NHL lockout provides opportunity for development leagues

By Kevin Forbes

Mikhail Grigorenko - Quebec Remparts

Photo: Buffalo Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko might be on the cusp of a NHL career, but he and other young players may find themselves back in the development leagues if the NHL lockout proceeds (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

 Lockout. It's on the tip of the tongue of every person involved with hockey right now.

As the Collective Bargaining Agreement's expiration date of September 15th approaches, a work stoppage between the NHL and the NHL Player's Association (the third such interruption over the last 18 years) is seemingly inevitable at this point. Not only will a lockout affect the individual teams and their staff and personnel, as well as the players, but a work stoppage in hockey's top league will have a trickle down effect for many prospects at various levels around the world.

Jonathan Huberdeau is one of these prospects. Drafted third overall by the Florida Panthers in 2011, the 19-year-old Huberdeau has very little left to accomplish at the junior level and most expect him to be in Florida's line-up whenever they return to the ice.

Huberdeau admits that the possibility of a work stoppage is on his mind.

"I follow [the news coverage] when I have time. My agent and I have been talking about it. I try to follow all the news on Twitter as well, but I can't really do too much about it."

If no CBA deal is reached in time, Huberdeau will start the season with the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL where he has played for the last three seasons. Across the CHL other top prospects who were expected to make immediate NHL impacts also find their future plans on hold while negotiations continue. Should a deal be reached partway through the junior season, these players are expected to be made available for NHL teams.

There is precedent with this decision. In the lockout of 1994-95, players like Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Friesen, Jason Wiemer and Brett Lindros all started the season with their junior clubs and then made the jump to the NHL once an agreement was reached in early January. Other players, like Ryan Smyth, Eric Daze and Jamie Langenbrunner also were called up for a taste of NHL action that season, before being returned to junior hockey to finish the year.

These returning players will put some junior teams in a very interesting and possibly awkward position as the clubs plan their year. Depending on the team, the addition of these top players could mean the difference between looking to contend and building for another year. When the possibility that a CBA deal could be signed and the players may be leaving partway through the season is added to the equation, the gamble becomes even more intriguing. For a rebuilding team, a returning player might be a hot commodity to consider moving for younger assets for the future, but in the same breath, their value on the open market would be greatly reduced due to the potential that they might not even be playing in the league when the post-season rolls around.

A great example might be a team like the Niagara IceDogs, who are more than happy to welcome Boston's Dougie Hamilton and Islanders prospect Ryan Strome back to the squad if there is a lockout. Last season, the duo helped the IceDogs become one of the top teams in the OHL, including a trip to the championship finals where the pair tied for second on the team in playoff scoring. But Niagara has said goodbye to plenty of talent this past offseason as players have graduated and moved on. The presence of Strome and Hamilton doesn't immediately put Niagara back in championship contention, but it certainly changes their situation, especially if they are in the line-up for any significant length of time.

For a team like Saint John, Huberdeau's return also provides an unexpected boost as they look to reload their roster. Saint John is already saying goodbye to NHL prospects like Charlie Coyle (Minnesota), Zack Phillips (Minnesota), Tomas Jurco (Detroit), Stanislav Galiev (Washington) and Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal) as they all move on to pro hockey as 20-year-old's. Like Niagara in the OHL, Saint John is a team that might have normally considered rebuilding but could have a different outlook with Huberdeau in the line-up.

The Sarnia Sting will be happy to welcome Alex Galchenyuk back to their line-up as well. The American-born Galchenyuk missed the majority of his draft year with a knee injury but was one of the Sting's leading scorers the previous year as a rookie. However, it does not appear that he'll be joined by teammate and fellow top prospect Nail Yakupov. The first overall selection in this summer's draft, Yakupov, an Edmonton prospect, has said he will be exploring options to return to Europe to play if there is a work stoppage and then come back once an agreement is reached.

For other teams, like the Quebec Remparts, the NHL lockout might force the team to make a trade and find room on their roster. Quebec enters the season with three talented import players on their roster, meaning they have to scratch one during each campaign. Mikhail Grigorenko, Buffalo's first round pick in this summer's draft is thought to have a strong chance at cracking the Sabres roster, but if the NHL doesn't begin on time, he returns to Quebec and rejoins 2013-eligible Nick Sorensen as well as welcoming newly acquired Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Nikita Kucherov. A lengthy lockout could see Quebec dealing one of the three players which would be a tricky situation considering the limited roster spots available for import players. A lengthy lockout could also have an adverse effect on the draft stock of Sorensen, who missed the majority of last season with a knee injury and is looking to impress. Kucherov is currently out of commission recovering from shoulder surgery, which buys Quebec some time, but the situation is far from resolved. Given the fact that Kucherov was drafted when he was playing in Russia and was recently signed by Tampa Bay to an entry-level deal, there is even the possibility that Tampa Bay may assign the Russian to report to their AHL squad.

