Two Year Plans
There's been an argument in OHL circles for a decade now that the rules of the League favour certain franchises. If you're a lover of the OHL, you can probably recite these franchises by heart; they are the London Knights, Kitchener Rangers, Plymouth Whalers and Windsor Spitfires. Though Windsor is a recent addition to the club.
For years, the argument goes, these teams have had the resources to draft and lure top Ontarian, American and European talent to their teams so that they aren't susceptible to the typical 3-4 year boom and bust cycles that the majority of major junior programs are subject to. Using this argument, both the OHL Priority Selection and the Import Draft are unfair systems for team building.
The NHL has, totally unwittingly, come close to levelling the playing field. The big teams have usually had three to four year competitive windows with one year of retooling to open up the next window. That time is coming to an end. The four year OHL careers of a Corey Perry, Mike Richards or James Neal are at an end.
The Rangers and Knights particularly have recent case studies. In '07-'08, the Knights lost Sam Gagner and Patrick Kane when they really only expected to lose Kane. The resulting loss, dropped London to the middle of the pack and led to the Steve Mason trade that reloaded them for the next year by adding Phil Varone, Steve Tarasuk and later Nazem Kadri. With those additions, the Knights were comfortable dealing their own youngsters to Oshawa the next season for John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto. Then they lost Michael Del Zotto a year early. They're back to being a middle of the road team this season.
The Rangers experiences started a season later. The acquisition of Mason cost them three future pieces. But they expected to at least make the playoffs with the return of Justin Azevedo and Mikkel Boedker. Both players made earlier than expected pro exits and the Rangers bottomed out. They went from missing the playoffs to a game from the OHL Final last season with the additions of Americans Jeremy Morin, John Moore and Brandon Maxwell and Swede Gabriel Landeskog.
A year later, Morin and Moore are gone and this coincided with the unanticipated loss of leading scorer Jeff Skinner. The Rangers are competitive again this year because of the emergence of Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Murphy but their outlook for next year is much more bleak with the pieces they stand to lose this offseason and the uncertainty regarding American prospects like Scott Mayfield, John Gibson and Jacob Trouba.
Not knowing what kind of assets you'll have in the future has a paralyzing effect on moving assets now if you don't know that you can replace them. In other words, they're faced with a slightly more privileged version of what their competition has been dealing with for years. Uncertainty and consequences. There's no safety net to ensure that the Knights or Rangers can make a Mason Trade or a Tavares trade and be competitive the next season
How did the NHL accomplish this? The answer is two-fold. The first is straight graduation. Jeff Skinner, Michael Del Zotto, Mikkel Boedker, Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner and most of Windsor's team last year were all drafted out of the CHL and simply exhausted their eligibility or made the jump early. Now they're playing pro hockey in either the AHL or NHL.
The second is by ruling on the eligibility of USNTDP players who graduate from that program and into the CHL. It's that rule that cost the Rangers the services of Jeremy Morin this year, that is likely to cost the Spitfires the services of Jack Campbell next season and could keep a John Gibson or Jacob Trouba or Robbie Russo or Dakota Mermis or Conner Carrick out of the OHL entirely.
This is going to test the managers of the big franchises. It's going to put more onus on their recruiting resources to try and get these players into the OHL earlier. It's also going to make late born Americans (born from September 15th - December 31st) more of a prize in the OHL Draft because their NHL Draft eligibility is postponed a year. So, they'd actually play a year in the OHL prior to being drafted and hence become subject to the CHL-NHL player transfer agreement.
Instead of getting three and four year competition windows. The big franchises will have to settle for two years, which means General Managers will have to identify centrepieces and build around them quickly and cleverly if they want to exploit those windows.
Just another unintended consequence of the CBA.