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Player loans should be normalized in hockey - here’s why

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With lockouts becoming more frequent and deeper prospect pools, player loans can help teams develop players more effectively.

2019 NHL Draft - Round One
Don Sweeney (left) and Cam Neely.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s a practice you see a lot in the sport of soccer: teams loaning younger or underused players to other clubs — either abroad or in lower divisions — in order to provide players minutes they otherwise wouldn’t be getting.

Not only is it extremely common, it is often successful in developing younger players and getting them game-ready in a competitive environment. At the end of the season or loan spell, that player returns to their parent club, sometimes ready and confident to compete for a starting role and other times proving not good enough.

The reason why this works in soccer is because of the global scale of the game. There are multiple divisions in every country providing ample opportunity for players to find somewhere they’ll be able to ply their trade.

Looking at other popular sports in North America, sure there’s baseball and basketball leagues abroad, but not on par with the standards set in the MLB or NBA.

With Major League Baseball having such an extensive farm system (y’know...before [gestures at 2020]) and the size of NBA rosters too miniscule, loans wouldn’t work well in most sports.

Except hockey.

Now this isn’t saying that the KHL or the Swedish Hockey League are beginning to rival the level of the NHL. However, while some European prospects struggle to adapt to the American professional game in the minors here, they might be better off looking to develop on loan in their home country.

It’s a practice all NHL teams have done before — sending top European prospects back overseas or even top Canadian players back to juniors. But this isn’t called a loan, unless there’s a lockout.

During 2012-13 (and in some cases, this year), players were sent to Europe and allowed to play on loan before returning for their league seasons in North America. Players stayed fresh and when the 2013 season finally got underway in January, players were ready to go despite shortened training camps and several months off between NHL games.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into scheduling games, especially at the minor league level, where several ECHL teams have been forced to drop out of the upcoming season (like the Boston Bruins’ affiliate, the Atlanta Gladiators) and AHL teams face an uncertain future with likely a severely shortened schedule.

Rather than waste a year of development, teams like Boston have loaned some of their organizational prospects to teams in Europe to get players proper minutes at the professional level.

And it’s a practice that should stick around in non-lockout, post-pandemic play.

For example, if a young player within an organization isn’t seeing adequate playing time because of a logjam of prospects, sending them overseas to Europe could be beneficial for all three parties involved.

The parent club would be able to see its prospect get solid playing time in a high-level professional league. The loaned player would be able to build confidence in a top-division setting rather than compete for minutes in the AHL. And the loan team would be able to advertise an NHL-caliber player while strengthening their own roster. A win-win-win.

But wouldn’t this spell the end of minor league hockey? Nope.

While loans wouldn’t be restricted to international players, teams would still want to develop players in their own farm system under the watchful eye of organizational coaching staffs. College and major junior players could make a quick jump to the AHL to get their feet wet, if needed, while fringe prospects and ‘tweeners could still make a living on home soil.

With roster space at a premium and with an annual influx of new talent via the draft or free agency, players who still need an extra year of development without a spot for frequent playing time could see pro-level competition with a brief loan stint.

Engaging in a practice like this is easier said than done, but it’s one that can help grow the game internationally and allow a myriad of young players to still prove their worth while under contract in the world’s top league.