CHL/NHL Transfer Agreement tweaks? Team World U23? Wheeler’s mailbag, part 1

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Hockey season is back. Leagues around Europe are underway and leagues across North America will soon follow. And as the 2023-24 seasons kick off, it’s time for a new mailbag.
Earlier this week, you submitted nearly 150 questions on the 2024 NHL Draft, prospects, scouting and more. Here, I’ve answered three of them in-depth, touching on topics like building a global under-23 team and the CHL/NHL Agreement. Part 2 of this mailbag will be published on Saturday.
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Note: Questions have been lightly edited for clarity and length. If you submitted a question and I didn’t answer it here, I’ll circle back and answer the rest of the submissions in the coming days.
If you were going to make a team à la Team North America from the World Cup of Hockey, but the rules are 23-and-under for all nationalities, what does that roster look like? — Matthew W.
This question is a lot of fun, so I wanted to start with it.
It was also, once I got into it, an excruciating task to whittle it down to just 13 forwards, seven defencemen and three goalies.
Here’s where I landed.
At forward, the centre depth in particular felt almost impossible to manage. I’ve moved natural centres Trevor Zegras, Connor Bedard, Dylan Cozens and Dawson Mercer to the wings here (they were the most experienced of the centres on the wing), and I still had to leave off Wyatt Johnston, Kirby Dach, Logan Cooley and Adam Fantilli, who were my quote-unquote final cuts down the middle (with Mason McTavish, Leo Carlsson, Quinton Byfield, Shane Pinto, Marco Rossi and company all still after them, plus guys like Will Smith and Shane Wright potentially on the way).
That depth down the middle also meant there were only really five other openings on the wings, with Cole Caufield, Matt Boldy and Lucas Raymond as locks and Cole Perfetti and Matvei Michkov as my final picks (I like the idea of Michkov as a 13th forward who could hypothetically step onto the power play if someone went down with an injury, plus I’d selfishly love to see Bedard and Michkov on the same team). My final cuts on the wings were Alexis Lafrenière, Jack Quinn, Kaapo Kakko and Seth Jarvis, who could each easily be swapped for Perfetti and Michkov. Guys like Dylan Holloway, Peyton Krebs, Matias Maccelli, Matthew Knies, Lukas Reichel, Alex Newhook, Ridly Greig, Kent Johnson and JJ Peterka could have all rounded out a fun B Team on the wings as well.
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On defence, depth on the left side meant picking five lefties and just two righties, with Bowen Byram switching over to his off side. I liked the idea of a shutdown second pairing that reunited NTDP teammates Jake Sanderson and Brock Faber, but don’t let Alexander Nikishin’s spot as the seventh D fool you because he could just as well feature in that top four.
On defence, a B Team would have included some combination of lefties Cam York, Kaiden Guhle, Philip Broberg, Simon Edvinsson, Lane Hutson and Thomas Harley and righties David Reinbacher, Simon Nemec, David Jiricek and Brandt Clarke.
The simplest decisions were in net, where Devon Levi, Dustin Wolf and Spencer Knight felt like the natural selections in front of Jesper Wallstedt, Yaroslav Askarov, Arturs Silovs and the rest for me for the time being.
In the end, you’ve got nine Americans (which I think is noteworthy), eight Canadians, two Russians, two Germans, a Swede and a Finn.
But seriously: How fun would it be to see Jack Hughes and Caufield reunited, and Zegras setting up Bedard?
As the NHL’s interest in younger talent accelerates, what tweaks if any should be made to the agreements between the CHL, AHL and NHL in order to improve player development? — Rowen B.
Do the CHL rules need tweaking as far as when drafted players can play in the AHL? It seems like late birthday players getting the chance to go pro a whole year earlier than some guys that miss the cut-off by a matter of days is unfair. Maybe allowing teams to make an exception for at least one D+2 player? — Matt R.
This submission was the one with the most upvotes and I’m not surprised, as it’s been a consistent talking point and question since the beginning of COVID-19. And look: I get it. Fans got a taste of their teenaged prospects playing in the AHL during the pandemic, it was positive for many (players like Perfetti, Zegras, Boldy, Byfield), and they’re left to question why that shouldn’t be a continued option for their team.
