Tides Changing With Transfers in NCAA Hockey

For the elite-level players in the U.S. and Canada, and now even Europe, there is a fundamental decision most are presented with between the ages 16-18, and that is to play in the NCAA or the CHL.

Both are exciting options with their own set of upside and downsides, and at Neutral Zone, we have done our best through our education portal to educate players, parents, and advisors on both routes from an informed, unbiased perspective. One of those differences between the leagues is the trade versus the transfer model, and recently in the NCAA, the transfer model has taken on a new form.

In the CHL, similar to the NHL, a player can be traded at any time to another organization in the league. So a player who is a year away from age out could get moved to a playoff contender for a rookie or draft picks, for example. In most cases, the trade benefit both the teams but also the individual players themselves to give them better opportunities.

The difference in the CHL as opposed to the NCAA is that CHL coaches and general managers are the ones initiating the trades and the players themselves have little say in the process. In fact, a player cannot just leave the team and go play for another team; their rights are owned by the team who drafted or signed them. In the NCAA things are a bit different. Teams cannot trade or move players from one team to another. However, they also don’t own the player’s rights, so the player can transfer to another school on their own accord but it comes with its own set of circumstances. 

If a Division 1 player leaves their school to play Division 3, they can do so right away. However, if a player wants to leave a Division 1 program to play for another Division 1 program, they have to sit out a season. A steep price to pay to move programs, which was put in place to discourage players from moving from team to team every season. While players have been transferring schools throughout history the numbers are on the rise.

Why are more players transferring now than 5, 10, 20 years ago? There are several factors that are in play and it’s topic NCAA administrators are looking at.

Some are just the nature of the game; i.e. Coaching changes, playing time, better opportunities, etc. Other factors, however, have evolved such as junior hockey landscape. There’s the involvement of agents and advisors and the “me-first” mentality of the players. Most players who have transferred in the past 5 years are aged 18-20, which means they still have junior hockey eligibility. An example of this would be Dubuque in the USHL this past season; they had three players who were transferring from one NCAA D1 program to another and using that season as a gap year as they were all forced to sit out a season per NCAA rules.

Secondly, agent involvement cannot be understated. 20 years ago only a small percentage of NCAA D1 prospects had agents or advisors; that number has grown dramatically and now most D1 prospects, and even many D3 players, have agents/advisors. That isn’t to put the agent in a bad light; it’s simply to say before the player didn’t have much of an option to transfer as they’d have to call the other teams themselves and there was a lot of risk. Now they can have their agent make some “unofficial” phone calls to shop them around and see if teams are interested.

Lastly, the spike in NCAA players in the NHL has made the pathway more attainable for players and therefore it’s of higher and higher priority to the top prospects. The majority of prospects we interview after committing mention NHL trajectory as one of their main reasons for attending/committing to a school. Even 14 and 15-year-olds are saying that development to get to the NHL is a top priority. While that is a credit to the NCAA and the player pool; it’s also built in a bit of a “me-first” mentality where players are more concerned with themselves and their NHL trajectory and development then team success. Speaking with NCAA coaches this past season, much of the debate about the state of the game was trying to get first and second-round draft picks to buy into the team culture and not looking at college hockey as a development league for the NHL. 

While we have only touched on NCAA undergraduate transfers; it’s the graduate transfers that are really making noise this off-season in college hockey and is becoming a new norm for the league. A graduate transfer as a different set of rules than the undergraduate transfer, mainly that the prospect doesn’t have to sit out a year. Again with junior hockey now and players looking to go pro earlier, players are taking more classes and enrolling in school earlier in order to graduate after their junior year. The NCAA allows players who have technically graduated or have the credits to graduate to transfer to another NCAA D1 school without having to sit out a year. Last season NCAA D1 saw the most graduate transfers than ever before and this year will be even more when it’s all said and done. 

The rise of graduate transfers has already started to change the game and will only continue to going forward. There can be both positive and negative repercussions of this practice but we’ll just break down what is going on, who its impacting and how it is currently being used.

The first question is who is using this rule? The NCAA only allows a player to play for four seasons in the NCAA, so you cannot play four years at Boston University and then transfer to BC after graduating to play one more year. However, if you were injured or you had a redshirt and didn’t play, then you get five years to play four seasons. It also applies to players who are graduating after their junior year and have played three seasons for their current team. 

There is a “portal” where players can initiate putting themselves into where NCAA programs can see who is “available” for the graduate transfer. Admittedly, many of the players on the portal are low-level prospects who are being cut or getting very little playing time on their current teams. However, there are two types of players who are sought after; top players on lower level teams looking for a better opportunity or mid to bottom-line players on really strong teams looking for more ice time. Those two types are the ones that coaches are looking at and it works both ways. A program like Robert Morris, for example, will lose their top goalie and one of the best statistically in the NCAA to Clarkson for a better opportunity to play for an NCAA playoff contender. With that being said, Robert Morris filled the position with a graduate transfer from Ferris State; a former starter who got caught behind a young rising star netminder and transferred to Robert Morris for an opportunity to be a starter. So a perfect example of it working on both sides.

In some regards the graduate transfer brings equilibrium to NCAA hockey; it allows the lower tier players on top teams to move to a more fitting opportunity where they can get more playing time and have a role. It also allows late bloomers on lower market teams to play at the highest levels in their last year in NCAA before going pro. In other ways, it only furthers the gap in college hockey between the haves and have nots; where the top tier programs can cherry-pick from the lower programs and take their best players. As one coach said this off-season, “We were the only team recruiting (said player) and we developed him and he’s about to go into his prime season and he’ll play for a team who has only been interested in him the past 4 weeks.” Obviously, that was coming from a coach who lost a key contributor and it’s hard to dismiss their frustration. 

So while the CHL and NHL operate under trade agreements that are almost exclusively done through GM’s and team owners with little to no input from the players themselves; the NCAA operates with the players holding all the cards. We are seeing a rise in both undergraduate and graduate transfers at the NCAA D1 level. One of the biggest impacts this will have is coaches will now have to pay more attention to current NCAA players instead of putting all their energy on the youth hockey market for recruiting. The players/parents and agents will have to get a sense of which teams are utilizing the graduate transfers and what impact that is having on their current recruits. Are players getting de-committed so the school can use their scholarships for graduate transfers? Are they bumping players back a year to make room for graduate transfers? All of these considerations need to become part of the dialogue as it was too rare in previous years to even consider.

At the end of the day, whether it is graduate transfers or recruiting rule changes, the pathway to success in the NCAA is constantly changing and evolving. At Neutral Zone, we do not get caught up in the opinion space; we focus on outlining the facts, speaking with the parties involved and putting the information out to inform and educate the hockey community. The rise in transfers in NCAA is a newer phenomenon and from the data the past 3 years it is a trend that is rising and could continue to in the coming years. 

NOTE: After this season we are going to analyze the productivity of the graduate transfers and undergraduate transfers from 2015-2020 and see the overall effectiveness of this strategy but we need more sample size so waiting until the end of this season.