Apparently the agents for John Tavares, a 16-year-old phenom with the Oshawa Generals of the junior Ontario Hockey League, would like their client to be made eligible for the NHL Entry Draft a year earlier than the current rules dictate.

As it now stands, Tavares is eligible for the 2009 NHL draft, meaning that he has 2 more years of junior hockey ahead of him even though he dominated the most recent season with 72 goals and 62 assists for 134 points in 67 games, which is a cool 2 points per game. He broke Wayne Gretzky’s league record for most goals as a 16-year-old and was named player of the year in the entire Canadian Hockey League (which encompasses the OHL, the Western Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League).

Clearly Tavares doesn’t have anything left to prove at this level and is likely not looking forward to 2 more seasons at the same level of competition when bigger and better things await.

Now that the story of his agents trying to get him eligible for the 2008 NHL draft has broken, there has been much hand-wringing and discussion of whether an underage player should be allowed to play in the NHL before he is otherwise eligible. But what much of this discussion misses is that Tavares is only 5 days too young to qualify for the 2008 Draft in any event, so he is virtually the same age as the rest of the players that will be drafted in 2008.

The NHL’s eligibility cutoff is September 15 of the draft season and Tavares was born on September 20, 1990, just 5 days too late. So even if he is somehow made eligible for the 2008 draft, he will turn 18 several weeks before the season starts and will not be playing in the NHL as a 17-year-old, as some have implied.

Sidney Crosby’s birthday is August 7, so in his rookie season as an 18-year-old, he was only about 6 weeks older than Tavares would be. What seems the greater crime is making Tavares wait until 2009, when he’ll be 19 as an NHL rookie and nearly a year older than Crosby was in his rookie season.

Incidentally, Tavares isn’t the only very high-profile player born just past the cut-off. Alexander Ovechkin’s birthday is September 17, meaning that he missed the deadline by only 2 days and was drafted in 2004 and would have been 19 as a rookie in the 2004-05 season. (Of course, the lockout nullified that entire season and he was a rookie the next year at age 20, nearly 2 full years older than his rookie rival, Sidney Crosby). The Florida Panthers tried drafting Ovechkin late in 2003 using some ridiculous logic that the number of leap years since his birth actually pushed the eligibility cutoff date past his birthday and made him eligible in 2003. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

So what’s the point? Let Tavares get drafted in 2008, but don’t make a special exemption for him. Just move the eligibility cutoff to September 30, which is still a couple days before the NHL season traditionally begins. That way all draft-eligible players will be at least 18 before they appear in their first NHL regular season games. It’s cruel to force Tavares to play at an inferior level for 2 more years when he could be thrilling NHL fans instead.

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