A coach called on Wednesday, asking where I thought all the balloons will land. What could I say, there are so many up in the air, that I am not sure if anybody has a real clue.
Yes, the game as we know it is about to make some serious changes. From the National Hockey League to the Tier III level, as the baskets start to land, the rest are going to have to find their place.
It is obvious that business as usual is just not going to cut it. Teams, leagues, and even sanctioning bodies are going to have to make more decisions based on financial responsibility and less on what they may think is, or is not, good for the game.
The National Hockey League is looking at the developmental agreement it has with the Canadian Hockey League. That agreement prohibits players from advancing to the American Hockey League until they're 20 years of age. The deal states that any player drafted out of the CHL cannot play professional hockey unless they are going to be 20 years old as of December 31, or if they are chosen to play in the NHL. The rule does not apply to players drafted outside the CHL (USA Hockey, Europe, etc) that afterwards decide to play major junior in Canada.
The deal hinders player development for NHL clubs and their prospects. Prospects get stuck between being too good for junior or not good enough for the NHL. Often times, the player is able to dominate the competition at juniors and ends up wasting a year of development because he is not learning. Other prospects get rushed to the NHL way before they are ready and get overwhelmed by the sudden elevation in the level of play.
I believe that this agreement ends after this season, and the fallout is going to be felt across the entire developmental system.
The AHL and ECHL will see a sudden increase in the number of young players. As a result the major juniors are going to have to get increased production from their own bantam drafted players. Ultimately, this means that more prospects will get an opportunity to play major junior hockey. That scenario is going to have an impact on the Canadian Junior Hockey League and American junior leagues.
I believe that the pressure is going to be felt the most at the NCAA DI level and this is why. The major juniors are going to try and get older players from the lower leagues to move up to provide a leadership role for the younger players. A lot of players are going to drink that kool-ade and lose their NCAA eligibility in the process.
This chain of events will put a lot of pressure on the colleges to try and get to the high-end prospects before the major juniors start to move in. The result will mean even more players moving to Division I before using all their junior eligibility. I think we are a long way off from seeing bantam players commit to Div I schools (don't laugh, look at football and basketball), but I do still see the need for colleges to keep spots open for 21-year-old freshmen that are needed to provide maturity.
As even more pressure is applied to the player pool, The North American Hockey League is looking to see a dramatic upgrade in their level of play with possibly eight less teams next season.
The Tier III levels will also lose some teams as new proposed rules will keep 16-year-olds off junior rosters.
The wildcard in this discussion, the Central Hockey League, is considering an option that transitions the league from the AA professional level to become the Amateur Athletic Union's Tier I level of play. Free from the import restrictions found in the Canadian and USA Hockey systems, the league can recruit internationally while trying to build itself into the world's best junior hockey league. That is a lofty goal, but it can be accomplished by providing a professional experience, a small weekly per diem, and being sure to maintain their prospects' NCAA Div.I eligibility.
While USA Hockey junior programs are being forced to deal with a changing junior council and restrictive measures from the youth level, AAU programs are enjoying the freedom to set their own rules.
The Western States Hockey League made the switch from USA Hockey to AAU last summer and are now at the tail end of the best season in the league's 18 year history. College scouts from all over the country were present for the Western States Shootout in December and continue to be impressed by the increased level of play that was displayed at the event.
We expect to see a number of current USA Hockey leagues make the jump to AAU this spring and summer. Just how many really depends on USA Hockey, are the 16-year-olds in or out?
So coach, to answer your question, I have to believe that the best place to be is where you are going to be able to find the most success. That success will be measured by butts in the seats, wins and losses, and how quickly you can advance players to the higher levels of play. This is 2012 my friends, and all the kids are talking. I don't care if a coach is able to move his entire roster to colleges or higher levels every season; he is going to be a winner year after year because the players are going to know.
What do you think?