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Photo Credit: Rich Lam/Getty Images

Draft Change… Still A Chance

Full disclosure: I’ve been banging this drum for years, so some might be tired of hearing about it, but considering there is still a chance to make the right decision I felt the need to address it one more time.

For many of us, change is difficult. Especially when it is something we’ve been doing for years. Even when we know the change would be for the better, some of us still push back. There is even a name for fear of change — Metathesiophobia.

“The fear of change is evolutionary in humans. Since times immemorial, man has liked routine. Our internal predispositions (heredity and genetics) teach us to resist change mainly to ‘always feel in control’. But the normal fear of change becomes a full blown phobia when it is irrational, persistent and very intense.”

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So I understand why the Western Hockey League is hesitant to change its draft age. It would be a significant change, but make no mistake the league would be better off if it did.

Currently the WHL drafts players after they’ve completed their 14-year-old seasons, while the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft its players at the end of their 15-year-old seasons.

There is no sane reason not to change the WHL draft, and the pandemic has given the WHL the easiest, and smoothest path possible to make the change. The WHL has already delayed the draft. The 2021 draft (for 2006 born players) will now be on December 21st, 2021, and then the 2022 draft (for 2007-born players) will be in May, 2022. The WHL is halfway there, now all it needs to do is have the courage to go all the way and simply move the 2006-born draft to next May. And then it will be drafting players at the same age as the QMJHL and OHL.

When I spoke with WHL Commissioner Ron Robison a few months ago, he wouldn’t commit to a full-time draft age change, but did sound like he was open to the suggestion.

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In the past few weeks two WHL sources confirmed to me the league will have a meeting later this summer, and before the October 1st start of the season, to discuss changing the draft age permanently. This topic was discussed earlier this year and actually put to a vote and the vote was split down the middle. Half the league wanted to change and the other half wanted to remain status quo. The fact that half the league is in favour of change is a positive.

So let this be my case to try and influence those who are still opposed.

FACT OR FICTION?

For years one argument from WHL executives to maintain the draft was so they could talk to players before NCAA teams. But this isn’t an issue any more as the NCAA recently changed its rules. The NCAA announced these changes last year.

  • Eliminating all recruiting conversations (whether initiated by the coach or the prospect) prior to January 1st of a prospect’s sophomore (grade 10) year.
  • Establishing Aug. 1 prior to a prospect’s junior (grade 11) year as the first date when NCAA coaches can make a verbal offer.

So no NCAA coach can make an offer until August, which would be after the WHL’s May draft, even if they permanently moved the draft to after the 15-age season.

But do WHL owners and GMs know that the WHL has actually had more draft picks go the NCAA route than the OHL and QMJHL? So essentially WHL teams are wasting draft picks on players who end up going to NCAA anyway. Chris Heisenberger has a great google spreadsheet that lists every NCAA recruit dating back to 1996. (Thanks to Chris Peters for showing me this page).

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So I compared that page to WHL, OHL and QMJHL drafts via Eliteprospects.com. It was a lot of cross referencing and I readily admit I might have missed a player or two, but missing one or two won’t alter the results, considering how different they were.

I didn’t want to go all the way back to 1996, and I just decided to do 10 years from 2004-2013. I had two nephews drafted in those years so I wanted to include those years as I watched many of those players. Had the draft been one year later, both of those draft years (2011 and 2013) would have looked much different in my eyes and teams wouldn’t have had as many misses early on. But I digress.

During those 10 years the WHL had more draft picks go NCAA than the OHL and QMJHL combined. Yes, the WHL lost, or wasted, depending how you look at it, twice as many draft picks as teams in Ontario and Quebec. The WHL had 67 drafted players go the NCAA while the OHL had 30 and the QMJHL had 27. I only looked at the first five rounds from each year. So there likely could be a few more players from each league, but I doubt it would change it that much.

Plus it eliminates some picks where a team took a late round pick flyer on a player they knew was likely to go NCAA.

The results debunk the theory that the early draft is an advantage for getting players to commit to the WHL before NCAA. In fact it seems it is a disadvantage as teams are wasting high picks on players who never end up playing for them.

BAD SCOUTING OR TOO YOUNG?

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I’ve had the pleasure to speak with many WHL scouts over the years. They put in many hours and I believe are good at their jobs, but if you compare their track record to the OHL when it comes to players selected in the first round who went on to play in the NHL, the WHL is quite behind.

League 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
WHL 11 3 9 6 6
OHL 6 10 12 12 13
League 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
WHL 8 7 4 6 10
OHL 13 7 7 9 8

The OHL had 97 first round picks play in the NHL and the WHL had 70. And of those players 37 WHLers played more than 100 NHL games while 62 from the OHL played 100+ games in the NHL. That is a significant difference.

This is important from a business perspective because the NHL pays the league money for players who play in the NHL. The more players you have in the NHL, the more money your league receives. There is a clear financial incentive to draft and develop more players who can go to the NHL. Players who are drafted out of the CHL in the first round earns the league they were picked from more money than if they were picked in the seventh round. The reward to develop more quality NHL players is there.

Ontario does have a larger population, so that is a factor as well, but the gap shouldn’t be that large in my eyes.

Scanning through the drafts in these 10 seasons, there are many players from the first round who never played very long in the WHL. How many scholarships did the WHL give out to players who only played parts of one season or two? I have to assume that is not good for the bottom line. The WHL has really improved its education program recently, but I suspect teams would be much happier to pay for a year, two or four towards scholarships for a player who was able to contribute more on the ice.

Many top draft picks are given a full year scholarship before they play a game in the WHL. If those players don’t pan out, your ROI on that scholarship is very low. And right now the average scholarship is $7,000-$8,000 per player. If you average one a year that doesn’t pan out that cost adds up.

The other massive advantage of moving the draft back one year is now teams would be able to promote their market their draft picks right away. They pick players in May, and then they come to training camp in August. The OHL and QMJHL are bringing 40-60 players into their league a few months after the draft. Look how excited Regina Pats fans were this season with Connor Bedard coming in right away, due to the delayed start. Now every team could have that opportunity every year to add draft picks immediately.

CHALLENGES…

There would be some challenges. Currently in Ontario and Quebec they have 15-year-old leagues. In the western provinces our age groups are all two years, or three in U17, and that means you’d have 15-year-olds playing in different leagues in the west. That is a challenge for scouts. They can overcome it, but it is a challenge worth mentioning.

Ontario is more densely populated and that allows them to have single age groups right from the first year of hockey. Seven year olds play against seven year olds and so forth. I’d love to see Hockey Alberta alter the age groups, but that is a much larger conversation, so until then that is also a challenge for WHL teams.

The WHL will never have a better opportunity to move their draft age back one year. Many of the 2006-born players didn’t play much hockey last season. If the WHL sticks with its plan to have the draft in December, that means it will be drafting players who played two or three months of hockey. It is difficult enough to draft players after a full season of hockey nevermind with limited viewing. And then the 2007-born draft occurs in May, so who are scouts going to get enough viewings of those players while spending the first half of the year scouting 2006 players? Unless teams are going to double their scouting staffs this year, the scouts won’t have the time to accurately evaluate these players.

Changing the draft age has many positives, and the OHL and QMJHL have had more success with an older draft age. The WHL needs to recognize this and turn the pandemic negative into a draft-age positive.

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