The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and NHL currently have an agreement in place which prohibits players under the age of 20 from playing in the AHL or ECHL if they do not make the big club. This policy is meant to protect the CHL (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) teams from losing the revenue generated by having an elite junior talent on their squad and the potential playoff revenue generated by having such a player. This has not always been the case.
Before 1979, players had to be 20 years-old to enter the NHL. In order to get a leg up on the NHL, the WHA decided to sign a number of junior players, including then 17 year-old Wayne Gretzky, to professional contracts. When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, the NHL changed its draft eligible age to 18 and signed an agreement with the CHL stating that if a drafted player under 20 years old does not make the big club he must be returned to his CHL club.
Maybe it made some sense in 1979, but even so the agreement is not the best thing for the future of the NHL. The CHL argument is that without these players in their league, teams would not be able to function financially. If this is the case, why can't the NHL buy the player's contract from the team? It seems simple enough, the two sides could agree to a certain slotted payment amount for a player drafted in any position, and then the NHL team would have the option of developing its talent in the AHL or ECHL instead of in the Canadian junior leagues.
Let's look at a guy like Sean Couturier. He had 96 points in back to back seasons in the QMJHL, and was the first underage player since Sidney Crosby to lead the league in scoring. I'm not saying he's got Crosby type talent, but clearly he's a surefire NHLer. What does he have left to prove in the CHL? He's already led the league in scoring and won the award for best professional prospect. Was he ready for the NHL? On the Flyers he was given a role as a fourth line shut down guy, and he excelled. I believe that on a team not as deep as the Flyers he would have been given second or first line minutes, players with offensively minded teammates, and been given a chance to show his talent in all phases of the game including special teams.
I think it's pretty well agreed upon that in an ideal world he would have spent a season on the Phantoms as the top line center, playing on the PK and PP and being relied upon in every situation against better talent, furthering his development. Due to the impending lockout he now has the opportunity to develop his offensive game in the biggest situations. This is the situation he should have been in last year, and the one Brayden Schenn should have been in while wallowing away in the CHL as the "best prospect in hockey." Was he getting better each game? Probably, but I believe he would have improved more had he been playing in the AHL against better competition rather than dominating 16 year old boys with little hope of making the pro leagues.
In order to improve player development, the NHL should come up with a way to get the truly elite young players into their farm systems as soon as they are ready, rather than as soon as the agreement says they may. Because the truly elite players are leaving anyway, only the guys who need a little more development before becoming pro ready would be leaving, while the lower tier NHL prospects would probably gain more by getting more top minutes in the CHL. Assuming that the CHL and NHL were not able to agree upon a slotted dollar system for any player whose rights are owned by an NHL team, here is my proposal for the CHL/NHL agreement:
First 15 picks can go immediately to the AHL if they do not make the big club. The next 15 picks (remainder of the first round) must spend one more year in the CHL before they can move on to the AHL
The entirety of the second round can leave for the AHL after two more years in the CHL Remaining players must wait until they reach age 20 before being AHL eligible.
This plan would give the CHL the ability to have younger talents grab top line minutes, furthering the development of younger players while giving the future NHL players more development time against other professional players under the watchful eye of the big clubs. Also, in the CHL the main goal is to win the Memorial Cup, which is an admirable goal, but it's not necessarily the best idea for the development of the player for his role in the NHL. Once in the AHL or ECHL, the NHL team can mandate to its affiliates the role that each player will have in the NHL and begin development toward that role at an earlier age.
Really, the only losers in this situation are career minor league players barely holding on to their roster spots in the AHL or ECHL. A lot of these players, potentially up to 60 per year, would lose their roster spots due to younger players leaving the CHL for the minor leagues. As much as I hate to sound cold-blooded, the AHL is there to develop NHL talent, not to let a 31 year old minor league fringe player continue his childhood dream of pro hockey. The current agreement does not advance the purpose of the AHL.