US College Hockey: Ever-Growing Force in Player Development?

While browsing around ESPN.com I ran across this article on the signings of two Michigan State hockey players to play professionally (somewhere).

And that got me to thinking — it seems a LOT more NHL players are coming out of the US collegiate ranks nowadays. Is the level that much better than it used to be, or are they just being scouted better? What gives? Or are we just noticing it more now? And is US Collegiate hockey in the same danger as NCAA Hoops and football are?So I did some research. Just a smidgen. Not exactly the most-scientific method mind you, but better than making it up on the fly. I looked at the 2002 Entry Draft.

Three of the Top 11 picks in 2002 were US Collegiate products — #5 Ryan Whitney (BU), #10 Eric Nystrom (Mich), and #11 Keith Ballard (Minn). Also taken in the first round at #30 was Jim Slater (MSU). Not huge numbers, but not bad at all considering you have European players and Canandian Junior players in there as well, that’s a large pool…

The second round also saw picks hailing from Notre Dame, more Michigan State, and more Minnesota.

Now the NHL drafts YOUNG — the NHL Entry Draft is similar to basbeall’s in that you’ve never heard of most these kids and may never hear from them again, simply because they are so young…

However if one peruses the list of current NHL rosters, one can’t help but notice the number of US NCAA Hockey products. I could rattle off a ton right now — Brian Smolinski, Rod Brind’amour, Mike Grier, Anson Carter, Mike York, John Madden, Ryan Miller, Paul & Steve Kariya, just off the top of my head… (I’m a CCHA guy so my list is loaded with those, I know)…

Now to be honest most these guys in the first and second round are locks to be playing in the NHL — it may take a year or two at most to develop them and get them up to speed but you WILL be seeing all of them at an NHL game near you soon. They’re not really gambles like some of the junior and European players…

HOWEVER, how many of these guys actually finish their eligibility? Most of these guys are drafted as freshmen or sophomores and at most only end up playing one more year before bolting.

The one thing I HAVE noticed over the last decade or so though is that the actual caliber and pace of collegiate games seems to have remained the same (possibly because of guys leaving early?). The games are still just as physical, manic, and sometimes disorienting to watch as they ever have been (that’s half the fun though). I don’t see this year’s Michigan team doing anything better or different than the MSU and Lake Superior State teams of a decade ago, and from what I have caught of collegiate hockey on the east coast it seems the flow is the same there as well… maybe where the game could have evolved and stepped up in caliber the guys are just leaving earlier instead, so it just looks the same?

Or more to the point, is the NHL beginning to cannibalize the NCAA ranks more like the NBA and NFL have done in the past decade?

The one other trend I do notice though is that the US Collegiate players seem to have a higher success rate in the NHL than their European counterparts who are usually drafted just as young. They tend to come up through the farms quicker, or if not that then grow into their roles much quicker in the NHL. Could be style of play, could be sheer level and caliber of competition, could be coaching… I don’t know…

To be honest there isn’t a hard-fought point in all this that I’m trying to make. However, given that it’s time for the this year’s Frozen Four, it does seem appropriate to give some props to NCAA hockey finally and some chit-chat about why it seems to work so well and/or what it does right. Or heck, if you want, go ahead and argue which school/conference is the best. Just give the college kids some credit!…


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