Signing hockey recruits early is nothing new. Since 1990, the NCAA has set aside a week in November allowing hockey teams to ink-up the recruits who made early commitments.
At the time, the feeling was that the early signing period would benefit the lesser-known programs, giving them a chance tie up commitments from their recruiting “finds” before the big programs started sniffing around. Through the decade, teams have made quicker decisions on players, availing themselves of the period.
As a result, the number of early signings has grown at a steady rate. This season, for example, over 100 players signed National Letters of Intent during the early period. In comparison, last season, 80 players signed early; another 80 signed in 1998; 72 signed in 1997; 69 signed in 1996; 52 signed in 1995; and only 49 signed in 1994. All in all, scouting has moved from an in-season, to a summer activity.
Not only are more players committing to programs at the early signing period, but those committing are also doing so much earlier.
By NCAA rules, teams are only able to initiate contact with players on July 1 in the summer between the player’s junior and senior years of high school. Historically, that date had marked the start of the recruiting season. But prospective student-athletes may initiate contact on their own. This season, many of the top recruits made unofficial campus visits and committed even before the end of their junior years. Like dominos, these early choices caused a lot of the recruiting pieces to fall into place well before the November signing date.
Things moved particularly fast for the U.S. talent, as several key recruiting targets made verbal commitments last spring, breaking the logjam much earlier than in past years. When the dust settled in the fall, BU, UNH, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota had already wrapped up top U.S. talent like Ryan Whitney, Brian McConnell, Jim Slater, Sean Collins, Jason Bacashihua, Mike Erickson, Keith Ballard and Dwight Helminen.
Several of these players project to make an immediate impact next season. Whitney, a two-way defenseman, has been hailed by many to be a top five NHL draft pick, excelling during international tournaments. Ballard, fresh off a season with the U.S. National Program, displays skills that will return offense to Minnesota’s blueline. Brian McConnell, another preseason NHL first rounder, is a bit more raw, but equally sought out. Not far behind were the likes of Providence, Maine, Harvard, St. Lawrence and North Dakota.
As usual, coaches waited longer to review the Canadian talent, because many players make the move from midget hockey to the junior level at age 18. Compounding the difficulties was the absence of a dominating talent. Out west, for example, the Alberta Junior League (AJHL) lacked the big names from the past three years, when players such as Mike Comrie, Dany Heatley, Krys Kolanos and Connor James had established their bona fides early in their senior season, drawing early college suitors.
While Alberta lacks the top-end talent, this year it offers older, more experienced forwards who can make solid contributions. But it also means college coaches prefer to see them in action before commiting a scholarship.
The run-and-gun British Columbia League (BCHL) also broke the mold by offering a defenseman as its best prospect. The BCHL, producer of offensive players such as Paul Kariya, Brendan Morrison, Ryan Bayda, Shawn Horcoff, Chuck Kobasew and Jeremy Jackson, offered up Duncan Keith, a mobile defenseman in the Travis Roche mode. After being pursued by Denver, Maine, and BC, he ultimately settled on Michigan State.
In the Canadian plains, a 16-year old, Alex Leavitt, accelerated his schooling in order to graduate early, thereby jumping to the head of the Saskatchewan Junior League recruiting list. Out east, Ontario did not offer up a clear offensive dynamo like Jeff Farkas, Brian Gionta, Darren Haydar or Mike Cammalleri. It does, however, offer up plenty of talent of the likes of St. Lawrence’s Jimmy Ball and Cornell’s Mike Knoepfli.
Reviewing the list of current recruits, keep in mind the following warning: Hockey players blossom at different ages, so beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. For every blue chip Paul Kariya, there is the unheralded Jean-Yves Roy. One need not look any further than last year’s seniors. In March, 1996, The Hockey News ran a profile of its “Top 10” college recruits. They were:
- Jeff Farkas, Boston College
- Ben Clymer, Minnesota
- Tom Poti, Boston University
- Peter Ratchuk, Bowling Green
- Mike Mottau, Boston College
- Dave Spehar, Minnesota
- Dan Peters, Colorado
- Fernando Pisani, Providence
- Brad Defauw, North Dakota
- Joe Dusbabek, Notre Dame
Last spring, four years later, Mottau earned the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best performer, edging out The Hockey News’ number one selection Jeff Farkas. However, three picks, Ben Clymer, Peter Ratchuk and Tom Poti, quit school for the pro game, while others went on to solid, but not spectacular careers. Meanwhile, unsung recruits like Wisconsin’s Steve Reinprecht, Colgate’s Andy MacDonald, North Dakota’s Jeff Panzer and RPI’s Joel Laing, earned Hobey nominations.
Lastly, the player comments that follow are based largely on reputation and word-of-mouth, whereas recruiters are trained to find the hidden gems. Using the “reputation” standard, players like Jason Krog and Rejean Stringer would have garnered only brief mention in an article like this.
In short, it is somewhat presumptuous to announce the winners in the recruiting race when you never know how players will develop in college, so don’t be surprised to see a number of unsung players surpass those labeled today as “blue chip” recruits.
Ultimately, the results of this November’s choices will not be known until 2003 at the earliest.
(Chris Heisenberg operates the ultimate independent web site on recruiting, chronicling the progress of each school’s incoming class).