Trevor Lewis, the crown jewel of the Michigan hockey team’s incoming 2006-07 freshman class, promptly ended his Wolverine career before it even started.
On Friday afternoon the Murray, Utah, native signed with the Los Angeles Kings after he was selected as the team’s first round draft choice (No. 17 overall) in the NHL Entry draft on June 24.
Michigan is no stranger to players leaving early, but unlike last year when former players Jeff Tambellini and Al Montoya bolted for the NHL before their senior seasons, Lewis is attempting to make a jump to the professional ranks without ever skating for the Wolverines.
Even though this appears to be a major blow to the program, Michigan coach Red Berenson doesn’t appear to be phased by the sudden loss of such a highly touted recruit.
“This is not a one-player program,” Berenson said. “We’ve had to deal with this sort of thing in the past. Now, we’re very disappointed that Trevor Lewis decided to turn pro, and I’m very disappointed in the L.A. Kings for thinking that for whatever reason, they would sign him and not let him develop at Michigan. But it’s not going to devastate our program … The person that is missing out on everything is Trevor Lewis. Our team is still going to be a good team.”
Even though Berenson can’t discuss particular recruits during the summer, he did acknowledge that there are players out there who remain unsigned. He did not rule out the possibility that another player would be brought in to replace Lewis.
One player that has been looked at by Michigan is Patrick Kane, a forward for the U.S. National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor. Kane had expressed interest in the Wolverines before, but he wouldn’t be able to graduate from high school before the season begins. The earliest possible time Kane could join the team is mid-season. Still, Berenson is confident in the team’s depth and doesn’t feel that the Wolverines have been caught short handed.
But the Lewis signing also brings to light a situation other than just losing a top recruit, a situation that college coaches like Berenson hadn’t dealt with in the past — the possibility of losing a player to the NHL before they play a game of college hockey.
Just a year following the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, a rash of draft picks are being signed as early as possible — a low-risk, high-reward move if a team only pays a player the entry level salary at signing.
With the exception of the few teams in a given draft who pick up a special player like a Sidney Crosby or a Wayne Gretzky — players who could compete in the NHL younger than age 20 — teams aren’t expecting immediate help from their draft picks at the pro level, even though the teams are signing them early. Berenson finds this new trend alarming and not in the best interest of the player.
“I think (the Kings) took advantage of a kid who wasn’t getting good advice and signed him so that they own him, and they can do whatever they want,” Berenson said.
In his 26 years of coaching at Michigan, Berenson has seen NHL general managers promise immediate playing time to players, only to see those promises go unfulfilled. Unlike at Michigan, Berenson says that NHL teams are not concerned with whether a player has a college education to fall back on if his hockey career is cut short, either by injury or if the player doesn’t pan out.
“College hockey has been a perfect fit for so many players,” Berenson said. “They have a chance to play hockey, develop and get an education at the same time. So that when they’re ready to turn pro, they’re ready. They’re more ready than they would’ve been had they left when they were 19.”
Even after three years of college experience, some players find it difficult to break into the NHL.
Former Wolverine Jeff Tambellini, a superstar for Michigan during his three years in college, met the harsh realities of professional hockey with the same team that drafted Lewis.
Despite his position as arguably one of the most talented players in the nation while at Michigan, he played in just four games with the Kings before being sent to the Islanders, in which he appeared in 21 games for the team (in an 82-game season). Montoya, another superstar from the same class, has yet to appear in an NHL game with his organization, the New York Rangers.
Whether the current trend of NHL teams signing players earlier is going to continue remains to be seen, but it is unquestionably a period of instability for the NHL, a period that could have long-lasting effects for players and their families, coaches and college hockey programs.
Berenson paints this picture for future hockey recruits.
“Are you ready to compete in the NHL?” Berenson said. “Are you ready to compete with men for a job? You’re not given a job. They’re not handing you a jersey and saying, ‘You’re going to be in our power play just because we signed you.’ It’s a whole different world.”