Ranking the Best Developmental Programs in North America

Our prospect expert surveyed scouts, agents and NHL GMs to find the most coveted teams in junior and the NCAA.
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Noah Cates (left) and Marc Del Gaizo. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports.

Noah Cates (left) and Marc Del Gaizo. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports.

Navigating the hockey world can be quite the undertaking if you have a high-level teenager in your family and not all programs are equal. With that in mind, I surveyed more than a dozen agents, NHL scouts and GMs on the current state of developmental hockey. My hypothetical was this: "If you had a high-level son or daughter in hockey, where would you want them to play right now?"

To unpack this question, the respondents had a number of things to consider, because this isn't just about winning. Development is the crux of the issue here so coaching and facilities are just as important. My survey included people from around North America to make sure there wasn't any regional bias on the NCAA side and also to make sure I had knowledgeable folks for all three Canadian major junior leagues. Here are the results.

NCAA (men)

1. UMass

2. Minnesota-Duluth

3. North Dakota

4. Michigan

5. Boston U.

No surprise here that some of the most currently successful programs are at the top, but it is worth noting that Greg Carvel's coaching tree at UMass is already bearing fruit. Former associate coach Ben Barr, who takes over as head coach at Maine for 2021-22, has some big fans out there.

"I think he's going to turn that program around," said one agent. "Though it will take some time."

A lot of programs received votes here, with Northeastern being heralded as "underrated" by one scout and Boston U. and Boston College hailed by an NHL GM: "You know what you're getting and it's a great city," he said.

Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale also got votes thanks to their academics.

NCAA (women)

1. Clarkson

2. Wisconsin

3. Ohio State

4. Minnesota

5. Quinnipiac

Clarkson has won three national titles in the past decade, but it's also a good academic school, which resonated with voters. Quinnipiac also caught the eye of one agent who liked the combination of wins, coaching and academics. Wisconsin and Ohio State brought an all-around great college experience (plus the Badgers are a juggernaut right now), while Minnesota impressed with its rink.

"Ridder Arena is the most amazing women's hockey arena I've ever seen," said one agent. "And facilities matter."

As with the men, Ivies such as Harvard and Yale got votes thanks in part to academics.

OHL

1. London

2. Kitchener

3. Hamilton

4. Oshawa

5. Windsor

This one wasn't particularly close.

"It's London," said one agent. "With a bullet."

The Knights have been a developmental machine and with the Hunter brothers in charge, London will continue to churn out NHL draft picks for years to come. But Kitchener's facilities and coaching got high marks from respondents, while Hamilton also got top marks thanks to the work of president/GM Steve Staios.

WHL

1. Portland

2. Spokane

3. Vancouver

4. Tri-City

5. Prince Albert

Another lopsided vote, Portland still rules out west thanks to the Winterhawks' GM/coach.

"Mike Johnston knows what it takes to make it to the NHL," said one agent. "And he gives his players a little more leash on the ice, which promotes skill."

Spokane got votes thanks to a program that has employed a number of good coaches and managers lately (Manny Viveiros, Dan Lambert, etc.), while Vancouver is rising back up the ranks thanks to their bench boss.

"I love the coach there," said one NHL scout. "Michael Dyck is a top-shelf talent."

QMJHL

1. Rimouski

2. Moncton

3. Halifax

4. Quebec

5. Shawinigan

The voting in the 'Q' was a lot closer than in the other two CHL circuits, with about half the league getting votes. But Rimouski rose to the top and with the Oceanic's history of high-end development (Crosby, Richards, Lecavalier, Lafreniere), that's not a shock. Moncton's recent success has folks loving the Wildcats, while Halifax got love thanks to new head coach Sylvain Favreau, promoted from associate coach for the upcoming season.

USHL

1. Chicago

2. Dubuque

3. Sioux City

4. Sioux Falls

5. Green Bay

Based on how many NHL draft picks the Steel have produced lately (11 in the past two drafts including three first-rounders), it's no shock Chicago came out on top here. But Dubuque also got multiple votes, firmly placing the Fighting Saints in second. Also note that I did not include the U.S. NTDP here because they generally get the first crack at the country's best talent and play a different schedule (but obviously it's a great place to develop). And while I didn't specifically ask about other junior leagues, multiple respondents mentioned the BCHL's Penticton Vees as a class act in the Jr. A ranks.

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