Mitch Marner’s dominant season opens up debate on NHL-CHL agreement

Kelly Friesen
London Knights forward Mitchell Marner was drafted third overall by the Leafs in the 2015 NHL draft. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images
London Knights forward Mitchell Marner was drafted third overall by the Leafs in the 2015 NHL draft. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

The dominant season of Toronto Maple Leafs prized pick Mitch Marner has opened up the debate of the CHL-NHL agreement. More specifically, the part of the agreement that prohibits players from opting out of their 19-year-old seasons in the CHL to play pro hockey in the AHL.

Marner, who turned 19 in May, clearly has nothing left to prove in the CHL. On top of scoring 242 points throughout his last two seasons with the OHL’s London Knights, he managed to net 14 points in four contests at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Nonetheless, Marner doesn’t seem to be a lock to move onto the NHL next season. In addition to possessing a smaller 5-foot-11, 163-pound frame, he is in an organization full of hockey minds such as general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock who tend to be patient with younger players. The combination of the two could lead to the Thornhill, Ont., native spending one more season in London.

The ideal situation for the Leafs would be if they could send Marner to the AHL if he’s not ready for The Show. It would be a jump up in competition and a stronger steppingstone to help him earn a Leafs roster spot.

“There are always at least a dozen 19 year olds in the CHL who would be better suited to play in the AHL instead of the CHL,” says an NHL scout of a Western Conference team. “Mitch Marner might be a great example of that depending on what he does in the offseason. There’s nothing more for him to do in junior hockey. If he can’t make the Leafs, he should get a chance to play for the Marlies (Toronto’s AHL team) next year. It would be better for his development to play in the AHL than to score 150 points in the OHL.”

The strongest argument for those in favour of the current 19-year-old rule is that there is no risk involved in playing another year of junior hockey. It’s true, but at the same time, it’s not always the best option for a player’s long-term development.

“No one’s development will be hurt by playing another year of junior,” says a WHL scout of a U.S. Division team. “You might not be challenged much, but it would not set you back. What would set you back is playing in the AHL or NHL a year early because you could lose your confidence. That’s why this shouldn’t be a big issue; it can’t hurt the player’s development to play another year of junior.”

In a recent interview, CHL commissioner David Branch made it clear he has no intention of opening up a discussion to change the 19-year-old rule. He believes it’s basically a few “isolated” incidents, and not a main concern for the vast majority of NHL-drafted 19-year-olds in the CHL.

"So far the National Hockey League has not expressed any viewer opinion that it should be changed," Branch told the Canadian Press. "Now we know time to time when there's an NHL team that thinks, 'Gee I'd like to place him in our AHL franchise setting,' that always comes back into this discussion. It's only driven in a few isolated situations."

Ultimately, it appears dollars and cents are a major factor in the CHL’s unwillingness to change the rule. The major junior league would see a drop in their on-ice product if they allowed their top 19-year-old stars to jump into the AHL. This could lead to a drop in revenue for some organizations.

“The CHL-NHL agreement won’t change because of money,” says the NHL scout. “The league is a development league, but it’s also a business. Losing their top 19 year olds to the AHL will result in a less exciting game which will result in less tickets sold. That’s why it will never happen. It comes down to the money.”

It seems junior hockey won’t see the day where all 19-year-olds are allowed to make the plunge into the AHL. There might be, however, room for discussion for certain 19-year-old prospects. A rule allowing top 10, or even top 30 picks, to move onto the AHL a year early might be open for debate in the future.

 “I think the CHL would never look at allowing all 19-year-olds to play in the AHL, but there might be something that could get worked out in the future,” says the WHL scout. “I think the only way the CHL would consider changing the 19-year-old rule would be if they allowed only first-round picks to play in the AHL. That’s the only thing I could see happening, and the NHL would have to put a lot of pressure on the CHL for them to do that.”

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen