The year was 1972. The World Hockey Association emerged to challenge the National Hockey League for hockey supremacy. The WHA immediately began pillaging players from the NHL – 67 in that first summer.
At one point in the 1970’s, the two rival leagues combined for 32 teams, one more then the NHL has today. The WHA looked overseas and began signing players from Europe. Still, there was a shortage of players, or for lack of a better term, quality players.
Fast forward to 1977. It was a young Ken Linesman of the Kingston Canadians who was prepared to challenge the NHL and WHA Draft age (twenty at the time) in court.
The Birmingham Bulls had selected Linesman at that 1977 WHA Draft. The WHA immediately deemed Linesman ineligible because he was 19 years of age. Linesman filed and was granted an injunction against the WHA.
The Birmingham Bulls signed him to a contract and the rest is history. Linesman recorded 76 points during his rookie season and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers bought his rights from the Bulls and selected him in the first round of the 1978 NHL Draft.
While the NHL’s draft age remained at twenty, the WHA began signing young players such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet and others.
The NHL and WHA were in merger negotiations for some time, and in 1979 it came to fruition as the NHL absorbed the Winnipeg Jets, New England Whalers, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques. It was at that time the NHL lowered its draft age to eighteen.
That 1979 is widely considered the best draft class of all time. It was the lowering of that draft age that basically combined three drafts into one: 20-year-old players, and for the first time nineteen and eighteen-year-old players. If not for that drop in age, players such as Ray Bourque, Glenn Anderson along with Messier, Gartner and Goulet would not have been eligible. Oh, and Gretzky, who the Oilers were allowed to keep in the merger agreement, would not have been eligible for league play.
So, onto the question at hand.
Many believe that, with a few exceptions each year, predicting what an 18-year-old will become at the NHL level is near an impossible task and that raising the draft age to 19 or 20 will give teams a better perspective on the players they draft.
At the 1978 draft, the last draft featuring only 20-year-old players, all but three of the eighteen players selected in the first round went on to play 519 or more NHL games. Compare that to 1980 where just 10 of 21 picks played in 519 games or more. From the 1981 draft, 14 of 21 first round picks played beyond the 519-game mark.
The 2003 draft was widely considered an excellent draft. There, 23 of 30 went on to play 519 or more games. In 2004, 11 of the 30 first-round picks reached the 519-game mark.
This chart breaks down the percentage of first-round picks from these specific drafts to play in 519 or more games:
Is there something else besides age effecting the success rate?
What we’re seeing is a greater number of Europeans while the Canadian numbers have dropped. And we’re seeing a rise in the number of Americans as well and they will continue to rise as the game continues to gain popularity. Bare with me here because I am not suggesting it has anything to do with the drop in Canadians – far from it.
It’s a bigger world out there for scouts. While teams have increased their scouting staffs over the years, can one say definitively that they are getting enough looks at the players? Is a tournament here and a few games there enough? How much is enough?
Allow me to use Sean Durzi as an example. During the 2016-2017 season, I saw him play at least 20 times as well as prior to his draft year. I felt he should have been, and ranked him, 32nd among OHL players for the 2017 NHL Draft, which would have put him in the 180 range overall. But Durzi wasn’t selected at the 2017 Draft. One year later in Dallas, the Toronto Maples Leafs would have to use a second-round pick, 52nd overall to select him.
Is it that the Leafs hadn’t seen enough of him during the 2016-2017 season to make a fair assessment, or is it that Durzi hadn’t developed enough as an 18-year-old to make an adequate assessment? We’ll never know the answer to that, but it’s reasonable to assume that, with all the “misses” happening in drafts, that an extra year of observation should eliminate some of them.
But with the change, a legal battle is almost surely to happen as there is bound to be another Linesman out there somewhere, someday, that will bring the matter before the courts.
But the NHL’s biggest battle will be with the NHLPA not the courts. In 2004 Maurice Clarett challenged the NFL’s draft rules in court and won, but that decision was later overturned in Appeals Court. That’s because when there is a negotiated deal between the owners and the unions the non-statutory labor exemption deems that labor law trumps all else. This comes down to the NHL needing the NHLPA to agree.
However, the NHLPA has made it clear that it is opposed to raising the draft age to 19. Some argue the NHLPA doesn’t have the right to negotiate terms for players that are not yet part of the Union. They do. The NHLPA has for years negotiated on behalf of players not yet in the Union in the form of earning limits on Entry Level Contracts.
The legal battle and NHLPA battle aside, where do you stand on the draft age?