TMQ: Is there a right time to leave NCAA hockey early for a pro contract?

Michigan's Zach Werenski (Daryl Marshke/UM Photography, D. Marshke)
Michigan’s Zach Werenski left school after his sophomore year to sign with Columbus and is a potential Calder Trophy candidate for the 2016-17 season (photo: Daryl Marshke/UM Photography).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Paula: First, I’d like to thank my good friend Candace Horgan for the great job she did filling in last week as I was winging my way back from New York City.

I enjoyed reading the column and the lively discussion about NCHC hockey. I’d like to think that Candace is right about Western Michigan and I’d also like to offer an explanation of why the voters are lagging into the buy-in. As we’ve discussed here many times, Jimmy, it takes a certain amount of success sustained over time before voters endorse teams through votes. Of course, the opposite is true, too. Early every season, we see programs voted into the polls or higher than perhaps they should be even though those teams aren’t doing particularly well because of past performance. It takes us a while to believe that a team like Michigan, for example, is en route to a bad season.

Which then brings me to a second point from last week: Your question at the end of the column, Jim. You’re indifferent, and that indifference serves you well. Everyone should be skeptical of the Big Ten. It’s still a new league and even teams with good track records — like Minnesota — haven’t done anything in the NCAA tournament, let alone shown any kind of consistency since the conference began. Indifference seems like a really good place to be. Look at Penn State. The Nittany Lions — a new team in a new-ish league — had the top spot in the PairWise and are now at No. 11. Penn State plays six of its remaining 10 games against Minnesota and Wisconsin, the two teams at the top of the Big Ten standings, and four of those games are on the road.

And that brings me back to a third point, the leagues with the most consistency in the last few seasons, the NCHC and Hockey East, with the ECAC a relatively close third. When I voted this week, I looked as much at wins and losses as I did every other factor and I was surprised that half the teams in Hockey East still have losses in the single digits in overall play. The top 10 in my poll ballot this week included three teams from HEA, three from the NCHC, three from the ECAC and one from B1G hockey. I think that’s an accurate representation of the relative strength among conference among at least the top teams in Division I this week. And, for the record, I didn’t set out to do that in my poll.

Jim: Consistency in today’s game seems difficult to achieve. But schools that can do so are often about to maintain it because of the recruiting pipeline that success breeds. I think this has been true for decades in college hockey, but I think what still opens people’s eyes is the number of teams that did not have success for a long stretch that are now perennial contenders.

Union, Quinnipiac, Yale, UMass Lowell and Providence all stand out in my mind as teams that had some really lean years, but now, year after year, are in the national conversation. Three of those schools have won national titles in recent years and all four have been to the Frozen Four at least once since 2013.

While I can’t make a blanket statement about these programs, for the most part, each tends to get less blue-chip players than say Michigan, Minnesota, Boston University and Boston College. Yale and Quinnipiac each have two players from the U.S. National Team Development Program and the other three schools have none. Instead, these school rely on older players who may have entered college at age 20 or 21 after extended stops in junior hockey.

Talent is certainly great to stock a team (you can refer back to my comments last week about Boston University), but age, and the development that often goes with it, seems to have its place in college hockey as well.

Paula: I agree with all of that, completely.

Given the how small our sport is, I am delighted to see teams that were outliers now in that national conversation, especially the re-emergent teams from the ECAC. I know that there are those out there who argue that this is bad for college hockey because such relative sports unknowns don’t help raise the profile of D-I men’s hockey overall with their own heightened profiles. I also hear the argument that it’s good for college hockey to have teams like UMass Lowell and Union in the mix because it can draw attention to the sport from other quarters.

Personally, as a college hockey fan, I just find it more interesting to see a greater number and variety of programs competing regularly for spots in the Frozen Four, regardless of how they get there.

You talk about blue chip players, and we all know that there are certain programs – as you’ve mentioned – that are able to attract them more regularly. With continued success, some of the emerging programs will likely attract them as well, but we are also seeing a very high price that some of the more established powerhouses are experiencing with the early departures of those very talented recruits.

In the Michigan State press box Friday night, I talked with a couple of people about this very thing. Not only are players leaving early for the pros, but talented players who return after disappointing losses late in the NCAA tournament may not return with the same fire in their bellies. There’s a thought that many of them return thinking that they’re marking time before they leave for professional careers – either early or through graduation – instead of returning focused on capturing a conference title or national title.

Jim: Wow, I don’t know if there is enough time for me to share all my thoughts on your last paragraph. For the sake of time, we’ll skip talking about players leaving early because I went on ad nauseam a few weeks back on the topic. But as for whether or not players who know that the NHL is calling necessarily have the fire in their bellies, here are my thoughts.

