In this week’s debate, Star Tribune staff writers Joe Christensen and David La Vaque discuss whether NHL prospects who leave their high school hockey teams early wind up really helping themselves draft-wise.

Joe: Anybody with a passion for Minnesota high school hockey feels the sting when one of the state’s top players skips his junior or senior season, going the junior hockey route or leaving for the national development team. David, you’re the expert here. Hit me with some of the latest facts.

David: Well, the NHL’s final Central Scouting Rankings, released last week, offered a small but relevant sample size of 11 skaters that sheds light on this ongoing debate over the best development path for these players.

Three players saw their ranking improve from the January’s Midterm rankings. Four declined. Four others entered the final rankings after going unranked in January. These ranking are a gauge for who is chosen where in the June draft.

Those who believe in high school hockey as a viable development model can walk away with their argument intact. Chaska forward Rhett Pitlick jumped 41 spots. Mr. Hockey Award winner Bryce Brodzinski (pictured) improved by 28 spots. But sticking around, sleeping in one’s own bed and being “The Man” for their team isn’t always conducive to big gains in the eyes of scouts. Duluth East’s Ryder Donovan tumbled from No. 46 to No. 97. Prior Lake’s Jackson Jutting went up from 165 to 180.

Joe: What about those players who jump to the USHL? I know high school hockey advocates warn that leagues like that are a business, and players are serial numbers. When a player isn’t producing at the high school level, he might drop off the first line. In the USHL, he might be scratched, or traded. Both could be harmful to their development.

David: Those who believe an individual athlete can benefit from another path can point to defenseman Will Francis, who left Centennial for the USHL and sits at No. 75. Forward Bobby Brink traded a chance to repeat as a state champion with Minnetonka for the USHL and ranks No. 19. Where would they be had they stayed? Hard to know. But it’s certain that leaving didn’t hurt. The other side is Trevor Janicke, who went from No. 100 to No. 119.

High school hockey proponents must fight off the stigma that players remaining in high school aren’t stuck in some sort of developmental purgatory, while those who leave are on a so-called “fast track” to greater success. Here’s the reality: It remains a puck flip.

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