Understanding NHL Prospect Rules is a Sport in Itself

At times, hockey can feel like a riddle wrapped up in an enigma – especially when it comes to understanding rules related to where a team’s prospects can play and why.

Generally speaking, football is the easiest of pro sports to understand when it comes to roster eligibility. Nearly all players come up through the college ranks and they stay there until they are drafted by NFL teams. After being selected and signed, they either make the Sunday starts or spend time on the practice squad. Major League Baseball is a little more complex, yet – again, generally speaking – still fairly easy to understand. Teams draft players from all over the world. After signing them, they come to spring training. Players either make their respective MLB team or they are assigned to one of three levels making up baseball’s minor league system – single-A, double-A, or triple-A.

Naturally, hockey has to make things much more complicated.

To keep things simple, let’s stay at a high-level. NHL teams draft players from all over the world. Then, several factors help determine where that prospect can play the following season.

The easiest prospects are the ones that come in the fewest numbers. Guys at the top of the NHL Draft (i.e. Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko this past season) will usually sign an Entry Level Contract and go straight to the NHL a few months later.

First round picks who don’t make the NHL right away are usually headed back to their junior teams (for those unfamiliar, ‘junior’ teams commonly refer to the three leagues making up the Canadian Hockey League aka CHL – consisting of the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL… there are other lower-tier junior leagues, but we’ll skip over that for now). One of the most common questions asked is, ‘Why don’t they send X to the AHL?’ And the answer has to do with an age rule. Players drafted out of the Canadian junior leagues are not AHL eligible until after they’re 20 years old. So, for the most part, they need to be on an NHL roster or sent back to their junior club.

Through the years, many in the hockey world have bemoaned this rule, as it sometimes requires players who are too good for junior hockey, but not quite mature enough for the NHL, to be sent back to their junior club. While that may be an issue, the rule was put in place to protect the Canadian junior leagues. Many moons ago, the NHL Entry Draft was for players ages 20 and up. When they dropped the age requirement from 20 to 18, allowing younger players to be drafted, the junior age rule was put in place so NHL clubs wouldn’t just select all the best junior players and send them to the AHL. In other words, this was done to ensure the Canadian junior leagues would be populated with high-end players who were close to being NHL-ready.

NOTE: There are all sorts of sub-rules that allow for certain exceptions. For example, Gabe Vilardi was allowed to do a conditioning assignment in the AHL last season when he actually should have been in the OHL. There is another exception that allows for under-20 year old players with four years of CHL experience to be play in the AHL. Don’t worry about these things for now. They aren’t very common, so let’s cover the more important stuff first.

If a player is drafted out of a European league, they may have multiple options. Some prospects may even have already signed multi-year contracts with their club overseas and they need to fulfill those before coming to North America. Others opt to sign a new deal overseas because they believe staying home (and possibly making more money) is better than coming over and starting out in the AHL. And other guys – like Kings goaltending prospect Lukas Parik – are selected by a Canadian junior team in the CHL Import Draft soon after the NHL Draft. For Parik, he could be playing in the Czech Republic this season, but he will play for WHL Spokane instead. The previously mentioned AHL age rule doesn’t apply to players drafted out of European leagues, which allows guys like Rasmus Kupari to join AHL Ontario this season, even though he only turned 19 years old a few months ago.

Regardless of where they ultimately play during the regular season, almost all junior-level players and some European players come to their NHL team’s Rookie Camps in September. Several then stay for the main portion of training camp (which usually opens a week later), while others re-join their real team.

Why was ‘re-join’ used in the prior sentence? That’s because, to complicate things even more, most junior teams are beginning their training camps right now and European teams are already playing exhibition games. Thus, those prospects coming to NHL Rookie Camps are actually breaking from activities with their regular team to partake in a few weeks of activity with the NHL clubs that drafted them.

Two of the newest Kings prospects come to mind here – Tobias Bjornfot (first round, 2019) and Samuel Fagemo (second round, 2019). Both players are in camp overseas right now and they have contracts with their respective European clubs. The duo are also coming to Los Angeles in a few weeks for Rookie Camp. Fagemo will only be here for camp, as he’s slated to return to his regular team for the season. In the case of Bjornfot, he is most likely returning to Sweden. However, his official options for this season include the NHL, AHL, and SHL.

On the contract side of things, you may have read about their European Assignment Clauses. This is simply language that explains where the Kings can assign/loan them to play if they don’t make the NHL. Often, this is a player’s way of controlling where they end up, rather than simply being sent to the AHL.

Keep in mind, a European Assignment Clause is not automatically included in an Entry Level Contract. It’s something that has to be negotiated. There have been examples in the past where an NHL prospect has come over without the specific language and then become upset when they don’t make the NHL and are assigned to the AHL. This has led to problems for some players/teams.

Compounding all of the confusion above are the various NCAA rules. Players either playing NCAA hockey or who have already committed to a specific university are not eligible to come to Rookie Camp or Training Camp (i.e. main camp). The only time they can skate with the NHL club is during the summer Development Camps.

Plus, college players have to pay their own way to attend Dev Camp. It would be an NCAA violation for the team to pay. Compounding this issue is college players don’t have contracts yet, so that’s money out of their pockets (or their parents pockets, since they most often don’t have an income).

Which gets us to Alex Turcotte, the Kings No. 1 selection at the 2019 NHL Draft. He’s committed to Wisconsin, so you won’t see him back in LA anytime soon. First, he would need to announce he’s leaving college to turn pro, and then sign his Entry Level Contract. If he decides to leave after his freshman year – and that’s highly debatable – that could be as early as late March/early April. Otherwise, his only visit to LA in 2020 would be during next summer’s Dev Camp… and then it’s wait until after his sophomore year, etc.

Even for a player like defenseman Braden Doyle (selected by the Kings in the sixth round, 2019), rules can be tricky. He’ll be in the USHL this season because he won’t be staring at Boston University until 2020-21, but the fact he’s NCAA committed means he can’t come to camp next month.

Finally, we have one final note on that AHL age rule. Akil Thomas missed out on being AHL eligible this season by just two days. Drafted by the Kings in the second round last year, his birthday is January 2… meaning he’ll turn 20 years old just two days after the December 31 deadline. Bummer.

So here comes the quiz.

If Thomas is not AHL eligible this season, what are his two options?

[wait for it, wait for it]

If you answered, NHL and OHL, you are correct.

RELATED CONTENT:

Dev Camp: Chatting Up Turcotte, Kaliyev, Other Kings Prospects

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