Call it “Black Wednesday.” Because earlier this week, the NCAA was dealt a double body-blow. There was Phoenix first-rounder and Miami commit Connor Murphy deciding to take his game to the Ontario League’s Sarnia Sting instead. That same afternoon, it was confirmed that for the second straight summer, the University of Michigan would lose its incoming goaltender to the OHL as well.
John Gibson, Anaheim’s second-rounder from 2011, would be heading to Kitchener, much like Jack Campbell chose Windsor the season before. (The fact both Campbell and Gibson were Team USA national team development program products and the first American goalies taken in their draft classes only added to the bitter taste for college hockey fans.)
This came on the heels of New York Rangers first-rounder J.T. Miller spurning North Dakota in favor of Plymouth and Dallas top pick Jamie Oleksiak leaving Northeastern for Saginaw (though Oleksiak had played a year with the Huskies and left in part because coach Greg Cronin took a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs).
When all the broken glass is swept up, just one 2011 first-rounder is still slated to play college hockey this season: Toronto pick Tyler Biggs, committed to Miami. Even there, rumors are flying that the Oshawa Generals, who hold his major junior rights, are making a big push, though publicly Biggs says he’s heading to Ohio.
But assuming Biggs becomes a RedHawk, he’s still an island unto himself. In 2009, six first-rounders spent their next season in college, while in 2010 it was eight. Back in ’07, 10 made the choice, including James van Riemsdyk and Kyle Turris, the second and third players drafted overall.
So is this summer just an anomaly? Unfortunately for college hockey fans, probably not.
Along with Campbell, 2010 first-rounder Jarred Tinordi made the switch once he was taken by the Montreal Canadiens. Tinordi was supposed to attend Notre Dame, but ended up with the London Knights.
“I think (top prospects) are finding out the OHL prepares you for the NHL and you still get your schooling,” said London GM Mark Hunter.
The Knights have feasted on the NCAA since the Hunters took over, landing stars such as Sam Gagner (Wisconsin) and Patrick Kane (BU or Michigan – hadn’t decided yet), to name the most prominent examples. Education packages entice kids who worry about their academic futures and the OHL is still the best developmental league in the world. So much so that Tinordi struggled at the beginning of his London career, despite being 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds.
“He did come on in the second half,” Hunter said. “I don’t know if he was quite ready to play three games in three nights, but by the end of it, he was working that big body of his.”
The conventional wisdom in Canada is that major junior provides a quicker path to the NHL thanks to a schedule that mirrors the pros. But college hockey also has its upsides and I think there is a certain class of player in particular that benefits from less games and more time in the gym or at the rink.
“Pretty much every morning I could go to the rink before class,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who played for the University of North Dakota. “People thought I would leave school right after I was drafted, but I’m glad I stayed a second year. It worked out for me because I felt physically ready when I did get to the NHL.”
A great case study involves Turris and van Riemsdyk. While Turris was rushed to the NHL by Phoenix after one season at Wisconsin, JVR actually rebuffed the Flyers for a year, choosing to return to the University of New Hampshire for a second lap. After one full season with the Coyotes, Turris was demoted to the American League. Since that 2008-09 NHL rookie campaign, the still-developing youngster has played more games in the AHL than the big league. JVR on the other hand, played a few games for the AHL’s Phantoms once his UNH season was finished, but hasn’t been back since, registering 75 points in 153 NHL games (Turris has 46 in 131).
The battle for the hearts and minds of hockey’s youth will continue to be feverish and while the OHL certainly won the summer, it’s doesn’t mean the NCAA has been dealt a death-strike. The faithful will still fill Yost and Ralph Engelstad this winter and top recruits will still be in the lineup. Just not as many as there once were.