Let’s start with a declaration.
Auston Matthews should be playing in the National Hockey League right now, the best league in the world. Not in Zurich, with all due respect to the Swiss Elite League.
But he isn’t. Why? Not because he isn’t good enough to play in the NHL.
“He has the size, maturity and skill level,” says Zurich head coach Marc Crawford, a veteran of almost 1,200 games behind NHL benches.
“He would have adjustments. But yes, he could play now.”
Matthews, 18, isn’t in the NHL because of the arbitrary cut-off date of Sept. 15 set years ago by collective bargaining between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. He was born on Sept. 17, 1997, just two days past the date for eligibility for last June’s draft.
That means he has to wait until next June to be drafted into the NHL. So he couldn’t play in the NHL, didn’t want to play in the Canadian Hockey League or at a U.S. College, and instead headed to Europe.
Damage done so far? None, really. This isn’t a case to right an egregious wrong.
“But if the NHL truly is the best league in the world, it should be open to the best players regardless of age,” says agent Anton Thun. “It should have an exceptional players rule.”
Absolutely. Imagine if there was such a rule, one similar to the “exceptional player” rule that allowed players like John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid to play major junior a year before the usual eligibility date.
Matthews, if there were such a rule in the NHL, would have been drafted no worse than third overall last June, which would have landed him with the Arizona Coyotes. Given that he was born and raised in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, the potential economic and commercial impact he would be having on the Coyotes and the league in general now is obvious.
Matthews, who played exhibition games for the United States at the IIHF World Championships last spring, is doing fine earning a net salary of about $400,000 U.S. this season. But he could, in theory, earn significantly more than that under the NHL entry level system, including bonuses.
So he would win by being in the NHL now, and the Coyotes would certainly win, and the the NHL would win.
So why in the world isn’t this the case? Well, because of that arbitrary birth date rule (one that doesn’t even apply to eligibility in international hockey competition) and the absence of an exceptional player rule that would allow the best of the best to be in the NHL, even if it meant some teenagers were given preferential treatment.
“Yes, I do believe in this,” says powerful player agent Pat Brisson, who represents Matthews. “It’s a good idea.”
The NHL, of course, would prefer moving in the other direction, possibly to a 20-year-old draft, and has little interest in allowing even younger players to enter the league than is the case now. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the issue has never been explored during CBA discussions with the players’ union.
NHL general managers seemed leery of the idea, although there have been discussions at the GM level of ways that might allow 18-year-old players from the CHL to play in the AHL, rather than return to junior.
Thun’s agency represents 15-year-old Joey Veleno, who was granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada to join the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season. He says the challenge to having a similar rule in the NHL would be navigating the patchwork quilt of eligibility agreements between the NHL and other federations, and finding a way to determine which players would be deemed “exceptional.”
“The issue would be finding a mechanism to define this,” he says.
Matthews was unusual because of his late birthdate and the fact he wasn’t encumbered by a player contract with an organization. McDavid, for example, couldn’t have gone to Europe a year before his draft because he was under contract to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.
So any NHL exceptional player rule would have to include a clause adjusting the agreement with the CHL, and probably compensation rules, as well. Beyond that, while Hockey Canada has been given the power to decide which teenagers are truly suitable physically and emotionally to play major junior ahead of schedule, there’s no non-partisan body overseeing the NHL that could assume a similar role, so some kind of evaluation committee would have to be struck.
“You would have to have the right mechanism in place, and the people who would decide who would be exceptional players would have to be completely impartial,” says Brisson.
The sport, of course, has seen age restrictions come and go. Bep Guidolin was 16 when he debuted for the Boston Bruins in 1942. Mark Napier played professionally in the World Hockey Association at 18 when the NHL draft age was 20. Wayne Gretzky played in the WHA at age 17. Eric Lindros competed for Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup as an 18-year-old without having played a game in the NHL.
If Gretzky came along now, would it make sense not to include him in the NHL until he had celebrated his 18th birthday?
These days, with all the individual training players get on and off the ice through their agents and other outlets, the physical readiness of teenagers is far beyond what it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.
“We knew Auston was ready for the pro level, but we never thought about challenging the NHL so he could be drafted earlier,” says Brisson. “September 15th has always been a firm date. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know why in kids hockey the age is Jan. 1st. It’s just the way it has always been.”
Few GMs interviewed thought there was much chance the NHL would bend on its eligibility rules despite the arbitrary nature of the Sept. 15 date that has kept Matthews out of the NHL until at least next year.
So maybe it will be the next superb youngster who motivates the system to change.