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The Morrissey Conundrum

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When the AHL isn't an option, should a NHL team look beyond North America to challenge their best and brightest prospects?

Jamie Squire

The NHL has an agreement with the CHL which makes it impossible for NHL teams to send their top prospects to the AHL for a season. Although there is business logic to this agreement, the ramifications on certain players is that their NHL teams "rush" them (or accelerate their development too soon) into the NHL because they are too strong for junior. The alternative to this rushing is for them to over bake in the CHL and get bored. But what if there was a loophole to this agreement and what if some players (probably with their draft  teams knowledge) are already exploiting it?

Europe is a place where many youths play with men when they are ready. This may mean they are as young as 15/16 years old when they play their first game against men. Although ice time is at a premium and young players may only ever play in the bottom six, the players are able to gain experience playing against men. Really talented young players are able to play against men and get meaningful ice time.

This solution; the idea of sending a young player over to Europe for a year or two from the CHL is a fairly new concept, first pioneered by Danish forward (and Vancouver Canuck prospect) Niklas Jensen. Instead of playing a third season in the CHL, Jensen returned to Sweden with the permission of the Canucks for one year. Although he has not put up good numbers in the AHL or the NHL yet, he was challenged more in Europe than he would have been if he had remained in the CHL.

Applying this to the Winnipeg Jets is easy. Josh Morrissey is a highly talented young defender who is probably ready for more of a challenge than the CHL can give him. The problem is, if he is not ready for the NHL there is no other option than to send him back to the CHL. He plays for the Prince Albert Raiders and yesterday news came out from Edmonton that Leon Draisaitl will not return to the Raiders full stop. That does not mean he will make the NHL for certain. It has come out that Draisaitl will play in Europe this upcoming season if he does not make the Oilers. Morrissey would be alone on an island until he is auctioned off to the highest bidder sometime between the start of the season and the trade deadline.

Why should the Winnipeg Jets look into finding a team for Morrissey in Europe besides level of play? The Winnipeg Jets are a team that struggles to stop the puck and when you struggle to stop the puck, you give up a lot of goals and lose a lot of games. This can be a hard habit to break for young players and maybe not the best environment to grow the entire future of the defence.

Another reason is the slide rule. The slide rule is simple (basic interpretation): sign a player at 18 and every year until he is 20 his contract "slides" (extends) another year until he turns 20 as long as the player plays in less than 10 NHL games. Each year the contract slides, the cap hit goes down because the signing bonus is no longer apart of the compensation that the player gets when their contract starts for real. This is an easy way to gain more years of service from a player in their prime and to save money if a contract slides for two years.

The third reason is kind of gone from the internet. Tyler Dellow, the Edmonton Oilers new analytics consultant, wrote a post on teenage defence men in the NHL and how they struggle and teams are not maxing out their value if the team plays them while they are still teenagers. For a small market team like Winnipeg, this should be taken into consideration when making personnel decisions. They should be looking at the long game and realize that to maximize the value they get from Josh Morrissey, they probably should not be counting on him to play in the NHL this year. They should not be hoping for another Jacob Trouba because those types of players are rare.

What the NHL Jets should do is look overseas. There are many European players who have been drafted from the CHL and instead of playing their 19 year old season in North America they have gone back over to Europe and played against men. These players include the aforementioned Niklas Jensen and Leon Draisaitl (potentially) as well as Nail Yakupov during the lockout and Martin Reway, the Montreal Canadiens fourth round pick who left the Gatineau Olympiques this summer to play professionally in his native Slovakia. 

There is no real data on how this affects young players. Although they would have to adjust back to the small ice when they return and that a North American player would be subject to culture shock at first, the idea that there are only two options for top CHL players is categorically false. There are two options that allow the player to stay in North America and for the NHL team to have a bit more of a say in their development. There is however a third option which is riskier and may be a harder sell for the player; leaving the continent for a year and playing amongst men in a foreign land.

There are few options in North America for top players in the CHL if they are under 20. They would have to leave home and move across the ocean to be able to play against men if they are 18 or 19. Their NHL team could lower their cap hit and keep them under team control for two more years if they took this option. This idea may seem that bad, especially if the payoff can mean a more polished player coming into the NHL at 20.