The Path to the NHL — Part I: Big Decisions at Age 16

Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series that will examine the player development paths of the 52 American first-round draft picks from 2005 to 2011. The purpose of this series is to educate the general public on the routes players have taken to the NHL over the last few years. This series will be ongoing throughout the remainder of the offseason and into the 2011-12 campaign. Keep in mind, this is by no means scientific, nor is it going to prove whether one path or the other is “right.” Due to this contentious landscape involving hockey prospects, it is prudent to be aware of the precedence set and what, if anything, we can learn from it.

When you’re a teenager that also happens to be an elite hockey player, there’s probably only one thing on your mind. The National Hockey League. Most 16-year-olds don’t just want to get to the NHL, they want to get there by the time they’re 18, or worst-case scenario, 20.

Yes, the NHL has gotten younger and there are a few players that have made it to the league at the ripe-old age of 18, but the emphasis is on the word few.

From 15-18, so much can change about a player. His physical appearance and size, are obvious, but also maturity and skills usually progress at a more unpredictable rate. That is what makes the 16-year-old season an important one for elite hockey players.

Typically, at age 16, a young man is beginning to figure out what kind of player he can be. The top-end players tend to start to separate themselves from their peers in the 16-year-old season as well.

The 16-year-old season is also the first in which a player has the option of going to the Canadian Hockey League. It can be a very tempting option for a player, but there are many other options available to the top-end American talent. This usually means the better hockey players are going to have a very important and difficult decision to make at a still young age. An age at which that player still has a lot to learn and room to grow.

The ability to attract players at age 16 and 17 is actually a big tool for the CHL against the NCAA, because colleges cannot admit a player that hasn’t graduated high school, obviously.

That said, it is not wrong to think that the vast majority of American 16-year-olds are not going to be ready for that jump to Major Junior. Some will come right out of midget hockey or prep/high school, which is a gigantic jump. The jump is not as big for the kids that played Junior at age 15, though still a bit of an adjustment. Some can make it more easily than others as Nick Ebert and Alex Galchenyuk proved last year as 16-year-olds in the OHL.

The difference between a player at 16 and 17 is often large. While 16 is usually an age when a player’s development track is becoming projectable, it is even more projectable at 17.

Which is why patience could pay off. Even just one year could make all of the difference. I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t go to the CHL, just that in my opinion it’s more beneficial to wait for the majority of 16-year-old prospects.

Here are some of those other reasons:

There’s nothing wrong with a player keeping his options open for as long as possible. Going to the CHL at 16 is a potentially dangerous course, as that 16-year-old player now has limited options if things don’t work out. For the especially good players, they have plenty of options to continue on a forward track in their development and leave themselves a few more avenues to continue their development.

Unless you are a kid like Alex Galchenyuk, who has the skill level to be a top producer in the CHL, you’re ice time will potentially be limited.

If you’re a kid that’s able to get a shot at the NTDP, their focus is on development, particularly in that 16-year-old season. Everyone gets ice that year, including PP and PK time. As time goes on roles become more defined, but everyone starts with a clean slate based on my experience there.

The USHL has also made itself more attractive to the 16-year-old player. As the league continues to get younger, the ice time available to 16-year-olds is on the rise. The league has proven it can develop talent at the rate necessary to get that player to the next level. A fairly long, but manageable game schedule also makes it an attractive option.

Also, there’s nothing that says midget hockey, prep school, or high school hockey is a bad thing for the high-end 16-year-old hockey player. The chance to be a go-to guy on a team can be a big factor in development, as well as the amount of ice time that player could accrue.

It’s all about what a player is ready to handle both physically and mentally. That’s where players and parents have to be diligent in their self-evaluation and the weighing of options. What is the player ready to take on?

In order to look at this a little further, we can take a look at a few examples from the recent past:

Though it didn’t get as much coverage as last week’s flurry of highly-drafted Americans going the CHL route, three of the top 1995-born Americans are also heading north.

This tends to happen every year: A group of higher-profile American prospects head to the Canadian Hockey League at age 16, the first year in which they are eligible to play in the CHL. Two years ago it was Shane McColgan, Vince Trocheck and Colin Jacobs. Last year it was Nick Ebert and Brady Vail. This year it’s Anthony DeAngelo, Adam Erne and Brandon Shea (the latter two have yet to be made official).

All of these players are considered among the elite in their age group. When McColgan, Trocheck and Jacobs chose the CHL over invitations from the NTDP, there was a small undertone saying that they were huge losses for the program. Ebert and Vail both spent their 15-year-old season with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks, but spent their 16-year-old season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

DeAngelo and Erne somewhat followed the lead of Ebert and Vail. DeAngelo skated for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders at age 15 and was doing pretty well until a knee injury interrupted his season. The former Boston University verbal commit decided to sign with Sarnia. Another now former BU commit, Erne had a solid 15-year-old season with the Indiana Ice. Though it has been yet to be made official, Erne is expected to sign with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.

