Here They Come

Q: How do you get to the NHL?

A: First, you go to college.

As fans of college hockey turn their gazes to the NHL playoffs, it becomes increasingly clear that U.S. schools are producing some of the pro game’s most important contributors.

Certainly, there are the seasoned veterans of playoffs past — Drury, Chelios, Marchant, Guerin, Rafalski, Comrie, Madden, etc. — but even more exciting is the presence of a new coming-of-age crop of talent that promises to deliver on its first glimpses of greatness at the Division I level.

Here is an abbreviated list of those expected to see significant playing time in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup: Thomas Pock, Matt Carle, Andy MacDonald, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves, Chris Kunitz, Brian Gionta, Thomas Vanek and Zach Parise.

Of the eight remaining playoff teams, nearly one-quarter of the roster spots (46) are occupied by those with college hockey credentials. Two teams in particular (New Jersey and Anaheim) collectively employ 20 former Division I players, and their presence in the big leagues is not a statistical fluke but one of organizational design.

“We have always looked to college hockey as a major source of talent for our organization,” Anaheim assistant general manager David McNab (Wisconsin, ’78) said. “From Brian Burke on down, we have a lot of people who played in college and are very familiar with the game. The caliber of hockey has improved in college, and that’s mainly due to the development of US-born players. The college game always had their fair share of great Canadian talent, but now with the influx of American players taking the Division I route, it has become a fertile ground for scouting.”

Of course, all of this is bad news for detractors of college hockey, most notably Hockey Night in Canada analyst Don Cherry, who occasionally uses his soapbox to take not-so-subtle shots at the college game for its relatively short season and perceived lack of ruggedness.

“That’s ridiculous,” McNab said. “It’s an old criticism and we put no value in it whatsoever. If a college player tires down the stretch of their first NHL season, you hear about how they’re not used to playing enough games. But if you really look at it, the Division I season is just about as long as juniors, even though games played are unequal.

“There are an awful lot of guys in the NHL now because they went Division I. Most were not ready at 20 years old to turn pro. And with the change in the way the game is called, you’re finding the smaller, speedy guys now having a chance to make the league. College hockey is a very fast game.”

The Buffalo Sabres have certainly bought into college hockey. Their foundation lies squarely on the shoulders of three college stars: Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford. The Sabres face the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency in the offseason, but the triumvirate of former college players has allowed them to position themselves should such a loss of talent occur.

But with the success of the college hockey player, has the pendulum finally swung back in favor of the North American player over the Europeans?

Not exactly, McNab responds.

“Every organization has their own philosophy about where and how to find their talent,” he said. “The really good players, no matter where they are from, figure out what it takes to make it. There’s always going to be the exceptional players who can fit right in and play. However, college players will continue to make a big impact in the NHL and we don’t see that changing.”

The New Jersey Devils lead the NHL in college-grown talent, and Zach Parise’s development has been nothing short of spectacular. As of this writing, he leads the league in playoff goals and has become an elite-level player in just two seasons. The fact that he lasted until the 17th pick in the 2003 draft is a testament to the Devils’ shrewd focus on the burgeoning pool of NCAA talent.

“We moved up to get him,” Devils head of scouting David Conte (Colgate, ’71) said. “Parise embodies everything you admire in a hockey player — talent, courage, determination and heart. Clearly, the NCAA provides a great service to the NHL. We find that generally a kid with four years of college is a lot less maintenance when he gets into our system. He’s had life experiences outside of hockey that prepare him for the road ahead.

“Things have to go just right for someone to make it in the NHL. It’s just that hard. What troubles me now, in fact, is the volume of talent leaving the college game early. For some players, it’s just too soon.”

Conte displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the nuances of scouting the college, junior and foreign ranks. He’s seen prodigious talents, such as Phil Kessel and Erik Johnson, use college as a short stop on their way to the NHL. Yet he relishes the player who accumulates skills while in college, building a solid body of work and accomplishments as he makes his way to the pro game, such as Brian Rafalski and John Madden.

“It’s always better a day late than a day early,” Conte said in reference to those tempted to jump out of college for the NHL before they are ready. “I’ve never really had a player come up to me and say they wished they left college sooner than they did. And that includes Brian Gionta.”

College Players in the 2007 NHL Playoffs

Mark Hartigan, St. Cloud State
Kent Huskins, Clarkson
Chris Kunitz, Ferris State
Todd Marchant, Clarkson
Andy MacDonald, Colgate
Drew Miller, Michigan State
Ryan Shannon, Boston College
George Parros, Princeton
Dustin Penner, Maine

Chris Drury, Boston University
Ryan Miller, Michigan State
Ty Conklin, New Hampshire
Drew Stafford, North Dakota
Thomas Vanek, Minnesota

Chris Chelios, Wisconsin
Josh Langfeld, Michigan
Brett Lebda, Notre Dame

New Jersey
Scott Clemmensen, Boston College
Jim Dowd, Lake Superior State
Brian Gionta, Boston College
Andy Greene, Miami
John Madden, Michigan
Paul Martin, Minnesota
Jay Pandolfo, Boston University
Zach Parise, North Dakota
Brian Rafalski, Wisconsin
Erik Rasmussen, Minnesota
Travis Zajac, North Dakota

New York
Matt Cullen, St. Cloud State
Thomas Pock, Massachusetts
Jed Ortmeyer, Michigan

Mike Comrie, Michigan
Joe Corvo, Western Michigan
Patrick Eaves, Boston College
Dany Heatley, Wisconsin
Tom Preissing, Colorado College

San Jose
Matt Carle, Denver
Mike Grier, Boston University
Bill Guerin, Boston College
Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin
Patrick Rissmiller, Holy Cross

Ryan Kesler, Ohio State
Brendan Morrison, Michigan
Bryan Smolinski, Michigan State
Kevin Bieksa, Bowling Green
Willie Mitchell, Clarkson