The number of NCAA players in the NHL has grown dramatically over the past 25 years, from a small minority to nearly one-third of the league. There are several factors contributing to this trend: the increase in NCAA team budgets for recruiting, facilities and high profile coaches; the rise in American born players being drafted; and most importantly, the collective bargaining agreement. This caps rookie salaries and eliminates the bidding war for free agents. These undrafted free agents account for over 25% of all college hockey players playing in the NHL.
That being said, while the growth has helped college hockey coaches be more competitive with the CHL over the top North American prospects, it has also led to a higher number of early departures (players who leave school before their senior year to sign a pro contract).
What is the impact?
Schools like North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Boston University and Boston College, to name a few, have large scouting budgets, first class facilities, high profile coaches and they all go after the highest rated prospects. However, these prospects include first round NHL draft picks like Jack Eichel (BU), Noah Hanafin (BC), Zach Werenski (UM), who were one or two-year college players before going pro. Therefore, what has happened in college hockey are the highest budget teams (for the most part) are targeting younger, higher-profile players knowing many of them will not graduate; while the lower budget programs are targeting older, more experienced junior players who are most likely four-year college players. This, in many ways, has led to the great parity in the sport where, for example, Yale and Union College have won National Championships in recent years with far fewer high-profile players than say a Boston College or Michigan. This was also clearly on display in the national title game when looking at the Quinnipiac vs. North Dakota. North Dakota was one of the five youngest teams in the country. To make things even more evident, we’ll look at each team’s top position players, their age, where they were drafted, etc.
|F||Travis St. Denis||23||Undrafted|
|D||Devon Toews||22||4th Rnd/108 Overall|
|D||Connor Clifton||20||5th Rnd/ 133 Overall|
|F||Brock Boeser||19||1st Rnd/ 23 Overall|
|F||Nick Schmaltz||20||1st Rnd/ 20 Overall|
|D||Tucker Poolman||22||5th Rnd/ 127 Overall|
This chart helps, in some part, to explain recent trends in college hockey. Older teams have less draft picks, and certainly less high profile draft picks, and the “best” pro prospects are likely the youngest players on a team because high profile prospects rarely stay all four years. Also, you see quite a difference in age as North Dakota’s top five players are between 19 and 22 years of age while Quinnipiac’s top five are between 20 and 24. That may not seem like a big difference, but it is.
The early departures also play a significant role in the recruiting process, not only in terms of coaches filling team needs, but it also in terms of impacting the overall recruiting culture. There are approximately 50 players in the US and Canada who are unsure if they are going to college next year, or the following year, because they are waiting to hear what players may leave early for the NHL and what impacts these potential departures have on scholarships. This trickles down to the USHL, for example, where teams there also have to make decisions throughout the next few months as to who is coming back, and who is matriculating to college hockey.
We will take our first look at the 35 early departures this year (so far) and rank which teams were impacted the most from 1 (being hit the hardest) to 22. Of the 35 players who have left early there are 8 goalies, 10 defenseman and 17 forwards. In looking at their draft selection this group of 35 had the following distribution: First Round (3), Second Round (3), Third Round (4), Fourth Round (7), Fifth Round (2), Sixth Round (2), Seventh Round (0) and Undrafted Free Agents (14).
1.Michigan (5): Kyle Connor, Fr., F (1st Rnd/17 Overall-Winnipeg Jets), Zach Werenski, So., D (1st Rnd/8 Overall – Columbus Blue Jackets), J.T. Compher, Jr., F (2nd Rnd/35 Overall-Colorado Avalanche) Tyler Motte, Jr., F (4th Rnd/121 Overall), Michael Downing, Jr., D (4th Rnd/97 Overall). Michigan loses its top four scorers due to early departures. Kyle Connor was the leading scorer in the country with a 35-36-71 line in 38 games and his linemates Compher and Motte combined for the best line (the “CCM Line”) in college hockey (in a long time). Between the three of them they scored a total of 83 goals or roughly 46% of the teams total scoring. Werenski was arguably the best defenseman in college hockey this season and the second leading scorer among defenders (and you could make an argument he was last year as well). Downing has been a bit unnoticed this season after being in the shadow of these first round draft picks, but he’s had a very strong year as well.
Recruit Impact: Kyle Connor had one of the most impactful freshman seasons in the history of college hockey, and Werenski probably could have made an NHL lineup this season. You cannot replace players like that, but Michigan has done a nice job recruiting in their backyard by committing 5 NTDP U18 players for next season. Griffin Luce and Luke Martin are both big, strong, NHL type defenseman, and the three NTDP forward recruits – James Sanchez, William Lockwood and Nick Pastujov, all bring a different element to the offense. Collectively it is a really strong recruiting class, but it’s just shy of making up for what it lost in early departures. They haven’t yet been able to replace the offensive element they lose on their blue line.
