Monday, September 17, 2007

On Juniors And Going Pro

When Francois Bouchard and Karl Alzner were sent back to juniors earlier today, I had no problem with the move (I thought they might hang around another few days, but, for a number of reasons, it has long been clear where they'd be playing this season). And since both are North American-born and neither will be 20-years-old by December 31, 2007, getting cut meant they were headed back to juniors (recall that "players from the three Canadian junior leagues who were born in North America are not eligible to play in the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League until they turn 20"1).

Frankly, I'm not sure how the blanket AHL and ECHL prohibition on using these players - all the while allowing 19-year-old European kids to play in their Leagues - isn't a violation of antitrust laws, but I can let that pass for now. My CHL (and really all things hockey) expert James Mirtle helped explain to me why the rule is the way it is, and while I certainly can see why it makes sense for the junior leagues, I'm not as convinced that it always makes sense for the players.

For a player like Bouchard, for example, who led the QMJHL in scoring last year, what does he have left to prove at that level? I got to ask Bouchard that very question at the beginning of rookie camp, and it was pretty clear that his feeling was "not much":

Mirtle isn't so sure. On the macro-level, he points to how players in the Q are closer to home, can attend school, etc. On the micro-level, he points to how much better Francois Bouchard's older brother Pierre-Marc's numbers were at the same age and how every hot-shot in the Q thinks he's ready to go pro.

But the elder Bouchard - the eighth overall pick in 2002 - was rushed to the NHL, debuting as an 18-year-old and totalling 42 points in 111 games through two seasons. It wasn't until he spent the lockout season in the AHL that Pierre-Marc found his game at the professional level, and he has now emerged as a 20-goal/55-point player, all at the tender age of 23. Would Bouchard have been better served playing in the AHL than the NHL in those first two years, had that option been available? Or, alternatively and in retrospect, should he have played out his eligibility in the Q?

We'll obviously never know, but here, then, is my question today - from a player development perspective (there are contract considerations that we're not discussing here) is it a shame that Bouchard and Alzner have to go back to juniors rather than taking their game to the next level in Hershey, or is heading back to juniors the best thing for their respective long-term developments?


Rage said...

Optionality can never hurt.

I could send him to the AHL, and then move him to the Q if things don't go well. But that's a totally selfish way of thinking (i.e. this could be a disaster for the Q).

Marky Narc said...

I asked Voges the same question. He addressed it on the most recent Caps report and provided pretty much the same angle Mirtle did. His explanation was that these small(er) cities across Canada - the Baie-Comeaus, the Sarnias, the Kelownas, et al. - their local hockey teams are a major part of the community and it wouldn't be fair to them to simply take away all the top prospects simply to see if they'd sink or swim in the AHL. Obviously with the "generational" talent that's going to go straight to the NHL and bypass the AHL completely it's a little different, but someone like Bouchard ... he might not think he needs another year in the Q, but GMGM apparently thinks he does. Why not let him play first line minutes in junior instead of second, third or fourth line minutes in the AHL?

Also, do you think it would be safe to say that if you plucked every player from the CHL who had the requisite skill set and was willing to ply their trade in the AHL, wouldn't that mean that the quality of the developmental junior leagues would go down?

JP said...

Both of you are exactly right, the rule that exists is in place to protect those Canadian Junior leagues - they're much better off not being the equivalent of Single A baseball, with players who can freely be called up and sent down.

As Mirtle said, "the CHL doesn't want its 18-year-old stars going to toil in the AHL; that's not good for business."

Also, the AHL, um, talent mix isn't always the best fit for 18-year-old kids who play a finesse game.

I think the point can be made both ways and that protecting a developmental league at the expense of some individual players (not saying Bouchard is one of them) is likely worth it.

b.orr4 said...

Bouchard may not like going back to the Q, but at his age I think it's a much better option. The AHL is in many ways a much more physical league than the NHL and by physical, I mean dirty. A young kid faces the risk of serious injury down there and, at the very least, he's going to spend a lot more time defending himself than honing his skills. Let him go back to the Q and then, when he's a little older and bigger, make the move to the NHL. And if he can't make the NHL right away, he'll be better equipped to handle the Louie Robitaille's of the AHL.

CapFan said...

Alzner never had a shot, but will be a very good defensemen someday. As for Bouchard, he'd be better off going to Russia or Sweden for a year than playing in the Q.