Commentary: NHL Draft Analysis

With college players going an unprecedented 1-2 in this year’s NHL draft, and a record seven being selected in the first round, many fans of the game celebrated the moment.

Is it parochial? Sure. Is it justified? Absolutely.

Stand up college hockey fans, and be proud. The sport you love has just gained a measure of recognition and respect unsurpassed in recent memory.

Of course, we’re not here to be cheerleaders. Beyond the hype and the “respect” issue, what does it really mean?

Is it the sign of a larger trend? Is it part of the cyclical nature of sports? Does it mean there are better players in college hockey today? Or are NHL general managers just finally realizing that many good players have existed in college hockey for a long time?

As with any similar situation, it’s a combination of many factors.

“It’s interesting because, who were the top two draft picks? College kids,” said St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl. “The college game does a good job of developing players. The college game does two things — it allows a young man to get an education at the same time that he’s developing his skills, and, two, it allows him to play a little bit longer so he’s older and more mature, mentally and physically.”

Of course, Dahl saying that is like preaching to the converted. But NHL people are saying it too, now.

For years, there was a large contingent of NHL general managers that shied away from college players. There are still some teams, like Calgary (which again took no college players) that seem to have a natural aversion to utilizing them. Just ask Martin St. Louis.

But more and more general managers are aware of the talent in college hockey. Helping that along has been the recent success of many college players in the NHL — players like Chris Drury, Jeff Halpern, Mike York, Bill Muckalt, Mark Parrish, and so on.

At the same time, better players are coming in, thanks in part to the publicity generated by the draft and those aforementioned players. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

“It speaks about the job being done at the college level,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “Kids can go to college and have a high-level experience that will prepare them. That’s been in question [in the past]. But more and more kids are being taken, and more and more are being taken high. That makes a statement from the pros.”

And, as Mazzoleni points out, there are more people in NHL management than ever before with college ties. They have become, consciously or sub-consciously, better advocates for college hockey (see sidebar). When you recognize that, perhaps it’s not hard to see why a lot has changed.

What was almost 100 percent the domain of Canadian major junior players just 16 years ago, the draft has become quite a melting pot, and all for the better of the sport as a whole.

College hockey started to gain prominence in the ’80s in the aftermath of the U.S. Olympic team’s win in Lake Placid. It tailed off in the early to mid ’90s, when Europeans started to dominate the scene. Now Americans and U.S. collegiate players have come back with a vengeance, to the further detriment of Canadian major junior players.

Perhaps NHL general managers are finally shying away from the ridiculous notion that their players are better off in a “more competitive” major junior environment. The arguments against college hockey were getting pretty tired: It’s not as physical, it’s too chippy, it’s too wide open, they don’t use the red line, they don’t play enough games … blah, blah, blah. It was repeated until it became a reflex, like reading Miranda rights.

But more than ever before, you hear just enough NHL people praise the benefits of the college game. For sure, there are still the majority who would rather see their players in the junior environment, but not so much as to completely dismiss college players.

It’s just impossible to overlook the success that many four-year college players have had anymore.

“I think it’s changed some,” said Flyers assistant general manager Paul Holmgren, a former player at Minnesota and an assistant coach for Team USA during the 1996 World Cup.

“Good players are good players. Do they play 80 games? No. But they play 35-40 and they get to practice more. It doesn’t bother me one way or another. Certain players are better off in junior, certain players are better off in college. In college, you’re practicing for three hours a day, you’re fine-tuning your skating, your puck-handling skills….”

No one questions whether basketball players have a problem adjusting to the NBA from a 35-game to an 82-game schedule. Or baseball players from 70-game college and 40-game high school schedules to the 140-plus-game grind of the minor and major leagues.

“When I look back … I played only one year [in college], but my skating improved … a lot,” says Holmgren. “When you’re playing 80 games, you might be on the third or fourth line, and you’re only playing 8-12 minutes per game.”

Dahl agreed that less is sometimes more, pointing to players like Steve Reinprecht of Wisconsin and Lee Goren of North Dakota as recent examples of guys who blossomed in the college environment, but may not have elsewhere.

“Look at the success of college players stepping into the NHL,” he said. “[Playing fewer games is] easier for the player, physically. Plus, they’re getting a more mature player out of college that is more able to step in and help.