Watch out for: Nicholas Boka, Fr., D (6th Rnd/Minnesota Wild) – Not probable he leaves because he is so young and in a good situation at Michigan, and probably not ready to make the jump to the NHL, despite having a lot of talent and showing really well for an 18-year-old in the Big 10.
2.Boston College (5): Steve Santini, Jr., D (2nd Rnd/42 Overall-New Jersey Devils), Miles Wood, Fr., F (4th Rnd/100 Overall-New Jersey Devils), Alex Tuch, So., F (1st Rnd/18 Overall), Adam Gilmour, Jr., F (4th Rnd/98 Overall-Minnesota Wild), Thatcher Demko, Jr., G (2nd Rnd/36 Overall- Vancouver Canucks). Miles Wood, Alex Tuch and Adam Gilmour were BC’s three best power wingers combining for 40 goals and 55 assists. They all add mix of size and speed to the position and were tough to play against. With those guys gone, BC’s size upfront drops dramatically. On the backend, Santini was a top 4 defenseman and played in every situation. The biggest loss however is between the pipes in Thatcher Demko, the Mike Richter award winner for the league’s best goalie, as well as a finalist for the Hobey Baker. He’s been a three-year starter at BC, this past year being his best, finishing his junior season with a 1.88 GAA and .935 SV%.
Recruit Impact: Early departures have really hurt this club and not at just one position like many teams below, but across the board in all three position groups. The good news is that the team doesn’t lose much to graduation, and also has a strong recruiting class coming in. Joseph Woll headlines the class; arguably the best 18-year-old goalie in the country, Woll has been a split-timer on the US NTDP U18 team. He lacks experience, but has the talent to come in and play right away. Up front, they won’t replace the guys leaving, but David Cotton and Graham McPhee will be able to contribute offensively as freshman and Zach Walker could help fill some of that two-way, power forward presence they lose. On the back end they have a balance of offensive defenseman in Connor Moore and Luke McInnis (both originally from NE Prep School and currently playing in the USHL) and one of the top stay at home defenders in the country in Michael Campoli. BC, as always, doesn’t rebuild, they reload, but 2016-17 will likely have some growing pains, especially up front as the team loses a lot of size and physicality.
Watch out for: Colin White, Fr., F (1st Rnd/21 Overall-Ottawa Senators) – After a strong freshman campaign the former first round draft pick could get pressure to sign early, especially after the struggles Ottawa had this season. Zach Sanford, So., F (2nd Rnd/61 Overall-Washington Capitals) – With the big improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore year, he could be coveted by Washington this summer especially with his pro-ready build. Washington is already deep up front as they make a playoff push, but a lot could change in the off-season. Ian McCoshen (2nd Rnd/31 Overall-Florida Panthers) has been a key blue liner for the Eagles for three years and got a letter this past season. He’s good enough to make the jump at least to the AHL, and potentially the NHL, but a lot will depend on where Florida is in their roster construction this summer.
3. Quinnipiac (2): David Toews, Jr., D (4th Rnd/108 Overall- NY Islanders), Sam Anas, Jr., F (Undrafted-Minnesota Wild). With these early departures Quinnipiac loses its best forward and its best defenseman. They also lose their 3-year starting goalie to graduation.
Recruit Impact: Quinnipiac is coming off a national title bid, but loses its three best players, one to graduation and two to early departures. They have a blue chip goalie recruit in Andrew Shortridge, but Anas and Toews won’t be replaced in 2016-17. On defense, former UVM commit Joe O’Connor and Latvian big man Karlis Cukste could help fill both the offensive and defensive hole that Toews leaves behind. Offensively, Nick Jermain out of the BCHL looks to be their best chance at an immediate impact point producer but 50 points is highly unlikely.
4. Minnesota (3): Nick Seeler, Jr., D (5th Rnd/131 Overall – Minnesota Wild), Michael Brodzinski, Jr., D (5th Rnd/141 Overall-San Jose Sharks) & Hudson Fasching, Jr., F (4th Rnd/118 Overall – Buffalo Sabres). Fasching was originally drafted by LA Kings in 2013. Fasching was the team’s second leading scorer and their best power forward. Brodzinski was leading scoring defenseman and Seeler, a quality big-bodied defensive defenseman.
