Four years ago, I pondered the different draft lottery systems that could better distribute the first three overall picks every year so that the spread of talent in the lower tier teams doesn't fall to a team that just super-tanks for two years and then becomes one of the best teams in the league.
Should the Penguins have Malkin and Crosby? Should the Hawks have both Kane and Toews? It's a difficult question. These teams have created culture, and it's hard to argue against created culture... but the best argument against it is all the culture other teams were denied from not having one of these players up front.
We can't do anything about free agency starting when a player is 26 or 27, just entering his prime. If the NHL tried to increase free agencies, the player's association would be crossing the arms and pouting until this was changed back, complaining about all of the other things they had to "sacrifice" for the owners.
But let's look at a league where drafting is far more consistent: the NFL. Why? The players are drafted at 22 years of age. They're pretty much all done college by the time they're playing in the NFL. When an NFL team drafts a player in the first round, that player doesn't need to go to the minor leagues for two+ years of development before he eases into the starting line-up.
NHL is a different sport. There have been a lot of young players that made an immediate impact in the NHL. Crosby and Ovechkin, as rookies, were already tearing up the league. I don't have much doubt that McDavid is going to bring an immediate impact to whatever team gets him. That's why when you're drafting top 3 overall, you have a lot better chance of getting a guy that can come into your line-up and make an immediate impact.
But should the draft age be pushed up? Definitely. Not to 22, but to at least 20 years for the majority of players.
What you would end up with in a system like this is, like the NFL, the players drafted in the first round won't be a guessing game. An 18 year old isn't fully girthed and only genetics can tell how much they're going to fill out. You know a lot of what you need to know about a person's physique when they're matured to adulthood.
The teams stuck between 5th and 14th overall drafting won't get coin-flip players, but more what you would call 80%ers, where 80 percent of the players would be solid NHL players and can come into their line-ups right away. Heck, if they're 20, more of them would also be likely to turn into NHL first-liners, which is what those first fourteen picks should be (at least top 6 forwards/top 4 defense). As for goaltenders, you'll also get a far better read on what they're going to develop into.
So how do you implement a fix from the current system to the 20 year old system? And what do you do about the exceptional players who would make the NHL right away?
1) Shorten the draft to five rounds next year, then three rounds the year after, and increment six month differentials for four years. (Ie, the draft age, I believe, is September 16th, so you'd push it to March 16th in the next year, and then the year after, Sept 16th for 19 year olds, etc).
2) Increment the age instead by edit:six months every year while not changing the draft. This wouldn't affect the draft crop dramatically as it would for a much larger incrementation. This solution would take 4 years to apply.
You're obviously going to have exceptional players, so what you do is allow a handful of players to be eligible at the age of 18 every year, and set some criteria. For example: Leading respective league in points or goals scored. Or endorsed by top scouts. Then teams would have a choice between drafting an exceptional 18/19 year old, and drafting more of a sure thing at 20 years.
This would also do major things for both college hockey in the US development system as well as CHL hockey, though it wouldn't be that different.
To me, it's time for the NHL to do this a lot more intelligently. I've been complaining about the "margin system" for a long time. It's not fair that teams that try hard to get into the playoffs get stuck with coin-flip draft-picks while teams that supertank two years become one of the league's best teams in two years.