If a player doesn’t have that fire, they likely will struggle to have success in the NHL. The desire to win isn’t something that can be taught. If you don’t have it, it’s difficult – no matter how skillful you are – to succeed. So if players are returning to college with the hopes of winning a championship are looking more towards their future than the present, there seems to be something amiss with the entire scenario.

Why return? No coach wants a player on their team who is counting his days until he signs his contract. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

Having talked to a number of coaches about this topic, one of the changes that most impacted the game was when the NCAA “legalized” families of players hiring an agent to represent them while in college. These agents are calling these kids every single day and often times pushing their focus askew from the task at hand.

And before anyone goes crazy on that last statement, yes, I realize that agents were calling players when it wasn’t legal. But legitimizing it has increased the burden each player feels.

Paula: It’s something that really burns me, Jim, the pressure that many players receive from their agents. These are young men, and many of them recognize the financial sacrifices that their families have made for them to play hockey. That’s one thing that ways on their minds, and the draw of being able to reward their families financially is strong.

Additionally, everyone in hockey has heard the rare but true story of a great young player whose family actually pressures him to leave college, even if he doesn’t want to. Absolutely abhorrent.

These are very young adults. I’m biased because I have spent my entire post-college life teaching college, but I believe in the college experience. I would like to see these young men allowed to play without the kinds of external pressures that many of them face. College in itself is tough; adding athletics makes it even tougher.

That having been said, the athlete who doesn’t want to be in college shouldn’t be – and uncoachable in college will be uncoachable in the pros.

I will leave you with this. College certainly isn’t for everyone and there are certainly a number of players who have NHL talent who, more than anything, just need a college program or are told to go the college route by parents or their agent. Those are the best candidates for an early departure. But you make the point: anyone convincing a player to leave college for personal gain will never compute with my mind.

You’ve Got Mail

“How is it that the NCAA selects the sites for the NCAA Regionals and Frozen Fours? It seems with regionals they keep going to the same cities. As for the Frozen Four, why don’t they just go to the cities that matter to college hockey like Boston, St. Paul and Detroit? — Sam B., Troy, N.Y.

Jim: Sites for the NCAA regionals and Frozen Four are selected entirely through a bid process. With the regionals, it is obvious that the NCAA tries to move the event around. But there has to be cities, venues and schools to bid. A lot goes into hosting a regional, thus the host has to be able to staff the event and properly manage the tournament. In the east, it feels like there are five cities/venues that rotate through – Worcester, Albany, Manchester, N.H., Providence and Bridgeport, Conn. Out West, more cities have popped up in recent years which has made it easier to rotate.

As for the Frozen Four, it seems that the NCAA is very open to expanding this event to what we’d deem “non-traditional” cities. And they’ve done this with success. Tampa is a fantastic destination and does a great job as hosts. I think Washington, D.C., was a great city and venue and I hope the tournament goes back there. I think Chicago is going to be a home run.

I believe that the next round of bids will be announced in late April. And while I hope to see cities like Boston and Detroit included, I’d be just as happy to see this event go to a place like Nashville or, and I know I’ll get hate mail for this, but I’d like to see it cross the Canadian border to a city like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

Paula, did I just go too far?

Paula: Jim, you had me at Montreal.

I don’t think you’ve gone too far, as there is enormous interest in and support for NCAA hockey in Canada. Also, given that the NCAA and major juniors are locked in a perpetual war for the souls and talents of young hockey players – and that the NCAA feeds the NHL – I think a Canadian Frozen Four would be a big, big hit.

There may be logistical issues that are insurmountable. Not to be political, but it’s increasingly difficult to cross borders, which may be a deterrent for some. There may also be financial issues. If those in charge can work it all out, my passport is ready.

I would love to see three cities that you mention get the nod for the next round of Frozen Four sites: Boston, Detroit and Nashville. Boston and St. Paul are always great destinations for the FF, and for purely selfish reasons, I would love to see Detroit host in its new arena. People who attended the Frozen Four in Detroit in 2010 enjoyed it in spite of the limitations of Ford Field, so the tournament in the new arena in a Detroit that has progressed significantly since then would be a winner as well.

The cities that are not traditionally college hockey cities but that are great NHL towns have been real successes in recent years. Beyond Tampa – which should always be in the mix, in my opinion – the Frozen Fours in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh attracted great local fans as well as the college hockey crowd.

Keeping good hockey cities in the rotation regardless of their college hockey presence is a great idea for the Frozen Four.

The regionals are another story – at least in the Midwest. Usually, they are very poorly attended. I’d like to see regionals relocated to college arenas that can handle the crowds, but perhaps, Jim, I am the one that goes too far.

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