As it currently stands the NHL has a deal in place with the CHL (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) that does not allow 18 and 19 year old kids to play in the AHL. I understand that this helps keep the junior game interesting and vibrant, but I think it also stunts some of the better players' development. Many top end junior players could really benefit their long term development by playing sooner in the AHL.
I also think that this deal is a disadvantage to North American players as their European counterparts, who do not play in the CHL, are allowed to play professionally. Names like Vladimir Tarasenko for the Blues and Joel Armia of the Buffalo Sabres come to mind who have been honing their skills against other professionals in Europe.
The gap between NHL hockey and junior hockey is so dramatic and different, why eliminate the possibility of the logical stepping stone that is the AHL for these upper echelon players?
Entry level contracts in the modern day NHL are like gold with the salary cap. Some teams might not want to bring up a junior player and roster them in the NHL because they don't want their entry level deal to start. The team probably doesn't want to see that same player sent back to juniors where there is nothing left to prove and true development gets put in a holding patter. Why does this scenario even exist? Clearly the AHL could provide an opportunity for both player and organization to continue the development process that makes sense.
Case in point is Mikhail Grigorenko of the Sabres organization. He is currently one of the players who is stuck with either playing in the NHL or the QMJHL. Grigorenko is lighting up the Q this season and its pretty clear that he needs to move on and find a new challenge (the WJC provided him that, albeit for only 2 weeks). The problem for the Sabres is do they really want to start his entry level deal in a shortened NHL season, or send him back to a situation where his development gets stagnant?
Players like Grigorenko and the teams that own their rights should have the AHL at their disposal. The draft is so important to the success in the NHL, especially getting quality years out of players on entry level deals, why the NHL limits itself in the development of top tier players with this deal is puzzling.
Here is why entry level contracts are so important in the NHL now, the following players were on entry level deals when their team won the Stanley Cup:
2007: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Francios Beauchemin
2008: Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler
2009: Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal
2010: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson
2011: Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand
2012: Slava Voynov
As you can see the trend did in fact decline in the past 2 seasons, the reason is because the salary cap has climbed more and more which alotted teams more room to use on established veterans. The cap is going to drop again, making entry level deals more important again.
I think that NHL teams should have the AHL available to develop whomever they want within their organizations, whenever they want. The timing of when the entry level deals kick in is important and I think the AHL's availability will assist in giving NHL teams the flexibilty on getting top end talent properly developed faster. A top end prospect starting his entry level deal at the age of 20 will most certainly be more prepared with 2 years of AHL experience, than if he were to stay in junior hockey. The team will get more out of that player during the entry level contract, and will give the team more salary cap flexibilty to improve their team to a Stanley Cup Champion level.
I realize this only applies to a very small percentage of players, but they are usually the most important percentage. These are your top end prospects that teams are heavily invested in for their franchises future success. The teams should be able to move along their development as they see fit, and that should include the AHL.
Thanks for reading!