SEATTLE – On the map of routes to the NHL, there are many twists, turns and some trail closures. Oh and also, there is no map.
Major League Baseball players are older. It’s boom or bust in the NFL, where there’s no real farm system. The NBA has the G League, which is set up differently. All of the other three major men’s North American sports leagues draw heavily on those who played in high school and college.
When he has to explain it in NHL terms to those unfamiliar, Seattle Thunderbirds coach Matt O’Dette said the trouble often flares up when they want to compare hockey with another sport. With a robust minor league system, it’s most similar to baseball – to a point.
“It’s its own unique path,” he said.
The Kraken will hold a rookie camp Monday and Tuesday at the Kraken Community Iceplex before starting training camp Thursday. Here’s a look at some of the common routes to the league, including the rules, considerations and possibilities facing these NHL hopefuls.
The phenom: Shane Wright
Wright, a 2022 first-round draft pick, already signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Kraken during development camp. Considering his skill level and the Kraken’s depth chart, there’s a good chance he’s one of the relatively few to become an NHL regular as an 18-year-old.
“There are some players that get drafted, and they think they’re right there and ready to jump into the NHL. That’s few and far between,” said former NHL journeyman Troy Bodie, now director of hockey and business operations for the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Kraken’s new AHL affiliate.
“It’s just a giant step. Sometimes you just have to tell them that it takes time to grow and mature and develop your skills. It’s not a rush.
“Our draft often happens younger than a lot of these other drafts. Most of the players are drafted at 18 years old, and they’re still not mature enough physically to handle playing against adults.”
When they’re not, players usually go back to their respective North American junior clubs (leagues with players age 15-21), European pro leagues or college.
If he doesn’t make the Kraken roster as an 18-year-old, Wright wouldn’t be assigned to Coachella, one level down. Wright played within the “major junior” level Canadian Hockey League (CHL) – an umbrella circuit comprising the WHL (in which the Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips play), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he starred with the Kingston Frontenacs. A CHL player can’t join an AHL team unless he’s 20 or has played four years of major junior hockey.
The rule ostensibly maximizes a player’s development while giving the NHL club options, and keeps talent in the CHL. But sometimes the player is left spinning his wheels.
“Sometimes a player’s so good at the junior level, it makes no sense for him to play at that level anymore. He’s just wasting his time,” O’Dette said.
There are always top prospects who make the team out of training camp, and the NHL “slide rule” comes into play.
If a player signs his entry-level contract and is 18 – like Wright – or 19 before Sept. 15, he can sometimes see limited NHL action without a greater commitment. A player can appear in the first nine games of the regular season, get a taste of the NHL, then return to junior hockey. They don’t count against the NHL’s 50-contract limit per season, and the experience does not burn a year off an entry-level contract – it “slides” to the next. At 10 games, that first year kicks in.
New York Islanders star Mathew Barzal appeared in two NHL games in the 2016-17 season at age 19, then returned to help the Thunderbirds win their first WHL championship. Conversely and more recently, the Carolina Hurricanes had to decide whether Seth Jarvis would stay with the club or return to Portland of the WHL. The 10-game deadline passed, and he contributed 40 points in 68 games last season.
The Finn: Jani Nyman
For background, director of amateur scouting Robert Kron said the Kraken have more than a dozen scouts scattered across the world with regions of specialty, though there’s crossover. They largely schedule themselves and communicate where they’re headed.
Nyman, a 2022 second-round pick, happened to play in the same city where a Kraken scout lives in Finland, Kron said. Nyman spoke limited English, but Kron said the staff came to know him “inside-out” and was eager to select him with one of their four second-round picks.
“He’s a big body and a good player. That league is a very good development league for young talent,” Kron said. “You can see all these guys that play in the NHL that came from Finland that are very successful players.”
Nyman was expected to play in the Finnish Liiga, the country’s top men’s league, in 2022-23 as he was still under contract, Kron said. NHL teams have four years to evaluate European and college players and decide whether to sign them. Other North American players, however, get two.
“This rule is debated a lot. Sometimes it gives NHL teams a small advantage to draft those players, because it gives you a longer runway to evaluate whether you want to sign them or not,” O’Dette said.
Europeans have the option to play in the AHL as teenagers, so players such as Nyman can wind up there sooner than their CHL counterparts. They’ve often played against older competition already but can get used to a schedule that more closely resembles the NHL in the minors.
“A lot of these European players get drafted, and they’re already playing pro. It’s a natural progression for them to play pro in North America as a 19-year-old. Not all of them are ready,” O’Dette said.
The high schooler: Ben MacDonald
An idea that really separates hockey from other sports in the U.S. – if you’re a high school player anywhere other than Minnesota or New England, you’re more than likely not courted for the draft.
“If you’re playing high school hockey anywhere else, you’re probably not a prospect,” O’Dette said.
He grew up in Ontario and said that was largely the case there as well.
