out there who see talent evaluation as a skill and an advantage certain teams enjoy over others.

Detroit Red wings super-scout Hakan Andersson might not want to give his rivals another year or two to identify the hidden gems he’s already found in Sweden.

Quite frankly, neither does Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray. He’s in the minority among GMs in that he’s not in favor of changing the draft age at all.

“I wouldn’t be. I’m confident in picking 18-year-olds. Maybe that sounds arrogant, I don’t know,” Murray said. “I’m confident in our group picking 18-year-olds and projecting. I like the challenge. As an amateur scout, I like the challenge.”

Murray has company in Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning, another executive known for his high-end talent evaluation skills.

“If you wait an extra year, you get an extra year of development on a player. You’re not projecting what a player is going to turn out to be, you’re getting a more sure thing,” Benning said. “There’s less risk involved in taking a player because you get another year for him to develop physically but for me, I’ve been doing this long enough where I like drafting them as 17-year-olds. I have enough experience to tell what they’re going to get to when they’re 21, 22, 23. I think it is [an advantage].”

A couple GMs brought up the possibility of lawsuits if there is an age change, but an NHL source said that wouldn’t be a huge concern. Legally, the draft age can be changed.

It’s a CBA issue, and like anything in the CBA, if the two sides are willing to negotiate a change, it can be tweaked before the expiration of the current deal.

During 2005 CBA negotiations in the NBA, commissioner David Stern wanted to raise the draft age to 20 years old, pointing out that the NFL’s minimum age was three years after high school.

Jermaine O'Neal was one of the most vocal players against it, suggesting race played a factor.

“As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it’s coming up,” he told ESPN.com in 2005. “You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?”

Ultimately, the two sides settled on 19, a rule that is still in place. It’s a rule many around the NHL would be happy to see hockey adopt.