It’s Time to Talk About Underaged Players in the AHL

Thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the sport of ice hockey, there have been plenty of changes for the 2021 season. One of the big ones has been the CHL’s pause and delayed start that has left the next generation of players without a stage to showcase their talents. For the lucky few that have been drafted to the NHL over the past few seasons, they have been deemed eligible to play in the AHL until their junior leagues restart, if and when that happens. While some 18-year-olds simply aren’t ready for the jump to the professional level, some have shown that they have no problem hanging with the veteran players.

18-year-old players can actually play in the AHL. As long as their birthday is on or before September 15 of each season and they’re 18 or over, they are technically eligible for the American Hockey League, what prevents prospects from making the jump early is a NHL/CHL agreement that states all 18 and 19-year-old players not retained by their NHL squad must be returned to the CHL club that holds their rights. It’s a rule that dates back to 1979 as a way to keep the junior product entertaining which in turn helps put butts in seats. It’s why European players and college kids can make the jump right away. It’s also where the “nine game rule” stems from, being an underage player can have nine games in the NHL before their entry-level contract kicks in for the season.

There are plenty of minor technical details of all this we could dive into, but let’s stay focused on the players. In the Flyers case, 2020 fourth round pick Zayde Wisdom, who is just 18 and whose birthday isn’t until early July, would typically find himself with his junior team, the Kingston Frontenacs. Due to the OHL’s delayed start, he found himself attending the Flyers training camp, then being assigned to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He has registered four goals and one assist in his first four professional games, exceeding all expectations for the young forward.

The last time this argument was brought up with then-Coyotes prospect Dylan Strome. Strome, who rode shotgun with Connor McDavid in his draft year with the Otters, was returned to juniors by the Yotes for the 16-17 season. He proceeded to put up 75 points in 35 OHL games and clocking in at 6’3 190lbs he was clearly ready for a bigger challenge in his career, though wasn’t allowed to play in the AHL.

While this conversation sparks up every now and again, with so many team’s top prospects playing for their respective AHL affiliate during the 2021 season and most proving they’re more ready for the AHL than they might seem, is this the season the NHL and CHL become more lenient?

Seth Jarvis, a recently turned 19-year-old who was a first round pick in 2020 currently leads the AHL, a league he shouldn’t be in, in scoring with six goals and nine points in six games. Third place in scoring is 18-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect Jamie Drysdale, who has eight points in eight games, in a league he shouldn’t be in.

The CHL still needs stars to succeed, as does any hockey league. If every team brought their first and second round picks up to the professional level right away, it’d put a dent in the talent level in the junior leagues. Yet, it wouldn’t and shouldn’t come to that extreme. Most 18-year-olds aren’t physically mature enough to make the leap to professional hockey, but should there be some kind of special exception for those that can?

Maybe install a “nine game rule” at the AHL level as well. If a teenage prospect shows up to an NHL training camp and raises a few eyebrows, but can’t crack the NHL roster for whatever reason, give them a short taste of AHL hockey where they can get their feet wet and see if they’re ready to rise to the occasion. If that 18-year-old can hang with the veterans, then he should be kept in the AHL, with some kind of financial compensation to the prospect’s junior team in order to keep his services. If they’re given a test at the AHL and don’t look as good as hoped, they could be returned to their CHL club and try again the following season.

Overall, the agreement to keep CHL players out of the AHL is a 42-year-old agreement that probably won’t change any time soon, but if it does, this could be the year. With the talent in the junior level deeper than ever, the league could stand to lose a couple more of its top players per season that it could back when the rule was created. And as far as business goes, the AHL finds itself on the ropes as well due to the coronvirus pandemic keeping fans out of the stands. The league could benefit from each team having one or two more dazzling young stars on their rosters to put their own fans in seats when regulations allow. Time will tell if things change, but right now it’s up to the kids in the AHL to continue to prove they belong with the big dogs.

By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)

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