QMJHL’s attempt at better distributing U.S. talent could keep more American players stateside

While more and more Quebec-born players are reportedly looking at taking the NCAA route, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is trying to distribute their own American prospects around the league.

Northeastern forward Kevin Roy and Harvard defenceman Danny Biega both preach that learning the game against older players will help their development much more than playing in junior hockey, where players are as young as 16.

The league instituted a rule last season that insisted each team take two Americans within their 14 picks in any two rounds. This season, they will institute a separate draft of two rounds solely for American picks, restricting richer teams from taking an American early and reaping the rewards of taking a high-risk, high-reward player.

This separate draft forces all teams to pick in order for American players, better allocating the rights to talented New Englanders around the league, instead of sticking with richer clubs in bigger markets.

Last season, only one American player was taken in the first round, Jack Eichel, who committed to Boston University and was picked by the Halifax Mooseheads. The next American picked was in the sixth round, Conor Garland of the Moncton Wildcats, who did report in December. A total of four Americans were taken in the first seven rounds of the draft, with a whopping 17 taken in the final two rounds, where teams had to complete their American quota picks. None of those 17 picks played in the QMJHL this season.

In the 2011 QMJHL draft, only one American was taken in the first round, Brandon Shea by the Moncton Wildcats. He did report, and lasted close to one season with the Wildcats before he left the team, and was traded eventually to the Quebec Remparts. He lasted 14 games in Quebec, and is now playing in the Eastern Junior Hockey League back home since he is ineligible to play NCAA hockey.

Remparts forward Adam Erne was taken in the second round of that draft, and then again, nothing until the seventh round. Only seven Americans were taken, with Quebec and Moncton taking two each.

It begs the question as to why a separate draft makes any sense. Most teams, evidently, stay away from drafting Americans and would rather draft assets that want to play in the QMJHL exclusively. By forcing teams to pick American prospects with separate picks, they get the rights to talented Americans, but the chances of them reporting are very slim, thus allowing even fewer Americans to join the league and up the talent level.

And while the QMJHL dreams of coming up with ways to balance the power of the big, enticing markets, the smaller markets plan to take advantage, but maybe not in the way the league intends.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles head coach and general manager Marc-André Dumont said in a recent meet & greet with fans that he prefers the new league arrangement, saying that instead of bigger markets taking a flyer on a high-risk American, lower markets could pick him and deal his rights, recouping valuable players and draft picks in return.

The league has enough of a problem with Americans and other high picks choosing where to play. Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon refused to report to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar after being picked first overall, and was finally traded in the summer to his hometown of Halifax, in a rare deal that benefited both teams. MacKinnon’s winger Jonathan Drouin was going to go stateside until he was convinced to join the Mooseheads last season.

The league has also had problems with the bigger and richer markets being able to entice American prospects to play with them instead of going the NCAA route, or even getting the best of both worlds, convincing a university player to quit school and join them. Sometimes, it’s a mutual parting, like when Charlie Coyle left Boston University to sign with Saint John at Christmas in 2011.

Sometimes, the junior team is the only place for the player to go due to academics or trouble getting ice time. And sometimes, the threat of university is used to keep a player picked by a team closer to home.

The 2006 Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts had six Americans on their roster. That same season, the Moncton Wildcats, their opponent in the Memorial Cup final, had defenceman Keith Yandle and forward Adam Pineault. Currently, the Remparts have three Americans, tied for the league lead, though Dillon Donnelly was acquired in a trade this December. The Cataractes also have three Americans, although all of them were acquired via CHL waivers, and all of them played for OHL clubs before arriving in Shawinigan. Overall, there are 12 American-born players on QMJHL clubs.

But how much would an American player’s rights really be worth? Dumont seems to think that the rights to a high American pick would garner players and/or picks in plural, but teams would need to ensure that player will report, and that is the tricky part. Cape Breton has had one American player - goaltender Christopher Holden - in the last seven years.

Getting an American player to commit to a team like Cape Breton, one of the worst teams in the league this season and a small-to-mid-market, would be no easy task, and would keep the Screaming Eagles’ hands tied. Would the price be huge for a player that can just as easily stay home and follow his dream, as most New Englanders do, of playing in the Hockey East or ECAC conferences? Who wants to play for a deadweight QMJHL team, like Cape Breton this season? Or would they rather play at a worldwide-recognized school with a great hockey program like Boston University, Harvard or University of Maine?

Of course, that’s the whole debate. Talking to Charlie Coyle last season, he said that he was very happy to pick the QMJHL for its professional schedule and workload, as well as the emphasis on hockey-only, as opposed to having to balance school and hockey. Coyle’s marks weren’t bad, he just wanted to jump closer to the NHL, and he has, suiting up for the Minnesota Wild this season. Some teams have tried to convince their prospects to go the junior route so they can access them earlier. Coyle doesn’t regret his decision of coming to junior. He got more ice-time and was able to be a true star for a half-season, playing on the wing with now-Panther Jonathan Huberdeau. The rare American QMJHL draft pick does report, like the pint-sized Garland, who had committed to Penn State but reported to the Wildcats. That seems to me more of the exception, since most Americans don’t.

And in the QMJHL 2012 Entry Draft, except for Jack Eichel from Halifax, the first 23 picks all played in the QMJHL this season. So while talented Quebec players are leaving, there are players like Anthony DeLuca, a second rounder who was going to commit to college and instead joined the Oceanic. Most teams are drafting smarter, wanting a player in return for their draft pick, instead of a home-run chance at a player who likely won’t report. Biega and Roy, mentioned in the RDS story, weren’t drafted into the QMJHL, and made their intentions known quickly. Roy didn’t even stay in the province to play, opting to go to the USHL to play before his freshman season. The Remparts tried to court him two seasons ago, but he refused. For the record, no player in the top-25 in scoring from either the USHL or the NAHL is from Quebec, so Roy’s route is an unusual one.

In short, the chicken and egg debate of playing in the QMJHL vs. the NCAA will continue as before, but there seems to be fewer teams taking risks on players that won’t report to them. By forcing the teams to pick American players in a separate draft will distribute their rights to other teams around the league, but the same teams will still be able to attract their Americans as before, and the other teams will have their players stay home, forcing teams to trade for their rights. It’s a system on the outside that looks to make the bigger markets pay compensation to the smaller markets for Americans.

And maybe that’s the point.