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From the editor's desk: Arizona Coyotes' prospects demonstrate the need to change AHL eligibility

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Why are nearly NHL ready prospects not able to play in the American Hockey League?

Graig Abel/Getty Images

As the Arizona Coyotes' points leader this season, Max Domi's time in major-junior last season appears to have been a worthy investment by the team.

But it was a hard choice for the team, because their two assignment options were both less than ideal.

On the one hand, there was the NHL. Domi could have made his debut in the league and tried to learn the ropes. Perhaps he would have made a difference in the team's woeful 5v5 scoring, but he certainly would have faced a significant amount of adversity.

The other option - the one Arizona ultimately took - was to demote Domi back to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. It was a far less stressful environment for Domi to continue to develop, but it was also significantly less challenging. Domi put up 102 points in 57 games played, tearing up the OHL on a nightly basis.

This season, the Coyotes faced a similar dilemma. Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak were both not quite ready to crack the NHL roster. As a result, both are now back in the Ontario Hockey League. And like Max Domi, both are breezing through NHL competition.

Why is the choice for many young prospects between the highest level of professional hockey or development leagues? Did a team like the Edmonton Oilers needlessly burn a year of Leon Draisaitl's contract because they believed he was too good for the WHL yet not ready for the NHL?

Admittedly, the problem of players falling into a "doughnut hole" of readiness is pretty small. But that actually makes a solution fairly easy to construct. And the CHL already has a model that could deal with the problem.

For certain players like Connor McDavid, Hockey Canada grants "exceptional player" status when the player's skillset is undeniably comparable to CHL players but they don't meet the CHL's age requirements. There's no reason such a scheme couldn't work with NHL prospects too.

Give each team the ability to designate one prospect per year as "exceptional", kind of like a franchise tag in the NFL. The player designated "exceptional" could not be called up to the NHL, but would be eligible to play for the team's AHL or ECHL affiliate.

Such a system would allow players like Strome or Draisaitl to play against veteran players under the constant watch of the team's prospect development coaches, without the intense rigor of an NHL season. The CHL wouldn't like losing some of its best players every year, but when it comes to prospect development, NHL teams should be considering whatever options they can find to get their best prospects quality experience before they arrive at the big leagues.

Thoughts

  • Speaking of crazy-good prospects, Conor Garland is embarrassing the rest of the QMJHL at this point. He has a staggering 46 points in 19 games (2.42 points per game), and leads the "Q" in primary assists.
  • Arizona just keeps surprising, don't they? After a lackluster 1-3-0 road trip, the Coyotes have rattled off three straight home wins. They have a two point lead over Vancouver for the last playoff spot in the Pacific Division with a game in hand.
  • Are the Coyotes this year's Calgary Flames? Or last year's Colorado Avalanche? They've outpaced expectations so far, but their PDO is 5th in the league at 101.9, and their shooting percentage is 3rd in the league at 9.4%, one of only four teams with a shooting percentage of 9% or more.
  • The key question this offseason will be where General Manager Don Maloney thinks his team is at. Will it be a repeat of the 2012 offseason, where Maloney thought the team was a piece or two away from the Cup Final? Or will it be the 2015 offseason, where Maloney made small, short-term free agent moves while preserving his prospect pool?
  • If the Coyotes are going to make moves this year, I think they should be lateral moves. Not necessarily buying or selling, but identifying positions of weakness and making deals that don't sacrifice too much of the future.
  • For example, the Coyotes have a glut of forward prospects who are all going to become NHL ready at roughly the same time. Their blue-line however continues to need improvement going forward. The Coyotes could afford to part with a prospect or two up front to get a prospect or two on the back-end.
  • What do you do with Martin Hanzal? He's been a revelation this season, and is signed through 2016-17 to a reasonable $3.1M cap hit. On the one hand, he's been arguably the team's best player. On the other hand, his trade value has never been higher, and the Coyotes have at least two centers in Strome and Dvorak on the verge of making the league.
  • Equally problematic is the fact that Antoine Vermette has a no-movement clause for both years of his contract. If the Coyotes were (understandably) reluctant to part with Hanzal absent a huge return (oh hey there, Seth Jones), would shifting Vermette over to the wing to let Strome play center be an option?