Over the past week, we have taken a look at several aspects of the rookies in the Nashville Predators Rookie Camp to try to give a feel for the variety of different competitions and individual goals.
We explored how the 21 players were chosen. We looked at a pair of players that just want to make it to Milwaukee and discussed a couple of different routes players can take in their development. We also talked to a player looking for a fresh start in a new organization.
Today, we are going to look at the agreement between the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL that has been in place for over thirty years. In its simplest form Junior players cannot play in the American Hockey league until the season where they have their 20th birthday before December 31.
Prior to their overage year, they can only play in Juniors or with their NHL team. Each year a few players do make the jump and some are successful including Carolina’s Jeff Skinner who won the Calder Cup for Rookie of the Year as an 18 year old last season.
There is further disincentive for NHL teams to carry a Junior player past the 10 game mark since it accelerates their waiver eligibility and adds service time toward their free agency eligibility status. Additionally, signing bonuses are applied differently to a team’s cap hit.
Generally, unless a player is going to play on a top line with plenty of minutes the preference is for the player to stay at the junior level.
Many folks have called for the rule to be changed as it is discriminatory toward CHL players since College and European players can play earlier without regard to the regulation.
Milwaukee Head Coach Kirk Muller has seen both sides of the argument. “I saw the situation with Guillaume Latendresse when he was in Montreal. It was a tough decision because you’re sitting there going he’s done everything you’ve had to do in junior. Do you send him back? Will he benefit? Will he progress? Or do you keep him with the main team because we couldn’t send him to Hamilton?”
“It’s definitely something that’s got to be addressed. You know the Junior people of course want to see their star players still playing in the league because people watched them grow and everything and they feel like they’re at a maturity level where they still need to stay another year.”
“There’s a couple of guys who are in the system who are kind of in-between and it’s tough for them to go back.”
Without the rule, Ryan Ellis would have clearly played at the AHL level last season instead of winning every award possible in the OHL at Windsor. Potentially, he could have stayed in Nashville last year out of camp but the team thought best not to rush his progress.
While he is anxious to be a pro, Ellis is a defender of the rule. “I think you want to make a steady progression but the rules are in place for a reason and you just have to abide by them. It was a fun year last year and I accomplished a lot. You might as well keep the players in junior and develop them.”
This season, a player that would potentially be able to play at the AHL level is Austin Watson, who just missed the year end cut off with a January 13, 1992 birthday. Watson did in fact, play in three playoff games with Milwaukee last season after his Peterborough team failed to make the playoffs. The season being over is one of the few exceptions to the underage rule.
Watson also stands by the rule, “Obviously, I would like to play pro hockey this year but at the same time it keeps everything balanced. It keeps the junior leagues competitive but it’s a rule that I have no say in and I can’t change it so I don’t think too much about it.”
There is a different purpose in camp for a player in Watson’s position. He has specific things to work on and has an opportunity to show the Predators his progression. The things that have been stressed to him include, “playing with a competitive edge, keeping up physically, and playing my game, that’s what I need to do and hopefully, that’s what they are seeing too.”
Since the Junior season is already underway, he was in camp with Peterborough for a week before coming to camp in Nashville. Eight players off of his team are in camps around the NHL but he is looking forward to the season when he returns.
“We’re looking pretty good. We’ve got a lot of good players and a core group of guys. Last year was a real learning year and coming back and building on that with the guys having a good summer, so we’re looking forward to getting the year started.”
During the summer, at the Predators’ Development Camp, Watson stated his goal for the coming season. “I’m trying to be more consistent in my play. I want to go out on the ice every time prepared, focused, and ready to go and give my best every time out and not take nights off.”
Watson is a hard working, dedicated player that tries to improve every time he hits the ice. Being the oldest of ten kids from a solid family, he is a character guy and mature, well beyond his stated age. If it is not his time to be a pro this season, he will have plenty of opportunity in the years to come.