NCAA Season Delayed - But Don't Fret

Conferences are working together for what could be one of the best draft classes ever.
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Owen Power/courtesy Chicago Steel

Owen Power/courtesy Chicago Steel

Jack Drury is already off to a great start to his new campaign, but the Carolina Hurricanes prospect center is doing so with Sweden's Vaxjo Lakers, not Harvard University. That's sad news for Crimson fans who got to see the youngster become an NCAA star in the past two seasons, but it's the reality delivered to them by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Today, the commissioners of Division 1's conferences announced that the 2020-21 college campaign will be officially delayed due to the pandemic, but this is not necessarily a reason to fret: what becomes apparent from this announcement is that the whole college hockey landscape is getting on the same page and communicating about a safe and healthy return to the ice.

Not only that, but the NCHC - home to powerhouse programs such as North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth - has already announced its intention to begin play at or around Nov. 20. Ordinarily, the college schedule begins in early October.

Assuming that safety can be established, this will be an incredibly important NCAA season, even more so than usual for NHL fans. That's because three incoming freshmen are poised to become top-10 picks in the 2021 draft, with one of them a favorite to go first overall. And as it turns out, all three have wound up at the University of Michigan.

Owen Power is a big, fast and talented defenseman from the Toronto suburbs who has spent the past two seasons in the USHL with the Chicago Steel. Already listed at 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds, Power won USHL defenseman of the year honors as a 17-year-old and led the league in blueline scoring with 40 points in 45 games. He's basically a young version of Victor Hedman and the amount of potential in the young man is incredible. His main competition for No. 1 prospect status in the 2021 draft class is Finnish center Aatu Raty, who has already played in the world juniors and currently has four points in three exhibition games for Karpat Oulu, the Liiga squad that also features Jesse Puljujarvi and former NHLer Jussi Jokinen.

But Power isn't the only draft prospect setting up shop in Ann Arbor right now. Kent Johnson, an electrifying center from British Columbia, is also new to the Wolverines. Johnson led the BCHL in scoring this season with 101 points in just 52 games and could very well be a top-five pick himself in 2021.

Rounding out the trio is another great forward and potential top-10 pick, Matty Beniers. Originally linked to Harvard (which, as an Ivy school, won't start until at least Jan. 1 next season), the Massachusetts native made the commitment to Michigan quite recently and it was a coup for the Wolverines to nab the U.S. NTDP product: Beniers is the type of player who can dissect the opposition in the offensive zone and he finished second in NTDP scoring this year with 41 points in 44 games.

All three players just happen to have birthdays that fall after the NHL's Sept. 15 cutoff for draft eligibility, which is why they will be picked in 2021 instead of 2020, so it's definitely unusual to have that number of NCAA players on the draft board so early. The closest modern example would be in 2018 when Boston University's Brady Tkachuk went fourth to Ottawa and Vancouver got Michigan's Quinn Hughes with the seventh pick. Three college kids went in the first round of the 2016 draft (Charlie McAvoy, Luke Kunin and Tage Thompson), but none of them were top-10, even though McAvoy probably should have gone higher than No. 14, in retrospect.

It goes without saying how important it is for an elite prospect to play games in their draft year and that's not limited to men's hockey. On the women's side, the 2020-21 campaign will be the final for Wisconsin's Daryl Watts, the Toronto-born center who piled up 74 points in 36 games for the Badgers this past season as a junior. Watts will be an obvious draft target for NWHL teams, though she could also join the PWHPA's Dream Gap tour, where many of the best women in the world have been playing recently.

Either way, the season-delay announcement by the conference commissioners shouldn't be seen as a harbinger, but instead as a positive sign that everyone is on the same page right now. It will take a lot of work, but if the players get back on the ice in late November or even after that, they're still going to put on quite the show.

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