For one reason or another, despite the stars it has produced, the NCAA hasn’t always been given the respect it deserves as a developmental league.
However, that is no longer the case. The NCAA has become the fastest growing path to the NHL and true league stars are regularly being plucked from NCAA teams to make immediate impacts for their professional clubs. In the history of the league, countless legends have been developed on college ice including Ken Dryden (Cornell), Tony Esposito (Michigan Tech), Brett Hull (Minnesota-Duluth), Brian Leetch (Boston College), Martin St. Louis (Vermont) and Paul Kariya (Maine), just to name just a few.
Over the past seven seasons, the talent coming out of the NCAA has been extraordinary. From 2010 to 2015, 22 first-round picks were used on college players, and of those 22, eight of them came in the top half of the opening round.
It’s a fact that draft picks, no matter when they’re chosen, are risks. Not all first rounders pan out and some of them never even see NHL ice. Which makes it all the more impressive that 14 of the previously mentioned draftees have carved out important roles on their respective teams already. In some cases, they’ve become franchise players.
Jack Eichel, the 2015 Hobey Baker Award Winner — a product of the Boston University Terriers — was the second overall pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He immediately became the cornerstone of the franchise upon donning his Buffalonian jersey. In the two seasons prior to drafting Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres finished dead last in the standings. In both seasons, they led the league in losses with 51 each year. During the 2014-15 season, the Sabres scored just 1.87 goals per game— the league’s worst average.
The following year, with Eichel leading the way, the Sabres finished with a 35-36-11 record — giving them 81 points. That season, the Sabres also saw their goals per game average increase to 2.43. Which means they scored more than half a goal more per game than the year prior.
This year, the Sabres were without their stud center for the first 21 games of the season. Without Eichel, they scored an abysmal 1.85 goals per game. Since Eichel’s return to the lineup, Buffalo has gone 5-1-2 and seen their goals per game in that timespan skyrocket to 3.25. In the eight games played this year, Eichel has scored five goals (two game-winners) and added three helpers for eight points.
The NCAA also offers it’s fair share of “hidden gems.” Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau — also known as “Johnny Hockey” — had to wait until the 104th pick of the 2011 draft to hear his name get called. In retrospect, the consensus is that he was the best player taken in that year’s draft. In 2014-15, his rookie season, Johnny Hockey recorded 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) in 80 games. More importantly, Salem, NJ native helped lead the Flames back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Whilst attending Boston College, the diminutive forward had enjoyed a wildly successful collegiate career. In 119 games with the Eagles, the winger finished with 175 points and the 2014 Hobey Baker Award. Aside from his personal accolades, in 2012, Gaudreau helped his team to a Frozen Four Championship. This year, seven different NCAA programs will have 2016 first round picks competing for the same coveted title.
That record-setting 2016 draft saw 12 American players drafted in the first round. Of those players, seven of them are playing the NCAA this year. There are currently 11 first round picks from last season’s draft in the NCAA, including four Canadian-born and one Finnish-born player.
In the past 17 years (2000-2016), 114 first round picks have been spent on NCAA players, compared to the 38 that came in the 17 years prior (1983-1999.) That’s a 300% increase over two generations. Moreover, in the 24 years, from 1976— the first time a college player was taken in the first round— until 1999, there were only a total of 42 NCAA players selected.
In 2017, the Under-20 World Junior Tournament will give pundits and fans alike a glimpse of the college talent poised to take over the league. Team USA recently released their preliminary roster for the upcoming tournament, and of the 27 invitees, 22 of them are NCAA players. There are also nine first round picks from the previous two drafts, six from 2016 and three from 2015. Eight of those players are either currently in or have played in the NCAA.
The years of the NCAA being undervalued as a supplemental league are officially behind us. Teams are investing important draft picks and millions of dollars into college players at a rate that has never been seen before. And this might just be the beginning.
[Featured Image: Sports Illustrated]