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AHL a better path to the NHL for North American players

Jonathan Drouin is a perfect example of a young player who would have been better off honing his skill in the AHL than dominating younger players in junior hockey. Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

The end result of the recent World Junior Championship was an indication why the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League should fix their agreement when it comes to the development of 18- and 19-year-old players.

Finland won gold, Russia won silver and the U.S. brought home bronze, while Sweden finished fourth. Canada lost in the quarterfinals to Finland.

There's been discussion within the hockey world about why top teenage European players are showing signs of developing more quickly than North American players.

Part of the reason is because the Finns, Swedes and Russians are playing in European elite leagues against grown men, whereas most top Canadian prospects remain in junior hockey playing against other teenagers and the majority of U.S. talent is skating at the collegiate level.

In fact, Auston Matthews, 18, of Scottsdale, Arizona, who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft, is currently playing for Zurich in the Swiss Elite League.

"It's been great. It's been a really good experience so far playing against men in a real high-skilled league," Matthews said last month while in Boston training for Team USA's trip to the World Junior Championship. "From that standpoint it's been great, and having Marc Crawford as a coach, I've learned a lot from him and I'm trying to elevate my game."

The best course of development for young players is a hot topic in the hockey world and, it's also timely given the situation the Tampa Bay Lightning are in with Jonathan Drouin.

Drouin, the Lightning's first pick (No. 3 overall) in the 2013 draft, was assigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League two weeks ago, at which time his agent made it known the 20-year-old forward requested a trade in November because he's not happy with the situation.

"We have not said one word about this untenable situation publicly," Drouin's agent Allan Walsh said in a statement. "It's in everyone's best interests that Jonathan be allowed to move on and play hockey.

"Let's be clear, Jonathan loves playing for the fans in Tampa, he loves his teammates and many people within the Lightning organization have treated him well. It was his sincere intention to play in Tampa for many years."

This situation is a perfect example why rules need to be changed in order to develop better pro hockey players on and off the ice.

After the Lightning selected Drouin as an 18-year-old, the organization decided to send him back to juniors for the 2013-14 season. It would have been beneficial for him to have been allowed to turn pro and begin his career at the AHL level. Instead, he returned to juniors and dominated the league.

During the 2014-15 season, Drouin made his NHL debut and struggled, posting four goals and 28 assists for 32 points in 70 games. During Tampa's run to the 2015 Stanley Cup finals, Drouin was a healthy scratch for all but six games.

He also struggled before his assignment to the AHL this season, and coach Jon Cooper thought it best to make Drouin a healthy scratch for five games in October. He also missed nine games due to injury.

Finally, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman decided to assign Drouin to the minors. This saga is ongoing and Yzerman will be deliberate in this process before making a decision on the situation.

Drouin's case is not unique, though, at least from a developmental standpoint.

Other top first-round picks would have benefitted from playing in the AHL, including the Dallas Stars' Tyler Seguin and the Calgary Flames' Dougie Hamilton. After the Boston Bruins drafted both players, they made their NHL debuts as 18-year-olds and learned on the job. For different reasons, both players were eventually traded.

It appears Drouin is on the same path.

The AHL has not been involved in any discussions over the years with the NHL or CHL about enabling 18- and 19-year-olds to play in the AHL. The situation that exists in regards to junior players is the result of an agreement between the NHL and the CHL. It's woven into a broader agreement related to drafts and compensation.

The AHL's constitution allows players to play in its league if that player is 18 after Sept. 15 of that season. That's why teenage European players have played in the league, and even college players who have decided to turn pro.

The CHL wants to protect its assets, and that's why 18- and 19-year-old players who don't earn a roster spot on their respective NHL teams are sent back to juniors for the remainder of the season.

The Minnesota Wild's Charlie Coyle, who was drafted in the first round (No. 28 overall) in 2010 by the San Jose Sharks, played a season and half at Boston University before jumping to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2011-12.

Coyle began his pro career in the AHL at the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He described his transition to the NHL as development steps.

"It's a lot harder to make that transition, so in my case it worked out perfect with the lockout since the AHL season was still going on," he said.

"To make a transition from juniors, or college, to the AHL first and see that speed of the game [was important]. Pro hockey is pro hockey and the speed is fast whether it's the AHL or NHL. To be able to take baby steps, go to the AHL and see what the pro life is like before finally making the transition and easing into the NHL. That's where everyone wants to be, but to take those steps in the AHL you want to gain that knowledge and experience in the A."

