Bill Keenan played hockey for Harvard and has since been a keen student of The Game.
His thoughts on Junior hockey’s problems follow:
Any high-school aged hockey player in North America who has dreams of one day playing in the NHL is familiar with the ever-growing list of options when it comes to deciding which route is best - Junior B, Tier III Junior A, Tier II Junior A, Tier I Junior A, or Major Junior.
By the age of sixteen, most of the top prospects are drafted into one of the three Major Junior leagues. While the majority seizes that opportunity, others opt to play in the ever-expanding non-Major Junior hockey landscape in order to maintain their college hockey eligibility.
With youth hockey gaining greater popularity in places like Florida, Texas, and California, many kids are now choosing to pursue pucks rather than chase down fly balls on weekends.
That, in turn, has increased the need for expansion in both North American Junior and college hockey.
However, as is the case in nearly every walk of life, with growth comes complexity.
It seems like every year new junior leagues are popping up, expanding or re-aligning, making it more and more difficult for young players to decide which route to take.
Finding the best competition is vital for development, but with so many choices, it has become a painstaking effort for players (and their parents) to determine which path to pursue.
The bottom line is that North America is producing more hockey players than ever. Yet Europeans (Russians included) continue to produce elite NHL players at a more rapid pace.
While that statement might be a point of contention, consider that five of the past six Art Ross winners have been non-North Americans, and two of the past three NHL defenseman scoring leaders have been non-North Americans.
The group I focus on is sixteen to eighteen-year olds – the Junior hockey years that are crucial in the development of players with NHL aspirations.
While there are exceptions, the fact remains that Major Junior is the primary route that elite North American NHL prospects take.
But what happens to those surefire first round NHL picks from Major Junior who never pan out?
I’m talking about those sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen-year-olds who put up monster numbers in Major Junior, are praised by NHL scouts to no end, but never quite cut it in The Show, bouncing up and down between the NHL and AHL or heading to Europe.
Here’s what happens: Development is hindered because after dominating for a year or two in Major Junior, there are no other options except to return to juniors and dominate once again.
Sure it must feel wonderful to string together a few superior seasons in Major Junior, but these are the most crucial years for a player’s development, and when a guy is ready to move up to the next level, he quite literally can’t.
Some are still too young to be drafted, while others who have been drafted aren’t quite able to make the jump to the NHL at eighteen. So, these players remain in Major Junior where while they are racking up the points, they also begin picking up bad on-ice habits that have the potential to come back and haunt them at the NHL level.
Once you dominate, the only way to keep improving is to move up a level and find better competition. Major Junior teams are predominantly comprised of sixteen to twenty-year olds with a handful of fifteen and twenty-one-year-olds.
While the structure has clearly worked as far as producing NHL players, every year NHL teams will select “can’t miss” Major Junior prospects in the first round that never pan out. While three seasons of incredible stats and dominating on-ice play may tell one story, there is clearly another story that needs to be explored to explain the inevitable first round draft busts that occur every June.