In normal times, Connor Zary never would’ve had a chance to start the 2020–21 season playing in the American Hockey League. Of course, everything changed when the Western Hockey League opted to push back the starting date of its schedule in compliance with recommendations from governing health and safety authorities.
That opened the door for Zary, the Flames’ first-round pick from the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, to make his AHL debut with the Stockton Heat a whole year ahead of schedule. He immediately showed he belonged, locking down a spot on Stockton’s top line with Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka and posting seven points (three goals, four assists) in his first nine AHL games.
Zary was, without a doubt, ready to continue improving at the AHL level.
“I think that he still needs to grow in areas but that’s no different than anyone else stepping out of junior,” said Heat coach Cail MacLean following a 4–1 win over the Belleville Senators on Mar. 3. “Good for him, in terms of what he’s shown so far. I agree with you, he could step right in. He’s done a great job to this point, right now. He’s found a way to stick with some guys that are really hot, and so he’s a benefactor of that, but also, he’s found a way to stay with them.
“We’ve seen enough from him to be to able to playing him with [Phillips and Ruzicka],” MacLean added. “Hats off to that.”
He likely would have remained a fixture in Stockton’s top-six for the remainder of the year had he not been required to report to the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers in advance of their season-opener in late March.
Zary’s return to Kamloops was mandated by the National Hockey League’s player development agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, which includes the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Current player development agreement details
All NHL-affiliated players in those three junior leagues, even those under NHL contract, are ineligible to play in the AHL until they turn 20 or have completed four CHL seasons.
The agreement does not apply in situations where the AHL season is underway and a player’s CHL team is inactive. This typically comes into effect if a prospect’s CHL team misses the playoffs or is eliminated prior to the conclusion of the AHL season.
Underaged players are only permitted to play in the NHL on an emergency basis—as Sven Baertschi memorably did for five games during the 2011–12 season—or if they make the team out of training camp.
In the 2016–17 season, Matthew Phillips joined the Heat in time to play one regular-season game and two more in the playoffs. He did so after his junior team, the Victoria Royals, was eliminated in the first round of the WHL playoffs. Despite having already made his AHL debut, Phillips returned to the Royals in 2017–18 for his age-19 season—as required by the NHL-CHL agreement—and tore through the competition with 112 points in 71 games.
Zary’s return to the WHL was similarly dominant. In 15 games with the Blazers this past year, he recorded 24 points and posted the sixth-best points-per-game rate in the entire league.
Both the WHL and the QMJHL managed to start and finish their own seasons—albeit with shortened schedules—in 2020–21. The Flames’ 2019 first-round pick, Jakob Pelletier, spent the entire season in the QMJHL because the league started its season before the AHL got underway.
The OHL cancelled its entire 2020–21 season, displacing many of its top draft-eligible prospects and turning its NHL-affiliated players into full-time AHLers.
19-year-old Phil Tomasino, the Nashville Predators’ first-round pick from 2019, emerged as a star for the Chicago Wolves and posted 32 points in 29 games. He was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team on Tuesday.
Quinton Byfield, Cole Perfetti, Thomas Harley, Jamie Drysdale, and Arthur Kaliyev all also made early jumps from the OHL to the AHL and emerged as impact players for their respective teams in their debut go-rounds.
Time to revisit the rules
All this begs the question: What is to be gained by preventing these players from taking the next step until they turn 20?
Ask Ryan Warsofsky, Tomasino’s coach with the Wolves, and he’ll tell you the NHL-CHL rule needs to be changed.
Frank Seravalli, formerly of TSN, reported in March there have been discussions involving the NHL, AHL, and CHL about potentially amending the agreement.
A second GM said Wednesday that the CHL transfer agreement was a topic of conversation last March at the NHL’s GM meetings in Florida that went quiet once the pandemic hit. And while NHL GMs are mindful of the junior hockey business, they are also trying to look out for their own business interests at the same time – and it’s no secret they’d like to keep their hands on their prospects as much as possible.Frank Seravalli, TSN.ca, Mar. 18, 2021
The Canadian Hockey League potentially stands to lose a significant amount if the agreement is altered in such a way that allows top prospects to join the AHL prematurely.
These players tend to rank among the CHL’s most marketable stars. Under the terms of the current agreement, CHL teams also receive financial incentives whenever they lose their players to the NHL.
There is also a significant sum of grant money involved; the NHL is responsible for a big part of the CHL budget. The NHL agreed to pay the CHL a total of $12.6 million in grants for the 2019-20 season, according to a copy of the agreement. Teams are also required to pay $60,000 for skaters and $75,000 for goaltenders who are eligible to return to junior but remain in the NHL.Frank Seravalli, TSN.ca, Mar. 18, 2021
Introducing early AHL assignments into the mix would likely cause the compensation aspect of the agreement to become even more complex.
With more players making early departures from the CHL, the junior leagues would likely seek increased financial commitments from the NHL to make up for the additional loss of star power.
Furthermore, as Seravalli notes in his piece, the injury risk for young players in the professional hockey ranks increases “significantly.” That said, giving players early exposure to the AHL can help them break “junior habits” and acclimatize to the professional hockey level by the time they would normally be eligible to make the jump.
The Flames have a case study in Zavgorodniy
Dmitry Zavgorodniy is a prime example of a player who spent his first few weeks as an AHL pro becoming familiar with his role and learning his way around Stockton’s systems.
The 20-year-old winger spent much of his first two months with the Heat being shuffled around the lineup and trying to carve out a niche for himself on lower lines.
Zavgorodniy failed to record a single point in his first 19 AHL games before being healthy scratched by MacLean on Apr. 2, a decision the coach characterized as “simply a reset.”
After a scoreless return to the lineup on Apr. 4, Zavgorodniy scored four points (one goal, three assists) in his final nine games.
“[Zavgorodniy] found himself down quite early, because that’s typically how it works,” said MacLean on Apr. 15, following the game where the Russian forward scored his first—and, to this point, only—AHL goal. “You need to develop the awareness of what it takes to be a pro on a shift-by-shift basis to make sure that you’re covering the responsibilities that you need to cover. You need to be good away from the puck.
“He’s growing in those areas,” MacLean added. “He’s certainly taken some great strides.”
By his 19-year-old QMJHL season in Rimouski, Zavgorodniy had largely established himself as a top producer at the junior level. He still took a step from 2018–19 to 2019–20, improving from 64 points in 67 games to 67 in 40.
What might Zavgorodniy have gained if he had been able to start learning those AHL-level habits a year ahead of schedule? On the other hand, what might he have lost if he made the jump before he was ready?
The second GM’s idea is to carve out an exception in the next CHL transfer agreement that would allow each NHL organization the option to place one 18- or 19-year-old prospect in the AHL. There could be certain criteria put in place – that the prospect be a first-round pick, or he must have played three seasons of major junior.
Part of the problem with the current agreement, the GM said, is that players on the fence between the NHL and OHL often end up stunting their development because teams err on the side of keeping them at the NHL level.Frank Seravalli, TSN.ca, Mar. 18, 2021
Figuring out the details
Perhaps the right solution is a measured one.
Until that decision is made, hockey fans will remember the 2020–21 AHL season as the one where young stars reigned supreme over a league where, technically, they didn’t belong. It made for electrifying hockey and put some of the sport’s top prospects on full display just a step below the NHL.
When it sounds like that, who wouldn’t want it to continue?