The NHL draft will be held June 27-28 in Philadelphia and, as expected, there will be many prospects selected from the Canadian Major Junior ranks which include the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. Many will be touted as the next Sidney Crosby or Zdeno Chara, but the truth is more than half the players drafted never play a single NHL game.
In the book “The Art of Scouting,” which “delves into the secretive world of hockey prospecting,” Mike Futa, co-director of amateur scouting for the Los Angeles Kings, explains what it takes to come away with a successful draft.
It’s the only job where you can be right 15 percent of the time and be ruled a Hall of Famer for success. You are going to be wrong 85 or 80 percent of the time, and if you hit on 2.5 home runs every Draft, you are par with some of the best scouts ever.
In a seven-round draft, assuming one pick per round, it only takes one “hit” to be a success, and the best chance for that is via a first-round pick. With such a narrow difference between success and failure it is surprising teams are largely ignoring an often overlooked and undervalued area of talent every year in the draft: players who go to college.
The NCAA is a viable alternative for many young prospects who either don’t want to or are not ready to commit to Canadian Major Junior teams as a young teenager (15 or 16 years old), especially when an NHL career is still a long shot. Playing college hockey offers a college degree and a viable chance at the pro level.
“If you are a first round pick and you are a player ready to step into the NHL after two years of college hockey you are able to do that,” said Dave Hakstol, coach of North Dakota’s men’s hockey team. “If you are a player that needs three to four years of development, you need that extra time, you have that option to continue your development in a great environment, so that when you get to the pro level you are ready to be there and compete for an NHL job.”
Hakstol would know, his program boasts distinguished alumni at the NHL level: Chicago captain and two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews, Team USA Olympic hero T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford and Zach Parise, captain for Team USA during the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Chicago Blackhawks have six collegiate players on their current roster, and all six were on the 2013 Stanley Cup championship squad. All but Brandon Bollig were drafted:
Duncan Keith, Michigan State (2001-03)
Nick Leddy – Minnesota (2009-10)
Patrick Sharp – Vermont (2000-02)
Jonathan Toews – North Dakota (2005-07)
Ben Smith – Boston College (2006-10)
Brandon Bollig – St. Lawrence (2008-10)
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that a lot of [Chicago's] players come through college hockey but I don’t know if that’s by design,” said Hakstol. “I just know that’s where a lot of good, competitive people are coming from.”
It takes about five years for a prospect to develop, and for the purposes of this article we will consider him a success if he plays in at least 200 games at the NHL level. That gives him five years of 40 games played to qualify. Of the players drafted from 2006 to 2009, 14.7 percent of players from Major Junior have hit that benchmark; players from collegiate programs, on the other hand, have hit that mark 17.1 percent of the time. And those players from Major Junior are picked close to a round earlier on average than those playing in college (97th pick vs. 121th pick).
Playing against a higher level of competition is a key factor here. In fact, a collegiate player’s boxcar stats (goals and assists) translate better to the NHL level than players from Canadian Major Junior largely because of better competition.
“You are able to evaluate them playing against men, playing against guys who are in their twenties, which isn’t really possible in the CHL,” explains Nate Ewell, Deputy Executive Director of College Hockey, Inc. “You get a true picture against how they stack up against the type of player – at least from a maturity standpoint – they will see at the next level.”
For example, a player who scored a point per game in the OHL in 2011 would be expected to retain 33 percent of that production at the NHL level. If a collegiate player turned the same trick we would expect 38 percent of that production to translate to the NHL.
“National Hockey League teams want to see their prospects in an environment where they are challenged and where they are going to develop and become a good part of their organization,” said Hakstol.
All told, 30 percent of NHL players are former collegiate players, but the percentage of players taken in the draft from the college ranks has dwindled the last three years. Players taken from Major Junior, on the other hand, has remained steady at between 47 and 48 percent.
“The biggest thing is the CBA and draft age,” said Ewell. “Since you are drafting 17- and 18-year-olds there are a lot of players on the college path that are getting drafted but fewer and fewer are actual college players at the time of the draft. Most of the college players selected would have been passed over in a prior draft.”
But even those undrafted can provide outstanding value. NHL.com has identified 18 undrafted players since 1998 that could be considered high value – 11 (61 percent) came from the NCAA ranks.
“It’s about development,” explains Hakstol. “Development as a player and develop as a person. Going through the college developmental process, as a person, you are going to be prepared to add value to the [NHL] organization.”
A recent example is Toronto’s Tyler Bozak. Bozak went undrafted and was signed as a free agent in 2009 after two years at the University of Denver and he now skates on the Leafs’ top line with James van Riemsdyk (University of New Hampshire) and Phil Kessel (University of Minnesota). That trio scored the second most even-strength goals last season (46).
“When you see the track record, it makes a pretty good case that [college hockey] is a safe, productive developmental pathway as a young guy,” said Hakstol.