What if Other Sports Adopted an NHL-Style Draft?

A proposal from a draft skeptic and a college hockey analyst

Lost in the hype, trades, and stories about LaVar Ball that were the NBA Draft this past week was the fact that it’s also NHL Draft week.

Hockey’s draft took place on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, as teams scrambled to land up-and-comers that will hopefully break their NHL squad within a few years.  There was no agent free-for-all on the floor, no equivalent to John Calipari bouncing from table to table with a giant smile.  It’s low on hype, the NHL Draft, as so many of the players involved won’t even join the organizations that drafted them for years.

To me, this is the only draft system that makes any sense at all.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Here’s how it works:  Only players between the ages of 18 and 20 are eligible for the draft.  Once drafted, any players who are in or committed to a college remain property of the team that drafted them through their college years.

In other words, the three college players the Lightning selected (Nick Petrix and Cole Guttman from St. Cloud State and Sam Walker from Minnesota) will stay in college, but they are part of the Lightning organization in a way as well.  The pro teams don’t pay the players, of course, and they can’t make any demands like compelling a player to leave early.  They can, however, advise players and suggest that they leave college early.  The players can choose to sign a contract whenever they wish, and leave college to join the minor league system if they would prefer.

Since the college season ends right around the beginning of the NHL playoffs, those rare college prospects who are pro-ready could potentially play in the NCAA Tournament and the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the course of one week.

Here’s where it gets real complicated:  Players over 20 who weren’t drafted are no longer draft-eligible.  So a college hockey player who has an incredible senior season graduates straight into free agency.  Two of the three contenders for this year’s Hobey Baker Award (the top honor in college hockey) did exactly this, stepping out of their conference tournaments and straight into a professional bidding war.

What about seniors who were drafted, you might ask.  They can choose, if they really don’t like the offer they get from the team that picked them in a draft, to not sign there and pursue free agency.  The only penalty for this is that they cannot sign until August, and therefore can’t play in the NHL Playoffs.

This compared to other drafts, where players lose their college eligibility simply by going far enough into the draft process, seems to me to be the only way that makes sense.  Or, rather, the only honest way of doing things.  Does the NBA or NFL really think we’re going to believe that college isn’t the highest level of their developmental process?

Suppose the other major sports adopted this strange style of draft.  I’ve always thought this would be great in all ways, especially for the fans who can’t get enough offseason drama.

Let’s imagine for a second if the NBA adopted the same 18-20, retain the rights through college kind of a draft.  (At one point they did have something similar, as the Celtics drafted Larry Bird before his senior season at Indiana State.  Not that Red Auerbach’s endorsement means much of anything in that sport, right?)

Sweet Sixteen

The first place my mind goes is John Calipari, considered a controversial figure in college basketball for admitting correctly that the best college freshmen are NBA-bound and maybe it’s not a bad idea to prepare them for their career as though they were attending college as most of us knew it.  People are unwell at Coach Cal’s strategy of loading up on talented young players who do not intend to stay at the University of Kentucky very long.

Funny, in hockey we have a guy like that and he’s not controversial at all.  David Quinn, coach of Boston University (which occupies a Kentucky-esque place in college hockey history) seems to win every NHL Draft.  This year his Terriers saw seven players drafted, as opposed to one apiece for their local rivals in Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern.  Chances are many of those players will leave early, some likely after just one year.

Nobody in college hockey has the kind of roster turnover that Quinn has.  However, unlike Calipari, nobody in college hockey feels like this is a particularly dirty strategy either.  He wants the best prospects.  Those guys are all going to the NHL.  That likely means a lot of early departures.  The only controversy there is that Boston University hasn’t won a national championship under Quinn, and the guy he replaced is a College Hockey Mount Rushmore coach.

But that’s a blue blood.  Sure, this draft would be great for UK in an NBA context, but what about the smaller schools that make the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament one of the most thrilling weekends on the sports calendar?

Those teams might be tempted to go out and hire a longtime NBA scout who has never had any pro coaching buzz to come in and recruit future professionals.  It’s not a coincidence that Hockey East, the conference where BU resides, had a player from every member of the conference drafted.  You need pro talent to compete with pro talent.  Since we’re not talking about paying players, resources only go so far in that regard.

This also gives mobility to schools with resources but without proud basketball histories.  Hire an NBA assistant with a few rings and watch the NBA-bound players pour in.

Likewise, advantages would be given to NBA teams with college ties.  Brad Stevens’ familiarity with Butler would give him an insight into the New Big East that he could use to stash a player or two for the future.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

The true winner if the NBA were to go this way, of course, would be Mike Krzyzewski.  As coach of Team USA in recent Olympiads, Coach K’s already winning over recruits based in part on his impressive list of contacts.  (Not a lot of college coaches can just call up LeBron.)  The only thing he would have to worry about is his university objecting to players leaving early.

Imagine Lonzo Ball’s season at UCLA if he had already been bound for the Lakers.  Imagine the conversations between Celtics fans about Jayson Tatum’s day to day at Duke.  Consider what would happen if a player chose to stay at college when nobody expected him to, and what talk we in the press would be having under that circumstance.

