The college hockey world has been mainly focused on the constant realignment talk, but there’s another big story developing over this summer and it’s not a good one.
In recent weeks, three of the four college-committed players selected in the first round of the 2011 Entry Draft have decided to go to the OHL. J.T. Miller, previously committed to the University of North Dakota, has reportedly signed with the Plymouth Whalers. Jamie Oleksiak, who would have been a sophomore at Northeastern signed with the Saginaw Spirit last week. And the latest: I was informed by two independent sources that Connor Murphy will drop his commitment to Miami University and will sign with the Sarnia Sting. That is expected to be announced soon.
That leaves Tyler Biggs, a Miami recruit, as the only first-round draftee that has yet to drop his commitment in favor of the OHL. Biggs reaffirmed his commitment to Miami on the Pipeline Show Tuesday night. His rights are held by the Oshawa Generals.
Biggs is a Toronto draft pick. Brian Burke has a special connection to Miami and likely wouldn’t push Biggs in one direction or another. Burke knows Miami can develop his first-round pick. That said, Biggs just lost his college roommate in Murphy and there’s no doubt Oshawa has the full-court press on the power forward. You just never know.
The hits didn’t stop there. I was told last night by a reliable source that John Gibson, easily the top goaltending recruit in all of college hockey, will forego his commitment to Michigan to sign with the Kitchener Rangers. Michael Spath later confirmed this report via text with Gibson and Michigan head coach Red Berenson issued a statement saying, “John Gibson has decided not to attend the University of Michigan or to play college hockey.” This particularly stings for Michigan in that this is the second straight year they’ve lost the top goalie recruit in the country, as Jack Campbell was a previous Michigan commit before signing with Windsor.
Earlier today, I also got word that Reid Boucher, who was the leading goal scorer for the U.S. Under-18s at the World Under-18 Championship, also will be headed to the Sarnia Sting. Boucher, who was selected in the fourth round by New Jersey, has one year of high school left and was slated to play in the USHL next year before heading to Michigan State in 2012-13. Looks like plans have changed and Sarnia has itself another huge coup, while college hockey takes another hit.
[UPDATE (7/29): J.T. Miller signed with the New York Rangers Thursday, and Plymouth officially announced Miller signed with them on Friday morning. John Gibson's signing with the Kitchener Rangers was made official Wednesday afternoon. Connor Murphy's signing with the Sarnia Sting was announced Wednesday, shortly after this post was published. Just minutes prior to this update, Sarnia also announced that it had signed Reid Boucher. That's a rough couple of days for college hockey.]
Not only has college hockey lost the players that saw their profiles raise after being drafted this past June, they’re losing some top-end youngsters as well.
Three players that wouldn’t have been on college campuses until 2013-14 at the earliest have also gone north. Former BU recruit Anthony DeAngelo, who skated for Cedar Rapids in the USHL this year, signed with Sarnia earlier in the summer. Adam Erne, another BU recruit who played in the USHL last year, was traded to the Quebec Remparts and is expected to sign. Most recently, Brandon Shea, who had previously committed to Boston College and was slated to play at the NTDP this year, has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Moncton Wildcats.
These three players are top-end 1995 birth years. Unlike their older counterparts who are more developed, we don’t know how good these guys will be in the next two years. We know how good Miller, Oleksiak, Gibson and Murphy are. So college hockey losing those guys hurts a little more, for now at least. However, seeing three high-profile youngsters head north is bad news not only for college hockey, but the USHL as well.
So what does it all mean? This isn’t a post to argue college or Major Junior is a better option, because that’s a silly apples and oranges argument. Each path has benefits unique to individual players and it is impossible (and unfair) to make a blanket statement of one being better than the other.
As a fan of college hockey, I think there should be concern, though. Concern that this summer is going to become the norm and that more elite players are going to choose the CHL over the NCAA, thus hurting the level of play in college hockey.
Does a summer like this give off the impression that the CHL is actually better? To me it doesn’t, but to people unfamiliar with the development process it just might. Most importantly is this signalling to other prospective players that the CHL is clearly the “better” option?
Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald wrote about the NCAA’s perception problem, and makes a ton of valid points while focusing on one case. Neate Sager of Buzzing the Net had a counterpoint that I think may have taken Schlossman’s column slightly out of context, but still made valid points along the way.
I count eight (what I would consider) top-end, high-profile players that have chosen the CHL route after previously committing to a college, all of which are mentioned above. The optics of this are not good for college hockey. In this case, it is not necessarily the quantity of players choosing the CHL route, but the quality. The good players have influence over the next class coming up, without ever having to say a word.
I posed the question on Twitter as well, asking my followers: Knowing however much or little you know about this topic, which is better? CHL or NCAA? Most responded with “it depends on the player,” which I think is correct. It does in some ways. I’m not fully on board with that though, only because I believe if a player is good enough he’ll make it to the NHL regardless of path. I had to ask the question though, to see if that perception that one is better than the other exists. I was impressed and surprised to see the majority of people who answered couldn’t pick one over the other or say one was better.
A few folks have asked whether all of this realignment talk has had any affect on the players’ decisions. I would have to say no. It might have a little influence, but having been around top-end teenage hockey players, realignment is likely a tiny blip on their radars. The only thing on these kids’ minds is going to the NHL, in almost every single case. That player is going to make the choice that he and his family (or in some cases his NHL team) feel is the best path to get him to the NHL as quickly as possible.
Another issue at hand is the lateness of these broken commitments. Neate Sager had a great take on this very topic today. Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, the college teams are getting royally screwed with these late defections.
I’m not going to criticize a kid for changing his mind. I’ve been around long enough to know that it happens far more than any of us would like. However, the teams that are just a month away from fall practice have to entirely shift plans for the season. They may have to find replacements. They can only hope they’ll be as lucky as Notre Dame was last year in being able to call in T.J. Tynan who was scheduled to play one more year of junior and went on to lead the team in scoring after Kyle Palmieri went pro. Odds are, that won’t be happening. It’s a shame for those schools to have such little time to recover.
At the end of the day, college hockey is a great path for pro development and shouldn’t be considered an inferior product to the CHL. It is just… different. That said, these high-profile defections deliver quite a blow to the college game. What is left to do? How does college hockey keep this from continually happening?
I guess that’s up to College Hockey, Inc., the commissioners and head coaches to figure out, but there really is no easy answer in this whole ordeal. I take issue with people saying the CHL “stole” a player, because at the end of the day, the choice is the kid’s (though its fair to say the CHL teams can be extra persuasive). College hockey has to find a way to make sure more kids are choosing it as opposed to the CHL.
It has been a long summer, and it might get longer, for college hockey. As a fan of the college game, I hope we continue to see a great on-ice product and more college kids making it to the NHL.
All that said, we all have to understand that these kids have options and there is never going to be an absolutely correct answer for which option a player should take. It’s one of those things that makes hockey’s development system entirely unique and often times entirely confusing.