Recruit Impact: As of today, Minnesota has two outstanding defensemen in Ryan Zuhlsdorf (5th Rnd/150 Overall) and Ryan Lindgren. Although they lack experience and Lindgren is only 17, these two may be an upgrade for Minnesota’s blue line from what they lost. They don’t graduate any defenseman so as long as nobody else signs, the Gophers are looking good for 2016-17. Fasching was the team’s second leading scorer and also brought an element of toughness and power. They lose two senior forwards – and Fasching, and they had three lined up to come this year, but Rem Pitlick, the leading scorer in the USHL, has publicly announced he will return to Muskegon next season. They’ll likely need to add at least one more forward to the class.
Watch out for: Thomas Novak, Fr., F (3rd Rnd/85 Overall-Nashville Predators) Not highly likely to depart as the freshman could use more time to develop, but he had a strong first season and was Nashville’s third rounder last year. Jack Glover, So., D (3rd Rnd/69 Overall-Winnipeg Jets) Another stretch to think Winnipeg, who has a loaded group of young talent in their system, would have Glover leave school early when he’s still got areas of his game to improve before joining the pro ranks.
5. Yale (1): Alex Lyon, Jr., G (Undrafted-Philadelphia Flyers) A finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the best goalie in college hockey, Lyon led Yale with a 1.64 GAA and a .936 SV%. He has been the backbone of the Bulldogs for all three seasons he’s been there. Fun fact: He started over Thatcher Demko when they played together for the Omaha Lancers in 2011-12.
Recruit Impact: Players like Lyon don’t come around often, and when they sign early, it leaves a ripple effect for the whole program. They have two returners who collectively have seen very little action, and will bring in Corbin Kaczperski out of the NAHL who has shown a ton of improvement this season and looks poised to go in and battle for early ice time. This position could go from their biggest strength to their biggest weakness.
6. North Dakota (2): Troy Stecher, Jr., D (Undrafted-Vancouver Canucks), Keaton Thompson (3rd Rnd/87 Overall-Anaheim Ducks) The leading scoring defenseman and fourth overall on the team, Stecher ran the powerplay, played on the penalty kill, and was their top defenseman for most of the year. Thompson was a strong, two-way defenseman who also played special teams and was a top four defender.
Recruit Impact: North Dakota has a very strong and deep recruiting class for 2016, and defense was certainly a priority as they have potentially five coming in next season. Gabe Best and Colton Poolman (younger brother of ND defenseman Tucker Poolman) are two of the best defenseman in the BCHL, and they’ll be joined by Matt Kiersted, Christian Evers and Casey Johnson from the USHL. Poolman, Best, Kiersted and Evans are all top notch recruits that can play two-way hockey and collectively replace what has left. If not in 2016, certainly in the coming years. Also note the graduation of Derek Caggiula, who isn’t an early graduation but leaves big shoes to fill up front. However, the Sioux have three of the best available forwards in the class of 2016 led by a pair of forwards off the Penticton Vees (BCHL) roster in Tyson Jost, projected first round NHL Draft pick, and Nicholas Jones. They also bring in one of the leading scorers in the USHL in Norwegian Ludvig Hoff.
Watch out for: Brock Boeser, Fr., F (1st Rnd/23 Overall-Vancouver Canucks) One of the fastest, most dynamic, and skilled players in college hockey in the 2015-2016 season, and was just 19 years old during it. He led North Dakota with 60 points on the season, and helped them capture the national championship. Nick Schmaltz, So., F (1st Rnd/20 Overall) A first line forward coming off a really impressive sophomore year where he nearly doubled his production from the prior season.
7. St. Cloud State (1): Charlie Lindgren, Jr., G (Undrafted- Montreal Canadiens) –Lindgren has been the starter at St. Cloud for the past two seasons and is one of the better goalies in the country. Last season he played in 40 games and recorded a 2.13 GAA and a .925 SV%.
Recruit Impact: It would be a monumental task to replace the production of Lindgren, but St. Cloud has at least one – and possibly two – talented goalies coming in next season who could fight for starters time as freshman David Zevnik, the team’s only returning goalie, saw no action last year in a game. Both goalie recruits come from the BCHL. Zach Driscoll is one of the top 1997 goalies in junior hockey, but may return for another season in the BCHL, and Jeff Smith is a big, veteran junior goalie out of Powell River where he had the best season of his young career. This doesn’t fill the hole that was left, but it sets the tone for a strong future at that position.
8. Minnesota Duluth (1): Kasimir Kaskisuo, So., G (Undrafted- Toronto Maple Leafs) Duluth’s starting goalie for the past two years, he posted a 1.92 GAA and .923 SV% over 39 games. He was one of the best goaltenders in the country this season.
