Exceptional Status: Not Just for 15 Year Olds?

With players from the last couple drafts hitting their 9-game marks with their NHL clubs, organizations are having to decide between sending those players back to their major-junior teams or burning a year of their entry-level contracts and playing them in more NHL games. For guys who weren’t drafted out of the CHL, of course, there’s always the AHL as an option. But a growing number of analysts and fans believe that the guys drafted out of the CHL should also be able to play in the American League.

Not all of them, of course. Many players simply aren’t ready for a professional league, and would benefit greatly from returning to their major-junior teams and spending another year or two developing. Every team has that one guy, though, who could go back to juniors and completely tear up the league, but whose own play would probably benefit more from a year in the AHL competing against men rather than teenagers. Implementing a rule like the “exceptional status” rule that allows, in special cases, for 15-year olds to play in the CHL might allow these in-between players to go to a professional league and continue to develop their game, rather than potentially developing bad habits because they don’t have to try nearly as hard as everyone else.

Steve Yzerman could’ve benefitted from being able to send Jonathan Drouin to the AHL last year; this year, had it been an option, I think Don Maloney would’ve preferred to send Max Domi to the AHL rather than returning him to London. At the beginning of this season, the Edmonton Oilers were juggling two first-round draft picks, Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom are not quite to the level they need to be at in order to play in the NHL. If Craig MacTavish could’ve sent them to the Oklahoma City Barons, I think it would’ve benefitted both team and players.

Nurse isn’t ready for full-time NHL employment yet; anyone who watched his games with Edmonton at the beginning of the season saw that. He could, however, make the jump to professional hockey. A year in Oklahoma City under Todd Nelson would undoubtedly benefit him more than returning to Sault Ste. Marie for a year of defending against guys who, for the most part, aren’t as good as he is. I also think this kind of situation could really benefit Leon Draisaitl. Despite his improved play of late, I’m not entirely sold on the fact that he’s a legit NHLer just yet, and I think he could benefit from a year of tough competition in the AHL. The Oilers would have to really address their center problem for this to be an option even in a world where sending Draisaitl to the A was a possibility, though, so even in that world I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The main question here is — how do you get the CHL to agree to this? One step could be ensuring that granting this particular kind of “exceptional status” would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, perhaps having players meet certain criteria, but then you get into a messy grey area where the NHLPA could get involved. NHL teams could compensate the CHL teams monetarily for players they choose to send to their AHL affiliate, but then you get into determining the worth of a player to that CHL team in order to decide on an amount. There’s also the question of whether sending a player to the AHL team would allow his contract to slide like it would if he returned to his junior team, or if it would burn a year of his entry-level contract like staying in the NHL past the 9-game mark does. There’s quite a bit of grey area to cover here, but I think that undertaking the effort could be worth it in the end, both for organizations and players.

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