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On Juniors And Going Pro

When Francois Bouchard and Karl Alzner were sent back to juniors earlier today, I had no problem with the move (I thought they might hang around another few days, but, for a number of reasons, it has long been clear where they'd be playing this season). And since both are North American-born and neither will be 20-years-old by December 31, 2007, getting cut meant they were headed back to juniors (recall that "players from the three Canadian junior leagues who were born in North America are not eligible to play in the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League until they turn 20"1).

Frankly, I'm not sure how the blanket AHL and ECHL prohibition on using these players - all the while allowing 19-year-old European kids to play in their Leagues - isn't a violation of antitrust laws, but I can let that pass for now. My CHL (and really all things hockey) expert James Mirtle helped explain to me why the rule is the way it is, and while I certainly can see why it makes sense for the junior leagues, I'm not as convinced that it always makes sense for the players.

For a player like Bouchard, for example, who led the QMJHL in scoring last year, what does he have left to prove at that level? I got to ask Bouchard that very question at the beginning of rookie camp, and it was pretty clear that his feeling was "not much":

Mirtle isn't so sure. On the macro-level, he points to how players in the Q are closer to home, can attend school, etc. On the micro-level, he points to how much better Francois Bouchard's older brother Pierre-Marc's numbers were at the same age and how every hot-shot in the Q thinks he's ready to go pro.

But the elder Bouchard - the eighth overall pick in 2002 - was rushed to the NHL, debuting as an 18-year-old and totalling 42 points in 111 games through two seasons. It wasn't until he spent the lockout season in the AHL that Pierre-Marc found his game at the professional level, and he has now emerged as a 20-goal/55-point player, all at the tender age of 23. Would Bouchard have been better served playing in the AHL than the NHL in those first two years, had that option been available? Or, alternatively and in retrospect, should he have played out his eligibility in the Q?

We'll obviously never know, but here, then, is my question today - from a player development perspective (there are contract considerations that we're not discussing here) is it a shame that Bouchard and Alzner have to go back to juniors rather than taking their game to the next level in Hershey, or is heading back to juniors the best thing for their respective long-term developments?