How has limit on 20-year-old players affected the game?
An Alberta Junior Hockey League rule change reducing the number of 20-year-olds allowed on team rosters this season brought discord at its introduction, the league's president says.
Three-quarters into the regular season, division still exists over the decree.
The rule, introduced in late May, calls for teams to dress only six players born in 1992 rather than the nine 20-year-old players that were permitted in previous seasons. The remaining players on a roster must range from ages 16 to 19.
AJHL president Craig Cripps says that whether teams support or reject this rule is based on the way they view their franchise.
"Are teams looking at their product for entertainment value for the fans?" Cripps says. "Or are they trying to bring younger players in the league to get every opportunity for development at the junior level?"
Cripps says the rule came into effect because of a request by the league's board of governors.
Differing opinions on the rule
Gord Thibodeau, head coach of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, says he is not a fan of the rule and contends it is not fair for teams that like to capitalize on the experience of 20-year-olds.
Before this season, Thibodeau's team was often filled with the maximum, or close-to-the-maximum, number of over-age players.
Boris Rybalka, head coach of the Camrose Kodiaks, says he accepted the rule when it initially came out because, "You have to deal with the curveball that's thrown at you."
Last season, the Kodiaks put a lineup on the ice that featured three 20-year-old players. That number has been cut to two for the 2012-2013 campaign.
Now that the rule has been in effect for over half a season, the two coaches say the rule has changed the game.
Rybalka says the parity in the league has improved due to this new rule.
"I don't think it has hurt teams. When you look at the big picture, it has made the league bigger and stronger because it has made the teams more competitive and closer," he says.
Thibodeau, on the other hand, argues that the rule has no impact on the standings this season.
What the statistics are saying
However, a comparison of the standings between this season and last season suggests there has been a sizeable impact.
Last season, after games completed on Jan. 15, there was a 25-point-gap between the second-ranked and seventh-ranked teams in the south division. That gap has been reduced to 16 points at the same time this season. In the north division, the spread between the second-ranked and seventh-ranked teams was 42 points. This season, only 11 points separate those two positions.
But do the tighter standings lead to better hockey?
"There's a lot more mistakes, and a lot more grinding hockey rather than the finesse the 20-year-olds showed," Thibodeau says.
Conversely, Rybalka contends the quality of play has improved due to the better competitive balance in the AJHL.
If quality of play is based on how many goals are scored per game, Thibodeau's argument is accurate. Last season, after 324 games, the goals-per-game average was 6.66. This season after 324 games, the goals-per-game average is 6.16 — a drop of half a goal a game.
Different games, different rules?
As a result of this change, Alberta and British Columbia both have the second lowest quota of 20-year-old players allowed on a roster in the Canadian Junior Hockey League. As of this month, the Quebec league, LHJAAAQ, allows only five over-age players per team.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, meanwhile, still allows for eight players born in 1992 on a roster (though that number will drop to seven in 2013-2014), while Manitoba, Ontario and the Maritimes can dress nine players who are 20 years old.
This begs the question: should there be a uniform standard for the maximum amount of over-age players a team can dress? All of these leagues go head-to-head during the Royal Bank Cup championship in May.
Rybalka says: "The bigger issue with head coaches and general managers is, 'Look we made the rule to six, great! We'll roll with it.' It's not fair for our next-door neighbour province to have eight and another province to have nine. That has to change and soon."
Thibodeau also wants the rules to be the same across Canada.
Fred Harbinson, who coached the Penticton Vees to the Royal Bank Cup last season, says the fact that the Alberta and Saskatchewan junior hockey leagues cutting down their number of 20-year-olds is a good thing because it will provide "more notoriety for your league as a developmental league" for players that could be drafted into the NHL.
But Marty Savoy, the commissioner of the Ontario Junior Hockey League says that as long as his league is allowed to dress nine over-agers, coaches should have a right to do so.
Savoy says the experienced 20-year-old players can help teams take that next step, thus improving the quality of league-wide play.
Kirk Lamb, president and chairman of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, says he recognizes the value of dressing lineups with both a lot of over-age players or few over-age players, so he does not envision a scenario where every member league adopts the same rules regarding 20-year-olds.
- By Quinton Amundson