Other CHL teams who will be welcoming back talent that would normally be gone to the NHL include Columbus's Ryan Murray, who is returning to Everett in the WHL and Mark Schiefele, a Winnipeg Jets prospect who is heading back to the Barrie Colts.

Although the players mentioned above are eager to make their mark at the NHL level, a long work stoppage could also be an added bonus for the World Junior programs of many countries. Canada, in particular, could see an influx of talent with players like Huberdeau, Strome, Hamilton, Schiefele and Murray all in their line-up. Russia could also see a boost with both Yakupov and Grigorenko available to them.

Like the junior leagues, the AHL and the minor league system will be similarly impacted by an NHL lockout. At 19 years of age, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton's top rookie from last season is actually eligible to be returned to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels, but most expect him to instead be allowed to play at the AHL level due to his NHL experience last season. Nugent-Hopkins would also be available to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors.

Once again, there is precedent with that decision, as during the 2004-05 lockout, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, Brent Burns of the Minnesota Wild and Nathan Horton of the Florida Panthers all played in the AHL despite being 19 and eligible to be returned to junior hockey.

Other players like Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche and Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers are eligible to be sent to junior, but due to their late 1992 birthdays, it is unlikely that they will see the ice in Kitchener and Drummondville, respectively. In the eyes of the CHL, the pair is considered over-aged 20-year-old's, which makes them eligible to play in the AHL.

These players will be joined in the AHL by a bevy of talent. Any signed player or prospect that does not normally need to pass through waivers due to their experience should see themselves assigned to the minors, regardless of where they played last season. This could mean that players like Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle, Alexander Burmistrov, Brayden Schenn, Jeff Skinner and many others could see themselves playing AHL hockey. Taylor Hall is also eligible to be sent down, but his status would depend on his continuing recovery from shoulder surgery from this past spring.

This influx of talent will affect current prospects in two different, but equally important ways. First, there should be a rise in the overall talent level in each league, which will provide added challenge and hopefully increased development of prospects. However, the additional players who would normally be in the NHL will also bump the prospects below them further down in the line-up for reduced ice time and opportunity.

With that said, after the 2004-05 lockout, players like Brad Boyes, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Wellwood all had clearly benefited from the extra time in the AHL and posted impressive rookie campaigns. Similarly, in 1994-95, players like Jim Carey, Chris Therien and Kenny Jonsson turned a partial season in the AHL into a spot on the NHL's year-end All-Rookie Team.

Like the junior clubs mentioned above, this added talent could also place some AHL teams in an interesting situation should an agreement be signed partway through the season. An example might be a team like Edmonton's affiliate in Oklahoma City. The Oilers stable of young talent in Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Justin Schultz, Magnus Paajarvi and even Hall could find their way into the Barons line-up and be a force in the AHL. But that offensive strength isn't guaranteed for the extent of the AHL season and even if Oklahoma City is one of the league's top teams in the early portion of the year, it is impossible to say what their roster will look like at season's end.

Finally, there's the European option. During the 2004-05 season, leagues across Europe welcomed locked-out NHL players. Rumours are already swirling about handshake agreements between NHL players and European clubs should a lockout occur. Despite these whispers, not all leagues seem to be as welcoming this time around. The Swedish Elite League and their secondary league, Allsvenskan originally stated that they would not be accepting NHL players on "lockout" contracts that would release the player when a CBA agreement is made. That matter is currently being disputed. Meanwhile, Russia's KHL has released eligibility rules on what players it would accept during a lockout, to ensure that only top talents make the jump.

As mentioned with the AHL, the addition of NHL players in these European leagues should both raise the overall talent level of the league, but also have a trickle down effect when it comes to ice time and opportunity for NHL prospects that are normally playing in these leagues. In 2004-05, when the entire NHL season was lost, a number of NHL players explored the European option and while some only stayed for a handful of games, others spent entire seasons with clubs.

In total, an NHL lockout of any length will have an impact not just on NHL players and teams, but also a large number of NHL prospects and draft eligible players at various levels and leagues around the world.