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This is a very nuanced discussion, though, and my answer may not land in all of the places readers expect it to. First, I think it’s important to stress that the success and production many prospects saw during the pandemic in the AHL wasn’t in the best version of the league but in a watered-down one due to taxi squads, which had pulled all of its best players onto NHL rosters, opening up spots and playing time (including power-play time) that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to them — or would have been much harder to earn, for certain. Last season, for example, in a return to the league’s normal level of play, top prospects like Shane Wright, Brad Lambert, Chaz Lucius and Corson Ceulemans all had a tougher time in the league and found fewer opportunities than their peers of two years earlier, while the young players who thrived were those who already had significant professional experience (European players like Jiri Kulich, Simon Nemec and David Jiricek).
The leap from the CHL to the AHL is not an easy one at 18 or 19. Though there is talk of allowing Wright to play in the AHL as a 19-year-old exemption to the CHL/NHL Agreement this year, I’m not even convinced that is the best path for his development. While he was good and productive in the OHL last year and this would mean a fifth year there because of his exceptional status, I didn’t often feel while watching him that he was utterly dominant (not just at the world juniors and in the OHL playoffs, but during the regular season, too) in the same way Connor Bedard, Olen Zellweger, Logan Stankoven and Brandt Clarke were. There were also extended stretches of play in the AHL that revealed some work he still has to do on his pace of play. And that’s Wright, a No. 4 pick, we’re talking about. If that’s where he’s at relative to the AHL at 19, then you can rest assured that your favourite team wouldn’t necessarily — let alone automatically — benefit by using an AHL roster spot or two on their hot-shot CHLer each year.
Maybe the most significant pieces of the conversation around adjusting the 20-year-old rule for AHL eligibility in the CHL/NHL Agreement, though, seldom seem to get discussed.
It’s this:
The CHL/NHL Agreement has been bargained and agreed upon by both sides across multiple renegotiations, which means that in order for the CHL — still the NHL’s biggest pipeline of talent and one of its largest partners — to agree to changes to it, the NHL would need to offer its three leagues and their 60 teams something in return.
As it stands, CHL clubs are already compensated when a player who is eligible to play in the CHL plays in the NHL instead. Those payments, which can total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for clubs that have multiple players playing in the NHL, also total zero for the vast majority of teams, favouring the London Knights of the CHL. Those smaller teams are also direct beneficiaries of having the best 18- and 19-year-old NHL prospects playing in the league, because they sell tickets when they come through town. When I was based out of Ottawa from 2013-2017, the only sellouts at TD Place, the home of the 67’s (a big market team in the grand scheme of things!) were when Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and the London Knights would come through, or Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat and the Erie Otters. And you should have seen what Jonathan Drouin, Nikolaj Ehlers and the Halifax Mooseheads did to The Bob, the no-longer-used old home of the Gatineau Olympiques. That matters. The financial stability of these leagues, and consequently the health of the NHL’s talent infrastructure, depends on star players packing barns in towns across Canada every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. And if you take away those talents, it’s not the big boys who will get paid by the NHL for those players who will suffer, it’s the little guys in leagues without revenue sharing, already operating at a loss, who will.
It’s not a perfect system, but there isn’t a perfect solution either and it’s much more complicated than “my first-rounder had 100 points last year and he doesn’t need to do that again.” The truth is, his development is much less likely to be ruined by the odd bad habit that might creep in than by running it back for another 100 points, playing for his country at the world juniors, playing deep into the playoffs, and building confidence, than it is by getting fewer touches in a more limited role in the AHL, with the loss of confidence that comes with it, all in the name of being overseen by his NHL club and the purported benefits of a little more structure (I’d argue his skill development should be a greater priority than learning the structure and habits of the pro game, and that bad habits can also be created by playing at a tempo and physicality you may not be prepared for).
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Given how few would actually benefit from hypothetical changes, and the real cost to junior teams and potentially just as many players (what is the likelihood that with some kind of exception rule, an equal number of players will be put in the AHL too early?), I’m just not sure it’s as pressing an issue as the chatter around it makes it out to be.
(Top photo of Dawson Mercer and Jack Hughes: Andrew Mordzynski / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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