Craig Custance had a terribly interesting piece on Wednesday about the slowly bubbling idea among some general managers, and certainly emanating from the the NHL itself, that would fundamentally change the sport.
The idea is a simple one: Raise the draft age from 18 to 20.
Today, only about 1 in 5 players who get drafted end up playing more than 200 NHL games, and it's thought that the 20 percent success rate comes in large part from the ability to project what a 17-year-old kid will be as a player five, eight, or 10 years later. If you tack on two more years for the evaluation process, you reduce your chances of missing on a pick substantially, at least in theory.
The thing is, that's probably true, just in terms of the number of players who are NHL-ready at the age of 20 versus 18. You know that implicitly; there are far more guys in the NHL at 20 than 18, and those who do make it at 18 tend to have notable impacts. However, some are clearly more-ready than others at that age. To illustrate this, let's take the last nine seasons — from 2005-06 to present — and examine how good those players were.
In all, 38 players got at least 500 minutes at even-strength for a season they started as 18-year-olds (i.e., it doesn't matter whether they turned 18 on Oct. 1, or the were 18 years and 364 days old). These are guys we could consider to have been NHL regulars at that age. For the most part, they're guys who'd expect to see on this list: Stamkos, Crosby, Kessel, Skinner, Landeskog, MacKinnon, Duchene, Hedman, Doughty, etc. In all, 27 were forwards, 11 were defensemen, and none were goalies.
In general, that makes a lot of sense as well. As Brian Campbell recently told Katie Baker when discussing how good Aaron Ekblad has been this season, it's relatively easy to stash a struggling 18-year-old forward somewhere deep in your lineup. It's very difficult to do so with a defenseman. It comes as no surprise, then, that the top-10 TOI-per-game seasons among 18-year-olds were all by defensemen, and none got fewer than 14 minutes at 5-on-5 per night. By contrast, only three forwards got more than 14 minutes per game (Taylor Hall, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon: extreme talents on bad teams).
What this basically tells us is that GMs only bring aboard defensemen at that age when they're reasonably certain that those players are ready to compete meaningfully at the NHL level, and very few are. By contrast, Phil Kessel and Jordan Staal got into 67 and 78 games at the same age, respectively, but basically received only third-line minutes (fewer than 10 per game each).
By the time players are just one year older, they are significantly more “ready” for the NHL. At that point, GMs seem to have a much better idea of what they can do at this level, and are confident that they can be contributors. To wit, the number of 19-year-olds to get 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5 more than doubles to 88 (one of which was a goalie: Robin Lehner). That includes the 38 previously mentioned, so we can say that 50 more players were judged to be NHLers one calendar year later.
What's interesting is that these players generally seem to be less “ready” than the 18-year-olds. Averages for everything at evens (except CF%, interestingly) drop off at least a little bit, and you might be able to attribute some of that to their slightly more difficult usage in terms of where they start their shifts.
That trend continued for players who were 20 years old. There were 145 regulars — that means only new 62 players who weren't in the league as 18- or 19-year-olds — at that age. And the numbers were still pretty representative of the overall trends toward defensemen maturing into NHL-level capability: 93 forwards, 44 defensemen, eight goalies. (Defensemen went from making up 29 percent of players at 18, to 35 percent at 19, to 47 percent at 20.)
As these still-young players come into the league at age 19 and 20, their average quality tends to drop, only to have the slack in terms of scoring rates, possession, etc., picked up by the elite players in the group. At age 20, only 27 players had more than 2.0 points per 60 at evens, and only three (Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, and Taylor Hall) were north of 3.0. That's up from 13 and one (no surprise: still Crosby) at age 19, and eight and zero at 18.
Another notable issue here is that, counter to what Campbell said of Ekblad, forwards actually get more difficult usage from their coaches than do defensemen at any of these ages; blueliners are far more likely to start in the attacking zone than their own. Which makes sense, because it takes a lot of time to learn the defense position, certainly a lot more than any of those up front (perhaps with the exception of center, though I'd tend to doubt it). So while you can't hide defensemen in the lineup, you can certainly give them an easier ride.
Here is all that data (from War on Ice, of course):
As far as the goaltenders go, there's really not enough of a sample, or enough data, on their appearances to say much, except that the fact that only eight guys have gotten any time at all at age 20 probably tells you plenty about how little goalies are trusted before they're into the 23-to-24 range. The eight goalies who made it before they were legally able to drink in the U.S. were mostly guys you'd think of as either being elite or at least highly regarded at the time (though a few were clearly just “last best options” for awful teams): Robin Lehner, Ondrej Pavelec, Braden Holtby, Carey Price, Steve Mason, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kevin Poulin, and Marc-Andre Fleury.
The league has seen 12 extra goalies get at least some time at 21, the vast majority are still mostly replacement players, rather than regular backups. Another 18 by 22 years old, and only two more get added in by the time a goalie turns 23, and two on top of that for 24-year-olds. This comes with the obvious caveat that there are really only 60 goaltending jobs in the league at any time — 30 starters and 30 backups — compared with roughly 360-400 jobs for forwards and about 180-200 defensemen (depending upon how many extra skaters teams carry).
Now, Fleury obviously got time as an 18-year-old as well prior to the Second Bettman Lockout. There are a few other guys who might have gotten a chance in the NHL at 18 or 19 had the lockout not scuttled plans (Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin being the most obvious). But for the most part this feels like a reasonable representation of how difficult it is for young players to break into the league.
So I think this answers the question of why general managers would be in favor of bringing in players for the first time ever at age 20, rather than age 18. The average player coming into the league at age 20 is fairly comparable to the stars at 18 in terms of goal and point generation but appear to be trusted with a little more defensive responsibility. Which explains why, in Custance's piece, some GMs say they would make dispensations for elite guys in the same way the CHL does with “exceptional player” status.
Right now, it seems that a “minority” of GMs would prefer to keep the draft age at 18, and that makes sense, because a minority of those guys are actually good at getting players via the draft. Waiting two more years levels the playing field so that the general managers who are more likely to miss at age 18 can have a little more job security. It would become much harder to fan on, say, the No. 12 or 23 picks in the draft with two extra years of evaluation time, because players will be coming to you much more fully formed — both in their games and physically — at that time.
This also makes business sense for the league: Fewer players coming in at age 18 means fewer players getting to unrestricted free agency at 25, means less money being paid to elite players over the course of their careers. At least in theory. And that's probably why the NHLPA is so staunchly opposed to the idea. It doesn't benefit the current rank and file in the league to fight this (they're already in and making the big bucks, after all) but it benefits future stars. If just 83 guys are being denied entry to the league over a nine-year span, that's a relative drop in the bucket for the NHLPA, but a healthy portion of those guys command big-money deals basically the second their entry-level contracts expire, and those can drive up prices for everyone.
So this isn't something that's going to happen any time soon, and probably never will. But the reasons why the league and GMs would want it to are pretty clear.
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