Former college hockey players made up 30% of NHL rosters last season, and 2011-12 looks to see a similar rate. As the puck drops Thursday night on the NHL’s regular season, seven players will make the leap from college teams last year to the NHL lineup.
Many others were late cuts from their teams and figure to reach the NHL level soon. For now we salute those who have a very short wait before fulfilling their dreams of playing in the NHL.
Cam Atkinson, Columbus – The Hobey Baker hat trick finalist from Boston College made a splash in the AHL at the end of last season, then posted two goals and two assists this preseason. Quite simply, he made it impossible for the Blue Jackets to send him to the AHL.
“We played Cam with real good players to bring out his skill, to see what he could do,” Arniel told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. “And we also played him with other guys his own age or same experience, and he still was one of the better players on the ice.
“He showed in practices that he was really attentive to detail and the system. He was dangerous every time he had the puck. He’s really done everything we asked him to do.”
Stephane Da Costa, Ottawa – One of two collegians, with Matt Frattin, to play in the NHL following their 2010-11 college season, Da Costa was the subject of a bidding war as a free agent after two years at Merrimack. So far, the Senators have found him to be worth the investment.
"He's very intelligent, very skilled, an honest player," said Binghamton Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst, a Providence College alum who coached Da Costa in Ottawa’s prospects tournament. "We knew that he played the point on the power play in college. He’s very comfortable out there."
Justin Faulk, Carolina – The top defenseman for the national champions last year, Faulk was one of two college hockey freshmen to sign a pro contract this offseason. Carolina clearly feels he was ready for the next level after just one year at Minnesota Duluth.
"To think that he's 19 years old,” general manager Jim Rutherford raved, “and to have the composure he has, and the way he handles the puck and the way he handles different situations, how he moves the puck, how he skates. He knows the game.
"I haven't seen many flaws in his game to this point,” he added. “This is great for us. We knew we had a good player in Justin, but as a defenseman we always say it's going to take longer. But for him to do what he did in the preseason as a 19-year-old is pretty impressive."
Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, Toronto – Two WCHA rivals from North Dakota and Wisconsin, respectively, Frattin and Gardiner entered camp with different expectations, at least from outsiders. Frattin, who played an NHL game last spring after the Sioux season ended, was given a decent chance to make the Leafs, while Gardiner was expected to start in the AHL.
Each impressed in the preseason. You could even see them together on a Toronto power play Thursday night.
“Both have proven themselves in different snap shots,” said Greg Cronin, himself jumping from college coaching at Northeastern to his new role as a Toronto assistant coach. “The challenge now is to sustain whatever visibility they’ve created. A lot of guys get called up from the minors and kind of fade into the herd, usually back in the AHL. These two’s ability to stick is now based on their ability to compete every shift. We look for that from everyone, but they’ll have a bit more of a challenge.
“When you step on the ice, it’s a man’s world and you can’t fake it,” Cronin added. “Jake has had a little bit more of a buzz around him, where Matt’s had some shifts where he’s good and then fades into the game a bit. But they’re both quiet, which is a nice way to break into the NHL. They let their actions do the talking.”
Matt Read, Philadelphia – At 25 years old, Read is the oldest of this group of players to jump right from college to the NHL. The Bemidji State grad shared the Flyers’ lead in scoring in the preseason and even had TSN analyst Bob McKenzie tweeting that he was his pick for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
"He has been one of the smartest players on the ice," said general manager Paul Holmgren, a former Minnesota Gopher. "Matt Read has been more than tremendous."
Craig Smith, Nashville – Smith was sold on returning to Wisconsin for his senior season, but after a stellar performance for the U.S. National Team at the IIHF World Championship, the possibility of moving right to the NHL seemed very real. He had an impressive preseason and joins fellow Badgers Blake Geoffrion and Ryan Suter in the Predators’ opening-night lineup.
“That’s exactly what you want from the player,” head coach Barry Trotz said after Smith scored the game-winner in the Predators’ final preseason game. “We always talk about staying on the puck and make it really hard. He stole the puck from the guy, threw it at the net and went in. That’s hard to play against.”
Smith's first regular-season game will come Friday against Atkinson and the Columbus Blue Jackets.