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Who can play where… and why

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers

WATCH: FLYERS GM RON HEXTALL EXPLAINS THE PROSPECT DEVELOPMENT PROCESS

There is no one “right” path for a young player to take on his journey to reach the National Hockey League. There is a wide variety of potential stops along the developmental path, and there are also requirements under NHL and other circuits’ rules under which both players and teams must comply.

When the Philadelphia Flyers – or any NHL team – reassigns prospects to various leagues, they do so both with furthering their development in mind but also within the boundaries of what is required by rule if a young player is not an NHL roster.

One of hockey’s most misunderstood and incorrectly cited rules is the American Hockey League’s age restrictions. Per AHL By-Laws, the age limit for eligibility to compete in the league is 18 years or over, on or before September 15 of each season.

So where does the AHL’s oft-cited “20-year-old player rule” come in? This rule is based on the NHL and CHL Agreement, which states a signed player aged 18 or 19 who was claimed from a CHL club and is not retained by the NHL club, must be assigned to the CHL junior club whom he last played for or owes a contractual obligation.

In 1979, the National Hockey lowered the draft eligibility age over a two-year period from 20 to the present-day 18 (with the birthday cut off set at Sept. 15 of the draft’s calendar year). Concurrently, in order to keep CHL teams strong both on the ice and at the box office, CHL players under 20 whose NHL rightsholder deemed not quite ready for the NHL were required to return to their Canadian major junior team rather than playing in the AHL during the season.

Those basic requirements have held in place ever since. However, for young players signed out of Europe or collegiate players who give up their remaining NCAA eligibility in order to sign an NHL entry-level contract or AHL minor league contract, the minimum age to play in the AHL is 18.

For example, when the Flyers signed 2013 second-round pick Robert Hagg to an entry-level contract, he was 19 years old for most of his rookie season with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Hagg was drafted from a Swedish team (Modo Hockey), so it was within the rules for the then-teenaged player to be assigned to the AHL.

Additionally, the Flyers were able to assign Hagg to the AHL in 2014-15 under what is called the “slide rule”, meaning that the first year of his three-season NHL entry-level contract would not be used up despite the fact he was playing at the pro level. National Hockey League teams are able to slide an 18-year-old or 19-year-old player’s contract to other leagues – CHL, teams in European leagues and even to the AHL in a case such as Hagg’s – which means it does not count against the NHL’s 50-contract limit per season and does not “burn” a year off an entry-level contract so long as the player does not play in at least ten NHL games during the first season of the contract. As a result of the “slide” rule, the first year of Hagg’s entry-level contract was the now-completed 2015-16 season. Under NHL rules, an 18 or 19 year-old prospect may dress in up to nine NHL games at age 18 or 19 before it triggers the player’s entry-level contract for the full duration of the season. This “trial period” has been used many times by NHL teams over the years.

For example, Brayden Schenn debuted in the NHL for the Los Angeles Kings under these terms during parts of the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons before being returned to the Western Hockey League. Scott Laughton played in five games for the Flyers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before going back to the Ontario Hockey League. Former Flyers defenseman Luca Sbisa played in 39 NHL games in 2008-09, using the first year of his contract, before he was ultimately returned to the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes in the latter part of the season.

Throughout the hockey world, general managers, coaches and player personnel directors have a wide array of beliefs about the helpfulness of the “trial period” for teenage prospects. There is no right or wrong answer but there is array of different opinions.

For his part, though, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is not a big proponent of this method of development. At the Flyers’ 2015 Development Camp, the GM said that he is not wild about the idea of top prospects being used sparingly in the NHL nor is he inclined to give a player a nine-game NHL trial with the intention of sending the player back to his junior team thereafter. Only when the player is ready to compete for a full-time job will he be introduced into the Flyers lineup.

“I don't want them playing seven minutes a night, and I don't want them sitting out (as a healthy scratch),” Hextall said. “I want them playing.”

Hextall does not rule out the possibility of young players earning NHL jobs out of training camp “if they knock our socks off,” but he sets the bar very high. The young players must outplay – and not just hold their own – against veterans in training camp and in preseason games. That is because veterans are typically focused on recovering their timing and game legs before the season. Once the season begins, the pace and intensity pick up a full notch.

Chris Pryor, the Flyers’ director of scouting, echoes a similar sentiment.

“We are not in a rush with any of our young players,” Pryor said. “We are committed to being patient with their development. There’s no particular timetable, because every player develops a little differently, and there’s nothing set in stone. Ultimately, their play will dictate the direction but the focus is always on what’s best for the long term.”

Sometimes, when a player has dominated in junior hockey but his immediate NHL readiness is unclear and he is not yet AHL-eligible, NHL organizations are left with a tough decision of whether to send the player back to his junior team or take their chances with the player on the NHL roster.

Hextall and the Flyers’ other organizational decision-makers believe in erring on the side of caution.

Without naming names of particular players, the general manager said last July that, if anything, the high NHL upsides the top prospects in the organization makes him “want to pull back even a little bit more” to make absolutely sure that none are rushed into the NHL before they prove they are ready to the high standard the organization has set for its contracted prospects.

In terms of signing prospects to entry-level contracts, this is also partially dictated by the league from which the player is drafted. National Hockey League teams have a two-year window to sign CHL-affiliated prospects. With collegiate or college-bound players, the NHL rightsholder has the duration of their college eligibility (i.e., up to four college seasons) to make a signing decision. With top prospects, however, signing ideally comes within the first three years so as to avoid potential unrestricted free agency on August 15 immediately following the player’s senior season.

For European league players, the signing window is both age-dependent and country-dependent based on whether the country’s governing hockey federation has a transfer agreement with the National Hockey League.

For example, Flyers wing prospect Oskar Lindblom (drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 Draft) and goaltending prospect Felix Sandstrom (a 2015 third-rounder) were both 18 years old when drafted and both are affiliated with Swedish team Brynäs IF Gävle. Under the NHL’s agreement with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation (SIF), the Flyers have a four-year window from their draft year.

Lindblom, who excelled in a late-season stint in the AHL in 2015-16 after the completion of his Swedish Hockey League season with Brynäs, has elected to play one more season in Sweden rather than potentially playing for the Phantoms in 2016-17. That plan is OK by the Flyers, who consider Lindblom one of the organization’s better forward prospects and feel he can thrive either with one more SHL season or in the AHL. Linblom returning to Sweden for 2016-17 is based on his contractual commitment with Brynas for one more season.

“We like the approach they take to player development in Sweden. They teach players to play the game the right way and they don’t put kids in situations they are not ready to handle. Oskar has come along very well so far,” Pryor said.

With prospects in the Kontinental Hockey League, the time frame is a bit more indefinite. The NHL and Russian Hockey Federation does not have a transfer agreement but there is an agreement not to interfere with each other’s valid contracts. As a result, there is something of a waiting game for prospects either to secure their contractual release early (which can be difficult and expensive, especially for top young players) from their KHL team or else to play out the duration of their KHL contract and then be free to sign with their NHL rightsholder.

For undrafted invitees to Rookie Camp in September, the only way for the Flyers to obtain their NHL rights is by signing the player to an entry-level contract. This is what happened last year with 18-year-old QMJHL defenseman Philippe Myers, who subsequently had a breakthrough junior season.

This avenue is only open to undrafted players in North American leagues. Teenaged European league affiliated players – retroactive to the previous season, and not the CHL Import Draft that follows the NHL Draft – must go back in the draft pool for another season.

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