Recruit Impact: Duluth returns only one goalie next season and he was a freshman who got no game experience this season. Fortunately for them, they’re bringing in in two 20 year-old goalies, both named Hunter. Hunter Miska is one of the top goalies in the USHL for Dubuque, and Hunter Shepard is one of the top goalies in the NAHL for Bismarck. The future looks bright at the goaltending position, but the 2016-2017 season could feature some real growing pains with 3 goalies collectively having played 0 college hockey games.
9. New Hampshire (1): Andrew Poturalski, So., F (Undrafted-Carolina Hurricanes) – Their best player and leading scorer; First team All-American.
Recruit Impact: UNH has the numbers to replace Poturalski with potentially 7 forwards in this class (likely less when it’s all said and done), but none of them look like 20+ scorers as freshman. They have a handful of forwards who will have a chance to jump right in and contribute early (Blackburn, Fregona, Grasso, Kelleher, van Reimsdyk) but Poturalski won’t be replaced in 2016-2017.
10. Nebraska-Omaha (1): Jake Guentzel, Jr., F (3rd Rnd/77 Overall-Pittsburgh Penguins) – The Mavericks top player and leading point getter with a 19-27-46 line in 35 games.
Recruit Impact: Head Coach Dean Blais fired his two assistants at the end of the season, and loses his top returner. Luckily, other than Guentzel, they lose very little upfront by means of offensive production and have 3 forwards coming in (so far) in proven USHLer Zach Jordan, and two younger prospects in Zach Court from the BCHL and Casey Dornbach from Minnesota HS. They don’t replace the hole left by Guentzel, but Jordan is an immediate impact player and the other two could develop into top 6 forwards down the road.
Watch out for: Austin Ortega, Jr., F (Undrafted) It would be rare for a 5’8” forward going into his senior year to leave early, but with the recent success of smaller guys like Kane and Gaudreau in the NHL, Ortega could gain some free agent interest this summer. UNO fans probably shouldn’t lose sleep over it, but his departure is also certainly not out of the question.
11. Providence (1): Nick Ellis, Jr., G (Undrafted-Edmonton Oilers) – After backing up Jon Gillies the past two seasons, Ellis finally got his chance to start and had an excellent year playing in 36 contests with a 1.80 GAA and .936 SV%. This was a bit of a surprise as he’s a 6’1” goalie who was undrafted, with only one year of production at the college level. Gillies, who ended up getting hurt early in the season in the AHL, was in a different position last year when leaving early as he was a 3rd round draft pick, 3-year starter at Providence, 3x All American, great size at 6’6”, and was coming off a National Championship.
Recruit Impact: Freshman Hayden Hawkey played sparingly this season, but he’s a quality prospect and a 6th round pick by Montreal Canadians. This departure will likely force their hand to get a capable goalie in this recruiting class, and do it quickly.
Watch out for: Jake Walman, So., D (3rd Rnd/82 Overall-St. Louis Blues) Providence’s best player who was injured at the end of the season, but still managed to earn All-American Honors. He’s as talented an offensive defenseman as there is in college hockey. His recovery from injury and St. Louis’ off-season moves will be the main factor in whether he goes or stays.
12. Michigan State (1): Mackenzie MacEachern, Jr., F (3rd Rnd/67 Overall-St. Louis Blues) MacEachern was the team’s leading scorer despite a 14-16-30 line in 37 games.
Recruit Impact: MacEachern’s departure is tough because Michigan State has been through a lot of tough times, especially when it comes to retaining talent. However, Spartan fans can be assured that they have a lot of exciting recruits coming in to take his place. The class is led by NTDP forward Patrick Khodorenko, but there are also several immediate impact guys in Logan Lambdin, Sam Saliba, Taro Hirose and Noah Lalonde. The blue line is arguably even more impressive. This is a class that will change the trajectory of the program and although MacEachern will be missed, they appear to have the pieces to replace him.
13. Denver (1): Denton Heinen, So., F (4th Rnd/116 Overall-Boston Bruins) Heinen was Denver’s leading scorer this past season with a 20-28-48 line in 41 games.
Recruit Impact: The loss of Heinen doesn’t look like it will be filled in 2016-17 from the recruiting class, despite some talent up front coming to Denver like Liam Finlay out of the BCHL. That hole will need to be filled primarily by current players, which is possible as Denver doesn’t lose a ton to graduation.
14. RPI (1): Jason Kasdorf, Jr., G (6th Rnd/157 Overall-Buffalo Sabres) Starting goalie for RPI for three of the last four seasons (he was injured in his sophomore year and was eligible for red-shirt). Originally drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2011.
