While Brett Connolly got away unscathed by Mike Green’s flying elbow; you have to wonder if Lightning GM Steve Yzerman had his blood boiling because of the handcuffs he had when it came to where to put Connolly. Yzerman has been very vocal about the problem he has encountered when it came to how to deal with Connolly.
The NHL has an agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, the major junior outfit all across Canada and in four States, that if a junior aged player (16-20 years old) still has junior eligibility left and doesn’t not stick with the NHL club he has signed with, he will have to return to their junior team rather than going to the AHL or ECHL. This only applies to players who were drafted out of the major junior ranks though. It’s my understanding that if a player is drafted out of the NCAA ranks or Junior-A ranks, then decides to move to major junior—that rule does not apply to them, like in the case with John Carlson and Jeremy Morin, which has caused a stir with the major junior teams.
Yzerman fully believes that Connolly has nothing more to prove in the major junior ranks and would be better suited to try his hand in the AHL. You know, to actually grow and develop as a player. For someone like Connolly, who has played three years in major juniors (including one after a full season after his draft season), a fourth season would serve no purpose other than proving that he can dominate the Western Hockey League.
Many people could see Yzerman’s case, as the competition that is in the WHL is solid—but in no way can it match gameplay that the AHL and NHL has with each other. Connolly would be playing against other prospects that are a couple years older than him, rather than having Connolly play down in competition by going back to the WHL.
Of course, the CHL teams do have their own assets to look after as well. As much as the players may be playing down to a lower level, the fans would come out for someone who has not only played in the NHL like Connolly has, but also someone who has played in the World Junior Championship and contributed to the Canadian squad. Connolly could be a marquee name to attract people both to home and away arenas, thus helping out the league’s health as a whole.
While it’s not right to hold a kid down to a lower level like major juniors when he could be so much better off in the AHL; I can understand where the idea of having a young player under 20 to go back to juniors, if nothing more than the fact he wouldn’t have to worry about anything except playing—and maybe schooling. The fact that players in juniors have billet families (people in the community who take in players to keep them on the straight and narrow) means that they would stay out of any trouble they could get into when they’re on their own and would actually have some kind of structure of living. The AHL doesn’t have the luxury and, unlike the NHL where a veteran would take a rookie under their wing, the players are around the same age and may not have the wisdom to stay out of trouble—whether they find it themselves or it finds them.
Still, it all comes back to what happens on the ice, which is where the AHL would shine if an under-20 player is ready to play. You shouldn’t be able to keep down a player and stifle his development just because of his age. The upside to playing in a more competitive league is that the player will get adjusted more and more to the style of play that the NHL game would offer. Of course, Connolly is getting that dose of professional play in the NHL, but if he’s not prepared for that big of a leap, shouldn’t he have an in-between option to turn to when all else fails?
The options out there that could be a good settling point for a situation like Connolly’s could have to start with the tenure he spent in juniors. The fact that Connolly played an entire season in the WHL last season, the season after getting drafted, that should be enough for someone of his caliber to actually be allowed access to the NHL. It’s not like he came back mid-season from Tampa and played only 30-40 games. He played a full season in the WHL, minus World Juniors experience, and did fairly well with 46 goals and 27 assists in 59 games with the Prince George Cougars. For a guy to be that dominant in that short of time—he would probably run over the competition if he were to go back to the WHL, especially since his rights were traded to the powerhouse Tri-City Americans.
Another option could be one that is taken out of the CHL’s rulebook—the exceptional player rule. In the CHL, a player at the age of 15 can be eligible to be drafted into any three of the CHL’s league if he is deemed as an “exceptional” player but the leagues and the league’s governing board, Hockey Canada. The NHL and CHL could enter into this when it comes to a player who’s NHL GM thinks he’s too good go back into junior, but not good enough for the NHL; getting the exception to play in the AHL. The biggest thing is to agree on an arbitrator to do such a thing, but it’s definitely something that may be the best bet for the next round of collective bargaining not only within the NHL, but when it comes to the CHL agreement, as well.
This kind of situation is happening very often—Brayden Schenn, then of the Los Angeles Kings, had to deal with being a healthy scratch with the Kings for most of the 2010-11 season. Of course, part of that was so that the first year of his entry level contract didn’t kick in, the season after he was drafted, Schenn had 99 points in 59 games and showed that sending him back wouldn’t be the best option to help him grow. While Schenn got some conditioning stints in the AHL, he wasn’t allowed to stay there and was eventually sent back to the WHL where he had 57 points in 29 games on his return—a case right there to allow the AHL to be an option for an exceptional player.
While it may not be as cut-and-dried as it seems, the overview of the Brett Connolly situation (and situations like his) show that there needs to be a call to the NHL and the CHL to look at their current arrangement. Something is wrong if returning junior aged players to their team won’t help as much as it would help the CHL’s leagues. With Steve Yzerman leading the charge, you have to believe that other GMs in the NHL will speak up more and more when it comes to be able to manage their own assets for the future and good of the team and player.