By Chris Peters
When the Pittsburgh Penguins skated the Stanley Cup around the SAP Center ice last June, more than half of the players who lifted the most famous trophy in sports over their heads had played NCAA hockey. In the end, 13 former NCAA stars saw their names etched on the Cup, a record for a single team.
The Penguins’ championship fueled by former collegiate standouts including leading scorer Phil Kessel was one of several highlights of a record-breaking summer when it comes to the NHL and college hockey.
After a highly-entertaining and competitive 2015-16 college hockey season, a record 67 NCAA players signed NHL contracts. Many were previously drafted players, however, it was also another big year for undrafted free agents earning contracts after brilliant NCAA careers. Drake Caggiula and Troy Stecher of national champion University of North Dakota were among the high profile UFAs who drew heavy NHL interest before ultimately signing with the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
On top of that, players with college ties were part of an historic showing on the first night of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. A record-tying 11 players who either just completed or were about to enter their freshman seasons were selected in the first round. Two incoming freshmen were taken in the top 10, with Boston University’s Clayton Keller going to the Arizona Coyotes at No. 7 and North Dakota’s Tyson Jost getting tapped by the Colorado Avalanche at No. 10. Shortly thereafter, Luke Kunin of Wisconsin and Charlie McAvoy of Boston University went back-to-back at 14th and 15th to close out the first half of the first round after their standout freshman seasons.
The summer turned out to be a prelude for an astonishing start to the 2016-17 NHL season, where the influx of young talent was one of the biggest early storylines. Fourteen players who were skating in college hockey rinks just a few months prior found themselves on NHL opening night rosters in the fall, and that number has more than doubled during the course of the season. Making the jump from college to the NHL is an accomplishment in itself, but several of those players also became instant contributors to their team’s success.
One of the rookies off to a hot start is Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey, the third straight college MVP to make an NHL roster right after his award-winning season, with the New York Rangers. So is Zach Werenski, who signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets after his sophomore season at Michigan, helped their AHL affiliate with the Calder Cup last spring and now already a top-four defenseman as a 19-year-old.
Perhaps these rookies and others could follow in the more freshly-laid footsteps of such former NCAA standouts as Jack Eichel (BU), Shayne Gostisbehere (Union) and Colton Parayko (Alaska), who made up half of last season’s NHL All-Rookie Team.
As more young players file into the NHL, more and more opportunities are arising for NCAA players sooner than ever before. On top of that, the ones who are making it so quickly are making an instant impact on their NHL teams.
This story initially appeared in a four-page section of the January 2017 issue of The Hockey News.