In the wake of Jimmy Vesey’s unsurprising decision (unsurprising to everyone except the Nashville Predators, apparently) this week to spurn the team that drafted him and test unrestricted free agency, the status of NCAA-bound draft picks has been on the tip of the tongue.
This is true industry-wide, but it’s been particularly true in the Vancouver market. There was some thought that the Canucks would’ve pursued Mark Jankowski if the Flames had been unable to get that deal done and the club’s top two prospects – Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko – are currently playing in the NCAA.
If you look at Jim Benning’s draft record with Boston and Buffalo and Vancouver, there’s no clear trend in terms of his fishing holes. A career scout, Benning doesn’t seem to have a favoured league or nationality of player or what have you.
He’s also drafted two Russian players, something the previous Canucks regime never did, and three college-bound players in his first two drafts. Clearly Benning doesn’t appear to be worried about the increased signing risk posed by NCAA-bound or Russian-born players. And he shouldn’t be.
The dangers of 8.6(c)(iv)
Increasingly we’ve seen a wide variety of NCAA players spurn the teams that drafted them and hit unrestricted free agency. What was something of an oddity when Blake Wheeler and Justin Schultz elected to go this route, has become a common occurrence. Every summer it seems there’s at least one Vesey or Kevin Hayes, or at least a Zac Hyman (who was bound for free agency before the Florida Panthers traded his rights to Toronto).
The mechanism that allows college players to test unrestricted free agency in their early 20s is codified under the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement under rule 8.6(c)(iv). Over the years NHL teams have come to a greater understanding of the impact this rule can have on their prospect pool and have changed the way they behave.
Benning summarized Vancouver’s philosophy on this subject during a radio interview with TSN 1040 on Wednesday.
“I know one thing is that when our players now play three years (in college) we want to try and get them out if they’re ready for pro game,” Benning said. “We want to get them out in three years so that doesn’t happen where they get to free agency and that’s kind of been our thought all along.”
We saw this last season with how the Canucks pushed to get Ben Hutton signed after his junior season. We’re going to see it again with Demko following the Frozen Four tournament. Eventually we’ll see it with Boeser too, perhaps sooner than later.
The thing to remember about college free agents, is that NHL teams actually enjoy a good deal of leverage with drafted players playing college hockey. If a team does as Benning recommends and approaches a player about turning professional after their third year, then they have a good number of bullets in the chamber.
A team can offer such a player an entry-level deal (which comes with a maximum $92,500 signing bonus right away) and, if necessary, an opportunity to burn a year off that deal 16 months before they’d be eligible to hit unrestricted free agency. It’s a pretty good pitch too: “You want 100k now, or do you want to risk injury for another season and then take your chances in 16 months?”
Burning a year of a player’s entry-level contract isn’t often required, but it’s on the table should teams need it. This is partly how Brian Burke and the Calgary Flames got Johnny Gaudreau signed, despite Gaudreau’s mother (Mrs. Jane Hockey?) telling the New York Times that she wanted him to graduate. A good thing they did too.
As for Demko…
The hand-wringing about Demko – the Hobey Baker finalist whose junior season will finish next weekend, perhaps with a National Championship – has already begun in earnest if my @ mentions on Twitter are any indication. Of course that’s standard practice for Canucks fans. You may remember last April’s Jordan Subban panic…
The Canucks are confident, however, that they’ll get that deal done. As Benning told me earlier this month for a piece I wrote about Tryamkin, Demko and Rodin for Sportsnet:
“Demko is a player that we’ve drafted, he’s from San Diego and wants to be on the west coast, we’ve spent time with him, he likes our organization, he’s best friends with Jared McCann already through development camps,” Benning told Sportsnet. “So he’s a guy we’re going to get signed. We’ll wait until after his season, but we’ll get him signed.”
Until Demko has autographed the bottom line of his standard-player contract, we can’t say with certainty that the deal is going to get done. What we can say with a good degree of confidence is that Benning hasn’t allowed any 8.6(c)(iv) uncertainty to enter into his player evaluation process and it certainly seems like he’s not about to start now.
The Russian Factor
Switching gears for a moment, I think it’s worth revisiting Russian-born players – especially those who have remained in their mother country to play in the MHL or KHL – under this same rough rubric.
The Canucks didn’t draft a Russian player during the Gillis regime, but that stance has softened under Benning. Vancouver drafted Nikita Tryakin in 2014 and he’s already made his Canucks debut. In 2015 the Canucks then selected MHL forward Dmitry Zhukenov and likely played some role in ensuring that he’d come to North America to play CHL hockey immediately.
That Zhukenov is already in North America makes it difficult to imagine that he’ll be difficult to sign, should the club elect to at some point in the not-too-distant future. The Tryamkin situation is perhaps more interesting though, particularly because of his AHL out clause.
What we’ve seen in recent years is that young KHL players have followed Evgeni Kuznetsov’s path to the NHL. It’s not that these Russian-born players don’t want to play in the show, they very much do, they’d just rather play in the KHL, a very good professional league that’s much closer to home, then put in reps riding the bus to the backwaters of upstate New York in the American League. In talking with Russian hockey journalists, they’ve explained to me that this is what Tryamkin did and it’s also partly why Artemi Panarin waited until he was 23-years-old to sign an NHL deal.
This popular notion is more than just idle speculation. For New York Rangers prospect Pavel Buchnevich, for example, the desire to avoid playing in the AHL is specific and out in the open.
“If I went overseas, I think that they would send me to the AHL and I had to play there the whole season,” Buchnevich told championat.ru in December,
. “I think that the KHL is better than the AHL.”
Teams have a few more hoops to jump through when they’re dealing with Russian-born players that they’ve drafted out of the MHL or KHL, but often-times these players are worth the wait. That’s especially true if you’re drafting a player 10 or 20 slots below where they’d be picked if they held a Canadian passport (something that applies to all of Kuznetsov, Tryamkin and Buchnevich).
At this stage of their team-building cycle, the Canucks need as much high-end talent as they can find. Even though he was strongly considering taking a defenseman with a top-10 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and may yet depending on how the lottery unfolds, Benning is pretty close to a best player available absolutist. For an organization that has needs everywhere, that’s the right approach.
When a team is in accumulation mode, it behooves that club to let other organizations worry about the ‘Russian factor’ or 8.6(c)(iv). If those worries cause a player to drop further down the draft then he otherwise would, then that’s even better.
So far Benning’s approach has paid off. His regime got Hutton signed, they drafted and managed to sign Tryamkin and they’ll probably have some honest discussions with Demko and Boeser in Tampa Bay next weekend. Even if they eventually get burned though, ignoring these sorts of risk factors and just focusing on talent procurement is still the way the organization should proceed.