College hockey will get some additional notoriety in this year’s draft, thanks to the likely early selection of Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley and Boston University’s Rick DiPietro.
Since its inception in 1969, Michigan State’s Joe Murphy (1986) is the only college player to be selected No. 1 overall in the NHL Draft. That fell near the beginning of college hockey’s last golden age, 1985-92, when the effects of the U.S. win in the 1980 Olympics first started to be felt.
There has also only been one other occasion where two college players were taken in the first five picks. That came in 1991, when Boston University’s Scott Lachance went No. 4 and Michigan’s Aaron Ward was taken No. 5.
While Joe Murphy was not American — and neither is Heatley — the college game was gaining recognition, and a number of Americans were taking advantage too. In that eight-year span, 24 college players were drafted in the first round, including some who would go on to help the U.S. capture the 1996 World Cup: Bill Guerin, Bryan Smolinski, Keith Tkachuk and Brian Rolston.
Remarkably, it was not until 1979 that any U.S. college player was taken in the first round. That was the realm of Canadian Major Junior players to near 100 percent exclusivity until Minnesota’s Mike Ramsey was taken No. 11 by Buffalo. Before 1979, college players started to sprinkle into the second round, starting with Denver’s Bruce Affleck in 1974, who was taken one pick ahead of future Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier.
There were no No. 1 college picks in 1980, then came a four-year stretch of just one each: North Dakota’s James Patrick (9), Wisconsin’s Pat Flatley (21), New Hampshire’s Norm Lacombe (10) and BU’s David Quinn (13).
Two years later, however, the college game busted out with five first-round picks, a record that still stands. In addition to Murphy there were four Hockey East products in that conference’s first year of existence. Included were Boston College’s Brian Leetch (9) and Craig Janney (13), BU’s Scott Young, and Providence’s Tom Fitzgerald (17).
Three was a fairly typical number of first-round picks for the next half-decade, though in 1989, all three were taken in the Top 10, the only time that has happened. They were BC’s Bill Guerin (5), Minnesota’s Doug Zmolek (7) and North Dakota’s Jason Herter (9).
Had the draft been at today’s size, the 1989 draft would have equaled 1986 in the selection of college players. Cornell’s Kent Manderville and Dan Ratushny were early-second-round selections at No. 24 and 25, respectively. The same could be said for the next season, too, when Michigan State’s Michael Stewart (13), Tkachuk (19) and Smolinski (21) went in the first round, while Cornell’s Ryan Hughes (22) and Michigan’s David Harlock (24) went early in the second.
1991 equaled 1989 for productivity with three players going in the Top 11, including the aforementioned Lachance and Ward, plus Lake Superior’s Brian Rolston (11). In 1992, three more players were taken in the first round, Michigan’s Ryan Sittler (7), Providence’s Joe Hulbig (13) and Maine’s Peter Ferraro (24).
Then the well ran dry.
Whether it be cyclical, or a variety of other factors, college hockey produced just seven first-round picks in a six-year span from 1993-1998. In 1997 and 1995, there was a complete shutout.
But, again, for a variety of factors, college hockey seems to be reaching another golden era. In recent years, a number of free agents have made a significant impact in the NHL, and not since the mid-’80s have those free agents demanded such a high price tag. It has started to show up in the draft now as well.
Last year, college hockey earned three first-round picks for just the second time since 1992 when Michigan’s Jeff Jillson (14), Wisconsin’s David Tanabe (16) and Maine’s Barrett Heisten (20) were chosen. This year, Heatley and DiPietro are locks to go high, while Minnesota’s Jeff Taffe is likely to go in the first round too. (See Jim Connelly’s full draft preview)
DiPietro will most certainly make history in another way, too. While college hockey has produced a tremendous amount of high-quality free agent goalies, only one has been taken in the first round of the NHL draft: Michigan State’s Jason Muzzatti (21) in 1988. DiPietro will most certainly be taken well before then.
In the rare chance DiPietro is chosen No. 1, he would make a whole lot of history. He’d be the highest goalie ever selected (Roberto Luongo was taken No. 4 by the Islanders in 1997), only the second college player taken No. 1, just the fourth American taken No. 1 overall, and first American-born college player taken No. 1.
Other Americans taken with the first pick in the draft have been Bryan Berard (1995), Mike Modano (1988) and Brian Lawton (1983), none of whom went to college.