“A lot of parents are viewing college hockey as a way to accomplish two goals — getting an education as well as playing a high level of competition.”

On the eve of the draft, the Mike Van Ryn arbitration decision threatened to bring all of this to a halt. Van Ryn, a former No. 1 draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, left Michigan after two seasons, went to play major junior, and then was declared a free agent by an arbitrator. If players could get away from their drafted team with that method, then NHL teams may be reluctant to draft college players.

“It sure becomes a viable possibility,” said Mazzoleni. “Education should be why you’re going, but for those of us who’ve been in this, it’s kind of crazy what kids do sometimes. It throws another viable option out there. You have to continue to recruit your own kids.

“If you’re going to draft a player in the first 1-4 rounds, it’s a major commitment. And now those kids have found a loophole.”

Why should we care? Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should be happy that players have found an avenue that gives them more financial freedom and independence. However, as a devotee of the sport, you can’t help but be frustrated if such a precedent sets back college hockey’s gains. And you’d like to think those players really aren’t gaining much by leaving school to escape their drafted team.

“It’s good for the kids, individually,” said Dahl. “If they want to increase their value, they can take that route. We always hope that loyalty is a two-way street. On the other hand, we understand the financial situation is so great that it’s going to create some hardships.”

As it turns out, NHL teams obviously didn’t shy away from drafting college players. In fact, the person most impacted by the Van Ryn decision, the Devils’ Lou Lamoriello, took college players with his first three picks.

And really, how much will change? The Van Ryn decision didn’t so much overturn an old policy than affirm rights that already existed. And why would most players bother leaving school for the CHL just to get away from their drafted team if they weren’t planning on leaving school anyway? How many players would have that much of a beef with the team that drafted them? Sure, becoming a free agent might be a nice way to start a bidding war, sort of what happens to many non-drafted college free agents who blossom while in school. But players are still restricted by the NHL’s rookie salary cap.

So, the panic that set in right after the decision announced seems unnecessary at this point.

“It could cause problems,” said Holmgren. “If you draft a player and he sees a depth problem within the organization, or doesn’t like the team, he can get out. But I don’t think you can worry about that.

“If he stays in school four years, you don’t have to make a decision on him. He’s developing for you for nothing.”

So the renewed recognition for the college game doesn’t seem to be going away.

All this isn’t lost on the Canadian fans, either. It bothers Canadians much more than it pleases Americans.

Picks No. 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 in this year’s draft were all from major junior teams, but then came a run of 13 picks where there was only one. So when Vancouver stepped up to announce the selection of Nathan Smith at No. 23, the crowd in Calgary roared its approval before Brian Burke could get the words “from the Western Hockey League” out of his mouth. Burke knew it, too, sensing their bewilderment and exasperation, and playing up to the crowd by emphasizing the words.

The cheer in the crowd was a lot larger for goalie Brent Krahn, who played in the WHL for the Calgary Hitmen, than it was for No. 2 pick Dany Heatley and No. 19 Krys Kolanos of Boston College, two guys who played Tier II hockey in Calgary.

All of which is a shame.

Canadians have every right to be just as parochial and proud of their local products as Americans are, but why the need to do so while bashing the U.S. and Europe? Must they boo the U.S., as Canadian fans did during a World Cup game in 1996 when the Americans played Russia?

It’s time for Canada to face fact: Its dominance is slipping. Yes, it still produces 60 percent of NHL players, but the top skill players are evenly spread out between Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Just look at the NHL Rookie of the Year finalists for the past few seasons.

And this is not a bad thing. Canada’s ability to produce top players isn’t slipping so much as the others are improving.

I have nothing against Canada and the major junior system. I think it’s a great system, and I think what makes hockey great is the amount of options available to players. No other sport has that many, and that varied, options available to a player — from Europe, to major juniors, to the United States Hockey League, to college, to independent minor league teams.

Instead of denigrating or condescending to the U.S. and European systems, all parties should realize there is something to be learned from all the different systems, and that all can co-exist.

“I don’t think the major junior guys can say that’s the only way to go and I don’t think college can say that’s the only way to go,” said Dahl.

College hockey has arrived for good. That’s something to be proud of.