The 2021 AHL season is unlike any other in the history of the league. Affiliates are sitting out, others are accepting players searching for a home, and juniors players are seeing AHL action at an early age. The league is undergoing an adjustment period unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
The Chicago Wolves are one of the few teams getting to experience all the oddities 2021 has to offer. They accepted the Milwaukee Admirals’ players when their northern rival announced they would not participate in this shortened season. They also have many incredibly talented stars who wouldn’t be here in a normal season fulfilling major roles on a 7-0 team.
Seth Jarvis, Philip Tomasino, and Ryan Suzuki are all playing for the Chicago Wolves now. Jarvis was just drafted in October 2020 as a first-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes, Tomasino was drafted in the first round by the Nashville Predators in 2019, and Suzuki was also a 2019 first-round pick, but for the Hurricanes.
All three of these players are experiencing incredible success in the AHL. Suzuki has two goals and two assists in seven games, Tomasino has three goals and three assists in six games, and Seth Jarvis has six goals and three assists in seven games. To add to that, Jarvis is tied for the team lead in points with fellow forward Tom Novak. Jarvis is also tied for the AHL lead in points with Novak and recently recalled Ducks’ prospect Trevor Zegras.
This begs an important question: Will these guys have to return to the junior ranks? The answer: yes, and it’s ridiculous.
Let’s start by breaking down how these youngsters ended up in Chicago. When the CHL was unsure when they would begin play, the NHL and CHL agreed to allow these players to play in the AHL. This is abnormal because of the NHL/CHL agreement. In layman’s terms, if a player has played in the CHL and is drafted by an NHL team out of juniors, they have to play in either the CHL or NHL until their age-20 season, at which time they can then play in the AHL and “graduate” from junior hockey.
Now the CHL teams are rebooting, preparing to play a shortened season of sorts. Many players playing in the AHL are beginning to head back to their respective CHL clubs, meaning players such as Jarvis, Tomasino, and Suzuki will likely be joining them. This is solely because of the aforementioned agreement and has nothing to do with these kids’ play. If it were purely based on play, they’d be in the AHL for sure.
When the season began, there was uncertainty if these young players would be able to make it at the AHL level, especially if there was not a CHL season of any sort. So far, it seems that the Hurricanes’ and Predators’ CHL candidates are stepping up to the challenge, especially Seth Jarvis.
Yes, all three of those players on the Wolves are first-round picks. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of NHL success. There are plenty of first-round picks who never amount to stars, or even regulars, in the NHL. That said, when 18- and 19-year-olds are putting up the numbers that Jarvis, Tomasino, and Suzuki are in the AHL, there is clearly a flaw with the NHL/CHL agreement.
In my coverage of the Wolves this season, these players have been noticeable. Yes, they’re putting up nice numbers, but none of them look overwhelmed while on the ice. Instead, they’re pacing play in most cases and showing they can compete at a level above junior hockey. A perfect example is each of these players’ roles on the Wolves.
For example, Jarvis, Suzuki, and Tomasino are all usually playing in the top six, as well as playing together on the top power play unit for the Wolves, which has scored a goal in all seven games through February 24th. These youngsters are impressive and are skating circles around grown, AHL talent.
The solution for this idea is pretty complex. When evaluating the agreement as it stands, it makes sense and protects CHL teams. How? Well, if a star player isn’t ready to go to the NHL, he can stick around and help draw fans to the team, as well as giving the club a superstar at that level to compete for a Memorial Cup appearance. For the NHL, it keeps their clubs that supply NHL talent around and thriving.
However, the development of some of these players needs to be put first. If a player is clearly set to play above the CHL ranks, they should be able to, even if there have to be some limitations set in the NHL/CHL agreement to allow the CHL clubs to benefit from having these players come through their systems.
One possible idea is a tryout period each season for players under the age of 20. If they can compete in the AHL and look ready for roughly five to eight games, they should be allowed to stay. However, if their NHL front office doesn’t believe they will benefit from playing in the AHL, they can then return to juniors.
There is some grey area in the idea, but it would allow an 18-year-old like Seth Jarvis to remain in the AHL. That said, if a player like Suzuki or Tomasino as a 19-year-old were ready, they too could stay. If they were not, then one more season in the juniors will benefit them long-term. In the end, the CHL can retain some of their top talent in order to compete and fill seats while allowing these players to have the best experience for them to develop on their timetable, not some timetable set by a garbage agreement.