Shea is an interesting case in that he was committed to play for the NTDP this season, but he is now expected to sign with Moncton in the Q. He played for Nobles and Greenough Prep last year and looks to have a ton of potential.

The only thing that makes this year different is the fact that the QMJHL got into the mix. It is incredibly rare for a 16-year-old American to choose to play in that league. These two making that decision indicate the Q is making an attempt to get more Americans into the mix.

While these three most recent CHL-bound 16-year-olds are high-profile losses now, how big of losses will they be when all is said and done? Only time will tell. These three could impress next season, but it is important to be cautiously optimistic, as recent history has shown.

While McColgan, Trocheck and Jacobs were considered major losses for college hockey when they made the decision to play Major Junior, their NHL Draft position amongst their American peers would indicate that their move to the CHL didn’t pay off in regards to draft standing.

Trocheck was a third rounder, Jacobs a fourth and McColgan a fifth. Meanwhile, players like J.T. Miller, Tyler Biggs, Rocco Grimaldi (NTDP), Scott Mayfield (USHL) and Mario Lucia (MN-HS) were selected in the first two rounds. (Also selected in the second round was Shane Prince, who was not considered a high-profile loss when he chose the OHL route at 16.)

Now, I am a major proponent of “it’s not about where you get drafted, but what you do after.” McColgan, Trocheck and Jacobs very well could make it to the NHL before some of the players drafted before them. That said, just for Part I, the main focus is on draft standing. We’ll be covering post-draft development in the upcoming parts of this series.

So let’s take a closer look at the draft, shall we?

Between the 2005 and 2011 NHL Entry Drafts, there have been 52 Americans selected in the first round. Here is where those 52 players played their 16-year-old season:

NTDP – 24; MN-HS – 11; OHL – 5; Prep School – 4; USHL – 2; WHL – 1; Shattuck – 1; AtJHL – 1; EmJHL – 1; Midget AAA – 1 2.

(*Side note: I could not find out where Trevor Lewis played his 16-year-old season. He played in the USHL at 17 and 18. Anyone have any insight? That is why we’re a player short. Thanks to @MattyMo26 for informing me Trevor Lewis played his 16-year-old season with the Pikes Peak Minors Midget AAA)

So, since 2005, a total of six American players who played their 16-year-old season in one of the three CHL leagues have been drafted in the first round (Bobby Ryan, Bobby Sanguinetti, Jonathon Blum, Zach Bogosian, Austin Watson, Stefan Noesen). In that same time span, there have been around 90 American players who spent their 16-year-old season in the CHL that were eligible to be drafted.

So of the 90 eligible Americans in that span, six percent became first round draft picks.

Of the 52 Americans drafted, 88 percent played their 16-year-old season in leagues in which they kept their options open. That’s a fairly convincing majority proving that a player can still put himself in a great position in the year, or two, before his draft-eligible year.

Additionally, 46 percent of the Americans selected in the first round since 2005 played their 16-year-old season at the NTDP. That’s a truly incredible number.

Minnesota High School hockey’s numbers, while on the decline, are still impressive as 21 percent of the Americans drafted since 2005 played in that system at 16.

It is also important to note that the number of 16-year-old players in the USHL is on the rise and that is a fairly recent development. There were three players drafted in the first round in 2011 that played in the USHL as part of the NTDP, but for the purposes of this research, were kept separate.

When looking at where the 52 first rounders played their 17-year-old season, the numbers change as players begin exploring their options. For most players, the 17-year-old season is their draft-eligible campaign:

NTDP – 20; MN-HS – 9; OHL – 8; USHL – 7; WHL – 3; Prep School – 2; NCAA – 1; BCHL – 1; EJHL – 1.

As you can see, the numbers change a bit. More kids go on to junior hockey at both the CHL and USHL levels in their 17-year-old year. At 17, most players are going to be better prepared to make the right decision for them, as they’ll have that extra year of development under their belt.

Getting drafted is only one step. There’s a lot left to be done after a player is selected by an NHL team. However, it’s a good idea to look at how first rounders fare, as they are always given the best shot to make the big club.

There are 22 American players from the last seven first rounds that have earned what could be considered full-time NHL jobs. In the next few posts in this series, we will examine how they got there, from age 16 to the NHL.

As mentioned before in the earlier disclaimer, this isn’t going to be the rule of thumb for any player as every one of them is different. I am a firm believer that there is no “right” path. It’s just good to take a look back at how things have happened over the years, particularly in this highly contentious landscape in the battle for prospects. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL, NHL Draft, NTDP, USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Path to the NHL — Part I: Big Decisions at Age 16

  1. Anonymous says:

    Do you think MN HS hockey will kind of eventually get fazed out, or lose its luster, if more and more kids are going the USHL route at a younger age? HS you play like 25 games compared to 60 in the USHL.

  2. anonymous says:

    the ohl increase (5 to 8) can be tied to the decrease in ntdp from 24 to 20, guys like p kane who played their u18 year as juniors in high school; whereas most u18s are seniors in hs, correct ?

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