Recruit Impact: Kasdorf’s departure was anticipated and therefore RPI stocked up with a heralded goalie recruit out of the BCHL in Chase Perry (Red Wings Draft Pick). They will likely take a step back at the goalie position for the near term, but there’s no doubt Perry has the potential to be a starter at the D1 level.
15. Maine (1): Dan Renouf, Jr., D (Undrafted-Detroit Red Wings) – Renouf was a big, two-way defenseman who played a lot of minutes for Maine as their top defenseman.
Recruit Impact: Next year’s class brings in two good-sized defensemen Cam Spicer and Pat Holway (Red Wings draft pick), but neither are powerplay type’s so Maine’s PP unit may still have holes to fill. They lose three defenders and are only bringing in two, but keep in mind they had nine on the roster last year, four of which were freshman.
16. Minnesota State (1): Casey Nelson, Jr., D (Undrafted- Buffalo Sabres) – The leading scoring defenseman and fourth overall on the team. He leaves after his junior year, but he’s a 23-year old undrafted free agent.
Recruit Impact: Anytime a team loses a first line powerplay defenseman it’s difficult, but they have three veteran junior defenders coming in next season in Michael Bigelbach, Edwin Hookenson and Ian Scheid. Hookenson is the best of the three with the puck, but they are all solid defensively and will add a good mix of size and athleticism to the blue line. A definite loss, but not irreplaceable.
17. Canisius (1): Shane Conacher, Jr., F (Undrafted-Toronto Marlies – AHL) Conacher was the leading scorer for Canisius with a 20-26-46 line in 39 games as a junior.
Recruit Impact: Canisius looks to be bringing in a big class this season and some of their forwards will be looked upon to step in and play key roles right away, including Matthew Hoover and Nick Hutchison from the BCHL, and Casey Jerry from the NAHL. While Conacher won’t be replaced in the short term, Hoover is a quality recruit who could take his place down the line.
18. Penn State (1): Eamon McAdam, Jr.,G (3rd Rnd/70 Overall-NY Islanders) – The Nittany Lions’ split-time goalie who played half the contests this season with an impressive 2.98 GAA and .913 SV%.
Recruit Impact: Penn State has one of the premier ’96 goalies in the country coming in next season in Lincoln Star’s Peyton Jones. That being said, the team loses their two starters and now face a scenario of a talented freshman (in Jones) competing for a spot with an inexperienced sophomore. Wouldn’t be surprised if they look to add one more goalie to this class after McAdam’s departure.
19. Ferris State (1): Kyle Schempp, Jr., F (6th Rnd/155 Overall) – Schempp was the captain and a top six forward for Ferris State, and ended the season fourth on the team in points.
Recruit Impact: Ferris State is bringing in a host of forwards, but none at the caliber of Schempp, at least not immediately. The talent in their recruiting class has largely been on the blue line and in net with Joe Rutkowski (USHL) and Justin Kapelmaster (NAHL).
20. Mercyhurst (1): Adam Carlson, Fr., G (Undrafted-Washington Capitals) – Carlson is a great success story after being cut from his high school team in Edina (MN), and then going from an NAHL goalie, to Mercyhurst for half a season as a split-time goalie, to an NHL contract. He was the better of the two goalies who played, but not significantly.
Recruit Impact: It’s rare to see a one and done with a 21-year old freshman, especially at Mercyhurst, but despite losing their top net minder, they do bring back Brandon Wildung. He was a sophomore this past season and actually played more games than Carlson. That being said, they have no goalies coming in next year, and could use more depth at the position. Look for a late pick up in the coming months.
21. Lake Superior (2): Matt Johnson, Jr., F (Undrafted-Greenville Swamp Rabbits – ECHL), Alex Globke, Jr., F (Undrafted-Grand Rapids – AHL). Both Johnson and Globke are big bodied, depth forwards who play bottom six roles. They would have been nice to have back for leadership and experience, but they are both limited offensively.
Recruit Impact: There is little impact lost on the stat sheet, but there could be a void left in the locker room. There two top forward recruits, Brayden Gelsinger and Luke Morgan, should be able to have more impact in their freshman year than the two early departures would have had.
22. St. Lawrence (1): Christian Horn, Jr., F (Undrafted-Pensacola -SPHL) A solid bottom pair defenseman who was a transfer student from the University of Minnesota.
Recruit Impact: Horn is a depth defenseman who is the least of St. Lawrence’s concerns. The team loses its Head Coach and Assistant Coach (who worked with the goalies). Their recruiting has been at a standstill since the coaching losses were announced and they look for their next head coach. It will be interesting to see who stays with the class and who starts looking at other programs.
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images