The CHL-NHL Transfer Agreement has been a major topic of discussion with the Shane Wright saga going on in Seattle as well as so many teenage players getting a chance to play at the AHL level during the pandemic. This may come as an unpopular opinion – especially from a former hater of the agreement – but NHL teams are lucky that the agreement is in place.
Let’s first look at what the CHL-NHL Transfer Agreement entails. For an NHL draft prospect to leave the QMJHL, WHL or OHL to play minor-league hockey, he must be 20 years old (by Dec. 31 of that season) or have played four seasons in the juniors. Junior players can still leave their junior team starting at age 18 to play in the NHL.
Sometimes, the NHL is a bit too much for young players, but they’ve done all they can do at the junior level. We’ve seen plenty of young players from the CHL – such as Alexis Lafreniere and Kirby Dach – enter the NHL and not be good enough right away while their NHL club feels they’ve exceeded junior hockey.
The agreement is for players drafted out of the CHL only, so players drafted out of Europe, the USHL and NCAA do not apply. This is one of the biggest criticisms of the rule, with the implication that it is unfair to CHL players who could be taking the step into professional hockey.
This rule was put into place for multiple reasons. The first is that it keeps high-end talent in the CHL leagues, allowing them to help market the league and attract fans. The draw of the CHL is that it is the future of hockey in Canada. If every high-level player leaves the CHL for the AHL at 18 years old, the league wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.
Having players aged 18 to 20 in the league also helps from a developmental aspect. Playing against skilled players after they’ve been drafted and have begun to mature physically is good for younger players heading into their draft year. It allows them to play against bigger, faster, stronger players without being overwhelmed by full-grown men.
“I think for the vast majority of players, moving to the AHL too early can be detrimental,” one OHL scout told The Hockey News. “There’s a ton of examples, at every age group, of young players moving up to play with older guys too early and it having a negative impact on their development.”
There’s also the element of NHL teams rushing players and putting them in situations that find them in over their heads. Even if a player is a first-round pick, they may not be physically or mentally mature enough to play on a team with and against men consistently.
Despite their immense talent level, pushing them along their development path too quickly could result in stagnated development or regression as a whole. Oftentimes, when a player is playing too high a level of hockey, they are doing everything they can to survive and not focusing on developing the skills and habits for them to reach their full potential.
“Most 18-year-olds aren’t ready. They need to be completely dominant against their age group before moving on,” explained an Eastern Conference NHL scout. “It’s a process, and it’s rushed far too often.”
The key to that statement is “most” because there are exceptions to that rule. We have seen European prospects come over and have some degree of success at the AHL level as teenagers.
Moritz Seider played in the AHL after being drafted by the Red Wings and took a big step developmentally with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Forwards such as William Nylander, David Pastrnak and Mikko Rantanen were all successful in the AHL as teenagers.
Some CHLers have been dominant at that level and could benefit from AHL hockey as well. Due to the pandemic pausing junior hockey, we had a chance recently to see Cole Perfetti, Seth Jarvis and Phillip Tomasino have good AHL stints as teenagers.
We’ve also witnessed plenty of talent with high expectations heading to the AHL only to wind up overwhelmed, stagnant developmentally, and ultimately flame out as NHL prospects. It’s not an exact science by any means.
“I definitely think there is room to revisit the agreement and maybe allow for exceptions,” mentioned the OHL scout. “This is the type of thing where maybe one player a year deserves that sort of handling. I think maybe you do a game limit there too.”
The most common suggestion is a single-player exception for NHL teams with monetary compensation for the CHL teams. They can choose one teenage CHLer who they deem ready to take the step to the AHL. That NHL team would then give the player’s CHL team a fixed payment with a portion of that payment being split amongst the given league.
Some other logistics would also need to be considered.
For instance, how often would an NHL club be able to use the exception? The frequency in which the exception could be could range anywhere from two to five years. Four years seems to be the most reasonable, as it would line up with the typical junior career and force teams to truly consider whether or not to use the exception.
Other considerations for the exception could include limiting the exception to first-round picks or exactly how expensive it would be for an NHL team to use the exception. Would a million-dollar price tag, split 50/50 between the player’s team and the league as a whole be reasonable? A high price tag could mean that NHL clubs think twice before just moving a player up.
This exception should be used sparingly and with a great deal of thought. Development is a long-term process, not one that should be rushed. Clubs shouldn’t be moving prospects to the AHL before they become ready for many reasons, safety being among them.
The CHL-NHL Transfer Agreement often saves teams from themselves – it prevents teams, agents and players from rushing the process. It forces teams to leave players to play against their peers for as long as possible.
That doesn’t mean that the agreement is perfect.
There’s likely no perfect solution. CHL clubs want to keep the best talent in their leagues. NHL teams want their best prospects to play against the best competition possible. Players are competitive and want to test their skills.
We likely won’t be seeing any major changes to the agreement anytime soon, but it’s certainly worth a thought. The key to any good relationship is compromise.