Wright, Savoie, and Exceptional Status

In Canadian major junior hockey, the exceptional status is given to a 15-year-old player who the league deems good enough to play an entire season at the major junior level. Otherwise, the player would only be able to play five games at age 15 in major junior until they turned 16. Before this season, the only players who were granted exceptional status in the Canadian Hockey League were Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Sean Day, and Joe Veleno. Of all of them, only Veleno wasn’t playing in the Ontario Hockey League; he was a Quebec League player.

This season, two players applied and only one was granted the status. Shockingly enough, it was a player from the OHL that was given the status in Shane Wright. The other– Matthew Savoie– was not given status, despite him having been compared to Sidney Crosby at age 14. It also continues the Western Hockey League not granting players exceptional status. Due to this, Savoie said that he committed to the University of Denver for the 2021-22 season. It should be noted that Jack Hughes also applied for exceptional status two years ago, but was denied and is now on his way to University of Michigan next fall….maybe…if he doesn’t get to the NHL before that, as he is projected to be one of the top two picks in this Draft.

There’s two way to think about this whole situation. The first is that it’s a travesty that the WHL isn’t letting this kid, who has 31 goals and 71 points in 31 games playing a year older than he should be. The second is that it’s good that the WHL isn’t rushing a kid who may not be able to deal with the grind of travel and physicality that the WHL often presents, not to mention the mental and maturity factor of it all.

It’s easy to see both sides of the coin. You don’t want to have a kid who’s obviously head and shoulders above his peers in bantam or midget hockey, risk him getting bored or even seriously injured, or embarrass the competition. In most of the exceptional cases– the players were able to succeed with three of the five of them being 1st overall picks in the NHL Draft and four of five being in the first round. Sean Day was the player who didn’t get pick in the first round, though he was also the only defenseman of the group who was given that status.

Some believe that Day’s performance was the reason why Hughes wasn’t given the status, but that’s subjective as hell and you could counter that by saying it takes defensemen longer to develop than forwards.

On the flip side, it’s almost good for the younger players not getting bigger than they should be if they aren’t ready for it. Again another subjective aspect of the judging process, but at the same time– to hold off on a player who the committee may have the slightest doubt of it is erring on the side of caution. You may lose a player or two– like with Savoie and Hughes– but it might be better than burning them out at a young age or having them flame out when such high expectations were placed onto them. Plus, when I mentioned maturity– these kids at 15 may or may not be ready to take on a pro-like schedule, away from home all the time, and growing up before they may be ready to.

While it could be the CHL’s loss, the NCAA does have the ability in something great. Of course, Hughes may not make it to the college level, while Savoie could be using his as a bluff or doing the same thing as Jack Eichel in playing the year before his draft year and then leaving after a season. Many claim that the major junior route is the quickest route to the NHL– and it’s probably true– but at the same time, if Savoie and Hughes can play in the NCAA, even for a year, and dominate before going to the NHL; it may change some opinions…but probably not.

Winnipeg’s WHL Dilemma

The rumors about the Kootenay Ice leaving for Winnipeg have been around for a majority of the year, while also getting louder and louder as the days go onward. So, much so that there was a press conference set for Monday that never went off. The fact Kootenay’s future in Cranbrook, BC has been in question for the past few years may show that it’s almost time to fish or cut bait with the Southeastern BC city. With the latest owners of the Ice being from Winnipeg, naturally there’s going to be questions on how much longer it’d be until they picked up and moved east. 

Of course, when the team was sold to Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, the idea was for the team to remain in Cranbrook. However, the allure of the big city and being back home seem to be too much for Fettes and Cockell to pass up on. While the attendance in Kootenay has bumped back up from seasons previous, it is still a half-filled arena and towards the bottom of the league. With Winnipeg being a hot market for hockey, why wouldn’t the hometown boys come home with a junior hockey team?? 

For one, the biggest debate that is coming up is if three teams– the Winnipeg Jets, Manitoba Moose, and this WHL team– could coexist and be successful. While the Toronto Maple Leafs, Marlies, and Mississauga Steelheads seem to coexist, Winnipeg is not the Greater Toronto Area. While the NHL and WHL work in Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver– the added AHL could make it a little rough for the WHL to work and be successful in Winnipeg. 

Just with the NHL and AHL in the same town, the Moose have taken a hit at the box office since they came back, steadily declining over the last four years. When you consider that this WHL team won’t be under the True North Sports and Entertainment banner either– they’d be fighting a very uphill battle trying to get people out to the arena, especially with playing at the University of Manitoba until a proposed new arena on the edge of the city is built. 

Winnipeg is just under 750,000 people in the city and plenty to do– three hockey teams could be a breaking point for even the staunchest of hockey fans. Coupled with the lack of True North involvement, the WHL team would be destined to fail from the onset. Some would suggest that the team would be better off staying where they are than trying to make it in Winnipeg. 

Even though a team in Winnipeg would help Manitoba and give an even closer rival for the Brandon Wheat Kings; the ends may not justify the means. The odds seem against them from the start with the rewards not justifying the risks. The idea of the big city over the small town may be great, but you’d not only be letting those small town fans lose their identity, but you’d also be going into hostile territory without any affiliation to the big fish in the city already.

If the owners were smart enough, they’d find a way to sell the team to local interests or maybe see if some alumni who were/are in the NHL would want to buy the team. Because trying to go back and face those fans in Cranbrook and trying to get forgiveness would not go over entirely well. 

On the Topic Of Training Camp and Prospects

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Training Camps are when hope springs eternal for some teams. Other teams it’s just a chance to see how good a team will be two or three or more years down the line. However, the idea that there are people who are actually “fighting” for a spot on the team is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there’s going to be pressure on some guys, but by in large, the depth charts are pretty set.

Not only that, but it’s very odd hockey where it’s much like spring training where there’s split squads and some fans go overboard with the results– both positively and negatively. It often gets annoying and makes me want to speed up to opening night to make the idea of “position battles” go away for another year.

The thing that irks me the most is keeping the kids who have junior eligibility in the camp far longer than they should be. In all honesty, the only time a player with junior eligibility should be at an NHL camp is when it’s the prospects camp early in the summer. The NHL really should look at an “exceptional player” rule to allow some of these junior players the chance to make the team out of camp, but it would also allow the other ones who really don’t have a chance the ability to train and then play for their junior team because their seasons start earlier than the NHL’s.

It just seems a bit silly to have over sixty players in a camp when they’re going to send 15-20 home on their first few days, a majority of them going back to their junior team. I understand that technically those players are the property of the NHL teams, but does it really do them any good to have that short of an experience and miss some time with the team they’re going to spend the majority of the season with?? It’s almost the same as my disdain for keeping players up for nine games when they know they aren’t going to play there for the entirety of the season.

The idea of raising the draft age is a smart one. Even if it’s just a year, it’ll allow the player to mature more in juniors, which would do them a world of good. When you look at the amount of players who are going the NCAA route, it just shows that if you raise the age or not, those players aren’t going to be jumping into The Show right away; which is maybe what teams want with some of the contracts that they give to players being a placeholder for the prospects spot.

Maybe I’m just not into the training camp hype. One player does amazing against junior or AAAA-level talent and then people wonder why he’s a bust during the year when playing against actual pro level talent. Let the kids be kids in the junior area or the NCAA area. They don’t need to be jumped into the league when you not only lack the room for them, but also could destroy their confidence down the rode for being pushed ahead too early.