Hockey is in the air with training camps, prospect camps and exhibition games all well underway by now. With coaches starting to make cuts as rosters begin to resemble those we’re used to seeing when the games matter, fans naturally start looking to their favourite prospects and ask, “is this the year he finally joins the big club?” In the case of the Canucks, the main subject of chatter in this regard is Bo Horvat.
Horvat seems to be in a somewhat precarious situation. Because of his age and the agreement between the NHL and CHL he is limited to two options for this coming season: either play in the NHL (which he may simply not be ready to do, at least not in an effective manner) or go back to the OHL (a level which most believe he has already gleaned everything he can from).
Realistically, neither option may be the right fit for him at this point. But what if there were a 3rd option? What if Horvat could do what Nicklas Jensen did, and leave his OHL team to go play overseas in Europe?
The NHL-CHL Agreement
The simple version of the agreement is that any player who played for a CHL team when drafted must be returned to the CHL should he fail to make his NHL club’s roster (with the agreement becoming void once the player in question either turns 20 years old or has played in the CHL for 4 years). This basically means that, unless a player is of a uniquely high talent, he won’t be able to move on to the AHL for two seasons following his draft.
Fellow Canucks prospect Hunter Shinkaruk is one of those players with an early birthday, making him eligible to play in the AHL after his 4 years spent in the WHL. Anton Cederholm was drafted out of Europe and then was sent to the CHL, which means he theoretically could play in the AHL this year (though I doubt that will happen, simply because he has so much more work to do in refining his game). Evan McEneny has already completed his four years of CHL service but was returned to Kingston as an over-ager with the Canucks presumably feeling that Utica wouldn’t be his best course for development at this time.
So where does Horvat fit in with this agreement? Since he’s entering his 19 year-old / draft+2 season, he has only served three years in London and is therefore not old enough to play in the AHL this year. If he doesn’t make the Vancouver Canucks roster then he has to be returned to London as per the aforementioned agreement.
In Vancouver, he’d imaginably be playing sparse fourth line minutes, and it’s fair to wonder whether that sort of usage would stunt his development. Were he to go back to London, the thought is that the quality of competition would be so low that he’d be progressing in a parallel manner rather than being forced to get better.
Which brings us to what Nicklas Jensen did only two seasons ago..
The Jensen Situation
Despite hockey fan’s short attention span Nicklas Jensen was at one time considered a very exciting prospect. The Oshawa Generals selected Jensen 8th overall in the 2010 CHL Import Draft, and he joined them for the ’10-’11 season. He wound up scoring 29 goals and 58 points in 61 games, nearly a 1.0 PPG effort. He scored 10 goals in 7 straight games and was tied for third longest scoring streak that season.
By the end of the year he was ranked 5th in OHL rookie scoring. All of that was good enough to have him ranked as the 21st North American prospect, eventually falling to the Canucks at 29th overall (a consolation prize for the Stanley Cup Final Game 7 loss, if you will).
In Jensen’s draft+1 year he continued to have success and he did so starting the season by signing an Entry Level Contract (ELC) with the Vancouver Canucks. With Oshawa he only put up 58 points, the same as the year before, but he was heralded for having played a more defensive role. At the end of the season Jensen played 6 games with the Chicago Wolves, scoring 4 times.
Because of the NHL-CHL transfer agreement and the fact Jensen was drafted out of the OHL he would have had to return to Oshawa in ’12-’13 had he not made the Canucks. Jensen and his agent that summer informed the Generals that he was not intending to return to the Generals citing the lack of competition as a deciding factor. As a result they felt that it was better to go elsewhere to continue his development.
Jensen wound up playing with AIK, one of the weaker teams in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) that year. Despite the lack of team success Jensen acquitted himself admirably playing in a men’s league against tougher competition, still managing to lead the team in goals, points and shots.
All this European move required was the Vancouver Canucks to loan him for the year and it didn’t ultimately even winding up wiping a year off of his ELC. Oshawa ended up being on the losing side of the transaction, as they received nothing in the form of compensation.
A cross-pond move doesn’t seem to happen very often but that’s not to say that Jensen’s the only player to have pulled it off in the recent past. Alex Khokhlachev spent a year in the KHL the very same season.
Will It Work for Horvat?
The question we need to look at is if it wound up proving to have been worth it for Jensen and if this route would be worth it as a backup plan for Horvat should he not be in Vancouver this Fall. It’s rather difficult to say with any certainty, though, since it’s hard to predict how Jensen would be as a player now if he had stayed in the CHL for another year. Intuitively, it seems as if it was the better option for the then-19 year old.
Similarly, the same route may behoove Horvat if there’s no place for him in Vancouver. He’d retain that ever-important year on his ELC, while presumably having the luxury of facing significantly stiffer competition than he would otherwise (similar to that of the AHL).
With that being said, it’s easy to foresee the reasons the Canucks wouldn’t allow such a move. The team has quite a bit invested in Horvat, and purely from a PR perspective sending its top prospect some 7000+ kilometers away where its fans could rarely ever see or him from him seems like a tough sell.
Ultimately, it’s a 3rd option worth considering at the very least. Especially since neither of the other two seem all that pragmatic.