FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — There’s an underlying theme to college hockey players becoming a more attractive option in recent years for NHL scouts and general managers.
New Jersey Devils forward Mike Cammalleri, who played three seasons at the University of Michigan, isn’t surprised by the fact that 30 percent of NHL players developed in the NCAA, or that all 30 NHL teams had at least one prospect enrolled in college during the 2014-15 season, with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks’ 13 leading the way.
“College hockey not only allows for a readiness on the ice in terms of skill, but there’s a social and outside-the-classroom aspect to developing a personality and comfort within your own skin enabling players to enter the NHL and be successful,” Cammalleri said. “I think that’s an important development stage for an adolescent person regardless of athletics and why some players are able to come in and do well out of college.”
There’s a chance college hockey will break new ground at the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Friday, when Boston University center Jack Eichel, Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin and University of Michigan defenseman Zachary Werenski each might be selected in the top 10. No draft has ever had three top-10 picks from the college ranks.
“For Eichel, Hanifin and Werenski, you get to measure these players against bigger and stronger players who are closer to the NHL game, and in my view there’s nothing but positives in that regard,” NHL Network analyst Craig Button said.
The first round of the draft is Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports); rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, TVA Sports).
Many draft pundits expect Eichel to be selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the No. 2 selection. Hanifin is expected to be chosen among the top six. Werenski, meanwhile, could be the wild card to completing the collegiate hat trick. Each player accelerated his high school studies to be able to play NCAA hockey in 2014-15.
“I’m super happy with my decision to go to college; I never regretted it and got a lot of experience off the ice,” Eichel said. “On the ice was a special season. We had a great run and it’s unfortunate our season ended the way it did (with a 4-3 loss against Providence in the NCAA Tournament final), but it was definitely a great year off the ice. I learned a lot and matured as a person by going through a lot of the experiences you go through in college like living on your own.”
Boston University coach David Quinn feels Eichel matured a lot in his one season with the Terriers.
“College hockey holds players accountable; you’re not going to get away with cheating the game or get away with going up against a 16-year-old,” Quinn said. “It’s an older game, and if Jack wasn’t ready to play, he’d struggle.
“[Eichel, Hanifin and Werenski] were tested, and that’s why they’re so highly thought of, because of the fact they were all able to have a lot of success against older guys. When you can do that, it makes evaluating a lot easier.”
Mark Osiecki coached all three players for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Osiecki, who played at the University of Wisconsin and coached at Ohio State University, is associate coach for the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford.
“[Eichel] is up to NHL speed in a couple strides and his maturity is unbelievable from what I saw at the World Junior tournament in a tough situation and hostile environment,” Osiecki said. “He’s calm on the bench and when he spoke, he spoke like a coach and interpreted things with a coach’s eye with the way spoke to his teammates.”
Eichel became the first college freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award since Paul Kariya at the University of Maine in 1992-93. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound right-handed shot led the NCAA with 45 assists and 71 points on the way to earning Hockey East’s Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
Osiecki said Hanifin and Werenski each possess high-end skill.
“Noah has a little more jump, and I would almost compare him to (Nashville Predators defenseman) Seth Jones since he has an ability to bring you out of your seat,” Osiecki said. “Zach is more keen to supporting the play and then making something unbelievable happen; he’s also a sponge in the video room.”
Hanifin was named a Hockey East second-team all-star; Werenski was named a Big Ten first-team all-star and was selected for the conference’s freshmen all-star team.
Competing against older, stronger players has no doubt helped ease the eventual transition to professional hockey for many collegiate hockey players. Eichel, Hanifin and Werenski competed against players who were, on average, 21.9 years old, according to College Hockey Inc.
The Blackhawks chose seven current or future NCAA players among their nine picks at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia. Chicago general manager Stan Bowman is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
“You generally have a little more time with those players,” Bowman told College Hockey Inc. “It’s tougher when you have a two-year window to sign a guy. Sometimes they don’t define themselves by that second year, and you have to make a decision: Do you sign them or not? We like that element that because you have the player for four years. You don’t have to leave them there for four years, but you have a little bit more control over it.”
The last time as many as three college players were selected in the first round of the NHL Draft was nine years ago when freshmen Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel and Mark Mitera went off the board in short order.
At the 2006 draft in Vancouver, Toews (center, University of North Dakota) went No. 3 to the Blackhawks, Kessel (right wing, University of Minnesota) went No. 5 to the Boston Bruins, and Mitera (defenseman, University of Michigan) went No. 19 to the Anaheim Ducks.
“I think the way the NHL has trended, in terms of the style of play, has helped [the college player],” New Jersey Devils goaltender and Boston College alumnus Cory Schneider said. “It’s become a faster game. Kids are skating, moving and playing with top-end speed, and you have a guy like (Calgary Flames forward) Johnny Gaudreau who gained a lot of confidence in college.”
Boston College’s Gaudreau, chosen by the Calgary Flames in the fourth round (No. 104) of the 2011 NHL Draft, finished third in voting for the 2015 Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year.
“Now in the NHL, Gaudreau’s not as worried about his size because of his skill level,” Schneider said. “College does a great job in terms of physically preparing guys. Drafting an 18-year-old is one thing, but when you’re 22 or 23 years old and have had three or four years of training and maturity, then you’re able to step in a little quicker and adapt to the pro game as opposed to an 18- or 19-year-old who may be in over his head a little bit.”
Osiecki believes that although college isn’t for everyone, certain players do benefit from the experience.
“Patrick Kane didn’t need that,” he said. “For defensemen, it may take you a little bit longer to get up to speed for the NHL level, and being in a situation where their game-to-practice ratio is more in favor of practice, that’s when they can spend more time developing their body, mature as a player. I feel that helps defensemen.”
Hanifin is a prime example of how college could certainly bolster a player’s stock, especially along the blue line.
“The college game was an adjustment period at first and it definitely took some time to get used to, but in the long run for my development as a person and player, it helped me tons,” Hanifin said. “When you go to college, it’s not just hockey. You become a well-rounded individual, go to school, you meet people you will become friends with for the rest of your life. And it’s not just friends who play hockey.
“Sure, you only play 38 games a year, but you have time to work on your skills, work in the gym and get better.”