If the first round of the NCAA Tournament needed even more intrigue, NBA fans making sure to see a specific Tournament Cameo to see their mid-major second round pick would be a lot of fun, as would the panic every year when one of the top players gets bounced early.

If the NBA Draft would become more chaotic if they went hockey-style, it would pale in comparison to the madness that would be College Football with a NHL-style college and draft system.

Let’s start with a time frame:  The top players would be drafted before their freshman year, and just about nine weeks out from National Signing Day, making that a critical part of draft prep.  Those top players then stay at their school of choice for a minimum of three seasons.  After bowl season in both their junior or senior season depending on the player, a pro team would then offer them a contract.  You know, right there, in the middle of the NFL Playoffs.

Suppose a stud defensive lineman were drafted by Tampa Bay, and after his senior season he’s talking to the Bucs who are in the playoffs but need a defensive lineman.  “Can you play the college kid” would be one of the most interesting sports radio discussions possible.

Undrafted free agents would also be hitting the market at this time.  This year, that would have included the top quarterback in the draft, Mitch Trubisky, who was not known until his senior season.  Would this offseason have been different if Trubisky was a free agent instead of a risky top ten draft pick?

Seriously. Under NHL Draft rules this guy would have been a free agent. (Photo credit: AP)

Here’s another scenario to help you picture how much I love this style of draft:  “The Cleveland Browns select the quarterback from the University of Michigan.”  Does that put a picture in your head?  Is it a really, really fun picture?  Browns fans, many of whom adore Ohio State, suddenly having to watch one of Jim Harbaugh’s recruits to hope for their future.  That could be interesting.  So too could San Francisco picking someone who would be playing under Harbaugh.

Helping the NFL even more, when a hockey team drafts a player who stays in college, they can still invite that player to offseason training sessions to work with their coaches and their other draft picks.  So an NFL team could draft somebody under this system and actually develop them into a professional football player before they get to the NFL.  As opposed to, say, drafting Marcus Mariota who spent his entire life in offenses that bear no resemblance to NFL offenses and then teaching him how to run a pro football team on the fly.  I know, that’s a recipe for guaranteed success, throwing a guy to the wolves like that, but I just wonder if maybe we could do it a little better.

The downside in both cases is that scouting has to be done at a younger age, making for a lot more risk in the draft itself.  You’ll notice the top incoming freshmen are not always the best players in the end.

In the NBA’s case, Harry Giles went 20th in this draft and people are curious as to whether even that was a stretch given that he’s had injuries to both ACLs.  Had he been drafted before he went to Duke, he would have been a top three pick.  UCF’s Tacko Fall pulled out of this draft because he likely would have been passed over, but before he arrived at UCF he would have been an attractive pick on size alone.

Another problem with this idea from an NBA perspective is that it does nothing at all to solve college basketball’s issue with one-and-done players.  Like I said, hockey has a Coach Cal all our own, and like his basketball counterpart Dave Quinn doesn’t stand in the way of his players making the best decisions for themselves.

Character issues would be much more difficult to identify as well.  We would see more players drafted that turn out to not be a good fit with their teams because of locker room issues, or because of things off the field.  This could lead to picks being labeled “busts” before they even get a chance to go pro and actually bust.

It kills football’s instant gratification myth on which the NFL Draft is built.  No more would we be able to try and convince fanbases that even the worst teams could be drastically changed overnight by that magic draft pick.  Even the perfect player is three years away.  The NFL did not become a fourteen billion dollar revenue monster by telling people to be patient and wait out long rebuilds.

At the same time, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that college football is, for all intents and purposes, the NFL’s minor league.  College is part of the developmental process.  It is critical for reaching the league.

The NFL knows this.

College football knows this and reaps all the benefits of being the NFL’s minor league, from the caliber of talent to seeing a boost in ratings from areas with “tanking” teams.

The NBA does technically have an alternative to college, in that players could go to Europe instead.  The NHL has many, from the ECHL to the Canadian Junior Leagues to various European leagues.  MLB has their extensive minor league system.  The NFL has no such developmental steps.  There is only college.

The league is never going to want to fund their own minor league when they get one for free, that’s just bad business and a competition they’d never win.

College football would never want the NFL to do that, because they would not be able to field the best young talent anymore.

Yet the NCAA system never has to be held to the standards of all other developmental leagues.  In fact, it is taboo for a college football program to even hint that they are actively trying to prepare football players for a future in the NFL.  Anyone who did that would face investigations.  Never mind that the business department at the same school is actively trying to prepare students for their future careers, or for that matter the art history program.

Let me repeat that:  Future NFL and NBA players get less relevant career prep than art history majors.  Far be it from a writer to make fun of artists, but it’s strange that the young people who are bringing these colleges nationwide notoriety on national television have to pretend they’re actually working on making sure they can make it as a CPA if this football thing falls through.  We don’t do that to anyone in any field of study at any college.  One of my cousins went to study music, nobody told her she had to declare herself a communications major and practice the sax on her own time.

Only hockey actually prepares future professional athletes for their future careers from an NCAA perspective.

Yet the NBA and NFL rely on their college systems to produce players much more than hockey.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.