“If you’re good enough, you’re probably playing major junior,” he said.
MacDonald, a 2022 third-round pick, played high school hockey for Noble & Greenough school near Boston. He is set to play for the West Kelowna Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League, then Harvard.
“Usually, if they go back to (a) junior league they get a lot of ice time,” Kron said. “They can work on their confidence and all that before they hit college.”
Unlike CHL major junior players, who receive regular financial “stipends” as compensation and are somewhat controversially barred from NCAA play, those such as MacDonald playing in other junior leagues in Canada and the U.S. can maintain their eligibility to later play for American universities.
The college guy: Matty Beniers
This one is more of an afterthought, as Beniers played two seasons at Michigan before his NHL debut late in Seattle’s inaugural season. The 2021 first-round pick came up through the U.S. National Development Program (USNDP), which “scouts and selects the top 22 (American) players in two age groups (under-17 and under-18) to train and develop in a highly competitive environment,” per the organization’s website.
The USNDP, as well as the two main U.S.-based junior-level circuits – the Tier 1 U.S. Hockey League (USHL) and Tier 2 North American Hockey League (NAHL) – are considered the “college track.” According to College Hockey Inc., about a third of NHL players are NCAA alumni. For comparison, 84.5% of NBA players last season played college basketball.
Though it may take longer to see them in an NHL uniform, some players need the extra time.
“It’s almost better for some players who are late bloomers,” Bodie said.
“By no means would we ever look at a player who decides to go to college and think that it’s anything less than another drafted player who plays in a different league. There’s different paths for everyone, and there’s good coaching and good developing happening all over.”
The common refrain among coaches is that defensemen need longer to develop. They play more minutes, and it’s generally considered a bigger jump to the pros.
“To do that often takes more than a quick wit and a quick stick,” Bodie, a retired forward, said of manning the blue line. “It takes a big, strong person to push around and clear the net and not get bullied. It’s more from a physical/maturity-type thing, whereas forwards can sometimes get by being fast, skilled and smart.”
Even if they could hold their own in the NHL, forwards can use the extra experience as well.
“I thought Matty was maybe ready, but the year at Michigan actually helped him quite a bit,” Kron said.
The late-round pick: Barrett Hall
Hall, a 2022 sixth-round pick, was a four-year high school player in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was picked in the second-to-last round July 8.
Hall split the last season between Gentry Academy and the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL. He’s also set for college hockey at St. Cloud State and can turn pro before his eligibility is up, if that offer arrives.
Bodie was another late-round pick and a long shot to reach the NHL. He was selected in the ninth round (278th overall) by the Edmonton Oilers in 2003, two years before the draft was shortened to seven rounds. He played three more years in juniors before aging out and turning pro.
“I don’t even consider myself a good player in junior, at that point, but I had potential,” Bodie said. “Had a bigger body and some skills, but very, very raw.”
Five years after he was drafted, he played in his first NHL game after his rights were traded to the Anaheim Ducks. He went on to play 158 more.
This is a story he tells to encourage prospects.
“There’s a lot of steppingstones. You spend your time wisely and work as hard as you can, and it’ll come,” Bodie said.
The WHL player: Jordan Gustafson
If college is for late bloomers, then the three CHL-based major junior leagues are for early achievers.
“If you’re a really good player for your age group, major junior hockey is a good path to choose,” O’Dette said.
Gustafson, who made his Thunderbirds debut in 2019 and played in 58 games for Seattle last season before being drafted by Vegas in the third round this year, was on the Golden Knights’ rookie camp roster. Strong performances could lead to a contract.
“They’ll decide whether to play him in the NHL season if he can make it, play him in the American Hockey League – which is the AAA minor league for hockey – or send him back to Seattle as a 20-year-old,” O’Dette said.
Gustafson is ineligible to play in the NCAA, but the Thunderbirds offer school packages. For every year he plays with the team, he gets future schooling subsidized if he chooses to go that route.
The free agent: Ian McKinnon
The Firebirds had two players listed on their roster a week before Kraken rookie camp, both undrafted and on AHL contracts. Defenseman Matt Tennyson has NHL experience, having played 173 career games with five teams. McKinnon turned pro in 2019 but hasn’t appeared in an NHL game.
“We’re trying to fill some age gaps with not having drafts going back several years,” Bodie said in July. “We’re starting to fill out a pretty good roster for our club of players that can really give us good depth at the NHL level and develop into full-time NHL players.”
Going undrafted isn’t the end of the line. Kraken forward Yanni Gourde wasn’t drafted. Kron also pointed to Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis, a six-time All-Star and Stanley Cup champion as a player. The draft allows a team to stake its claim, so to speak, but unheralded talent can rise to the top. Players such as Gourde and St. Louis were signed as free agents.
“Through sheer determination and belief in his talent, [St. Louis] is a Hall of Famer. There’s different ways to get there,” Kron said. “Ideally you do want to get drafted, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
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