There is a committee currently discussing possible changes to the agreement between the NHL and CHL. Also, there's been talk about whether to change the age threshold for draft eligibility.

"We have regularly discussed the possibility of moving the draft age later with the [National Hockey League] Players' Association in collective bargaining," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email. "It's a complicated issue and as a result, to this point, has not gained significant enough traction to result in change.

"We have also, from time to time, discussed negotiating for the ability to assign 18-year-old players to the AHL, but I am not satisfied that the right would be universally supported by our managers, and I know any such provision would be forcefully resisted by the CHL and its owners."

The current rule states that an organization has a nine-game NHL window before it needs to decide whether or not to send a rookie back to juniors, or keep him on the NHL roster. That rule could be tweaked to allow for a better development path.

As one current AHL coach explained, it would be better if a teenage rookie were allowed to remain on the NHL roster for 40 games, and instead of sending him back to juniors, he could be assigned to the AHL, where he would have to stay for the remainder of that season.

Not only is there talk about raising the draft age, the respective leagues are also considering more age-appropriate play at the midget and junior levels.

There's no value for a 15- or 16-year-old player to play ahead of his age group, so it would be best to keep all those players in the same age group to help everyone's development, and not only a handful of prospects.

The AHL is already successful, and while elite prospects could add to that, it will not make or break the AHL from a business or competitive point of view.

Not every 18- or 19-year-old player who is a high draft pick is better off in the AHL. A lot depends on physical and emotional preparation. Some of those players would gain confidence by spending more time in juniors, rather than transitioning to the pro level.

On the flip side, many top players at the junior level can develop bad habits by playing there too long.

Most NHL GMs worked in player development at some point in their careers, including Bruins GM Don Sweeney. He believes there's a healthy discussion for both sides of the issue.

"I think it's case-by-case," Sweeney said. "Every player will dictate what his own trajectory is to play in the National Hockey League."

Some NHL GMs would also agree that taking a player in his fourth year of junior hockey, and allowing him to turn him pro in the AHL would be beneficial. An elite prospect is not benefiting from playing his last season in juniors, and it could stifle his development.

Case in point: A season ago, Connor McDavid was playing junior hockey, while Jack Eichel was a freshman at Boston University. McDavid, who eventually went No. 1 overall in June's draft, dominated against younger teenagers, while Eichel (No. 2 overall) honed his skills against older players in college.

Unfortunately for McDavid, he suffered a broken clavicle earlier this season and has only played 13 games for the Edmonton Oilers. Eichel has played 43 games for the Sabres and has transitioned well to the NHL level.

Another example is Bruins forward and Czech Republic native David Pastrnak. He was selected in the first round (No. 25 overall) in the 2014 NHL draft before he made his North American pro debut in the AHL in 2014-15.

After 25 games in Providence, Pastrnak was called up and finished his rookie season with 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games.

"David was on a course last year that he was able to handle the American League at a young age, and went off to play in the World Junior Championship, came back and parlayed his second half into being pretty successful," Sweeney said.

This season, Pastrnak had a slow start and then suffered a broken foot. When he was cleared to return, the Bruins assigned him to Providence. Once again, he represented his country at the world juniors, was sent to Providence when he returned, then was recalled to Boston.

"Every young player, you have to look at as an individual basis, and then you have to look at what's best for the organization," Sweeney said.

Another current AHL coach believes it would be a mistake to allow teenagers to play in the AHL.

"I would not like to see it," he said. "Every first- and second-year player on my team, I've had a minimum of three conversations, explaining what it is to be a pro. The era of everyone's a winner and a champion is prevalent enough with the 20- and 21-year old players. It would be worse with 18- and 19-year-olds. Parents would never be able to handle their kids being benched or sent to the East Coast league."

Many current and former NHLers believe playing in the American League is an important step in the development process for prospects.

Bruins forward Brett Connolly, who was a first-round pick (No. 6 overall) by the Lightning in 2010, played the 2012-13 season in Syracuse for then-Crunch Jon Cooper. Connolly also played 66 games for Syracuse during the 2013-14 season.

"I don't think people give it enough credit," Connolly said. "If you ask anybody who is in the American League, they'll say how hard the league is. It made me a better player and taught me how to be a professional. For most guys, it's a very good league to improve in different areas."

At the very least, exemptions should be made to allow top prospects to play in the AHL if a parent organization believes it would be beneficial for the player and the future success of the NHL team. Drouin's current situation could have been avoided had he learned to be a pro on and off the ice in the minors.