Friday, August 20, 2010

... And It Goes On ...

The exodus from the Division I college ranks continues. About 30 players in all so far this summer have moved on to the major junior or professional ranks, with some or even all of their NCAA eligibility still remaining. The latest is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute rising sophomore forward Jerry D'Amigo, who last week passed up his final three (possible) collegiate seasons with the Engineers to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who drafted him in 2009 in the sixth round.

D'Amigo's a nice kid and a good player, and I found that out firsthand when I interviewed him earlier this year for a story that ran in USA Hockey Magazine:

He averaged nearly a point a game in college, and almost everyone knows how he helped the U.S. to a first-place finish in the World Junior Championships in Saskatchewan in January. Would he have been better served by sticking with RPI for another year, though, if not all three? Most likely - but pro teams nowadays seem to want to get their prospects signed and into their own systems ASAP, as if leaving them in school is such a terrible thing.

Never mind that players in college tend to be older and stronger, and you're playing against young men instead of still-developing teenagers. Weight training and off-ice conditioning in college also helps those players, or student-athletes, as they physically mature. And they’re working towards a degree - it might not be in plasma physics, but they’re getting their education, and have quite a bit of academic support to assist them. Some may not take advantage of all that is offered to them; but it is there, and it’s a lot easier when you have people assisting and even cajoling you to get things done. I’m not sure that happens in the CHL ranks, at least not to the extent of the college academic system.

Some say major junior is better because they play more games, but how much skill development really occurs in games? More often than not, players will just try not to make mistakes in a contest, whereas in college there are three or four practices a week where players can strive to better themselves and even try different tactics without the pressure that accompanies an actual game.

Some want the NHL to step in and perhaps establish a calendar moratorium on when players still in college can be signed away. I don't see that happening - the pros are a business, and to a lesser extent so is major junior, and of course they want to get the best players possible on their rosters. This plundering of the college system isn't good for the NCAA, though, and there's been strong words on both the college and junior sides about the spreading of falsehoods and the utilization of underhanded tactics and the like.

Just because a player is enrolled in school or has signed a letter of intent hasn’t kept the junior clubs from pursuing them until they wrest them away. College Hockey Inc. executive Paul Kelly supposedly wasn't even invited to the upcoming World Hockey Summit in Toronto - an oversight?

The truth is that players can stay in college all four years and still make the NHL - and do well. Montreal's Brian Gionta readily comes to mind, and he won an NCAA title with Boston College in 2001 and a Stanley Cup with New Jersey just two years later. He also has his bachelor's degree, has played in more than 500 NHL games, and has fashioned a half-dozen NHL campaigns of at least 20 goals apiece. Ryan Malone played four seasons at St. Cloud State and averaged almost a point per game, and has skated in more than 400 NHL outings, plus the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals with Pittsburgh. Rem Murray tallied more than 50 points in each of his four seasons at Michigan State while studying civil engineering, and went on to play in 560 NHL games. He also recovered from a debilitating muscular condition to help Edmonton to Game Seven of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.

You could argue the other side of the coin with a player like Bill Guerin, who has collected two Stanley Cup rings and more than 850 points with eight NHL clubs. He left Boston College after just two seasons - but he was also drafted fifth overall in 1989. So odds are he was going to make it. The same can’t be said of the kids who have just jumped from college after playing one or two years, and weren’t drafted nearly as high as Guerin, and are nowhere near as big or strong as he was at that age. (I felt like he was going to break my hand just from a simple handshake when he was a freshman at BC and I was a junior and a staff writer for The Heights student newspaper.)

How many of these kids who signed away their eligibility this summer will stick in “The Show” remains to be seen, but I'll wager none will make an impact or possibly even suit up in the NHL this season. And some may never get there.

Obviously major junior has been the feeder system to the NHL for a long, long time, and no can deny the talent of the truly elite players who have come out of the CHL, from Wayne Gretzky on down. Still, when you consider the benefits of increased practice time, off-ice conditioning, and allowing time for physical, mental and personal development, well, staying in school for the kids who aren’t quite Gretzky really isn't such a bad thing.

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