For a pair of teams that play in the Canadian province of Ontario, the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers and London Knights sure love their American players.
News broke Saturday night that Christian Dvorak, a highly regarded forward out of the Chicago Mission program and now former Wisconsin commit, had signed with the London Knights. There seems to be quite a bit of that going around these days. In fact, the Knights themselves picked up Montreal Canadiens first-rounder and former Western Michigan commit Mike McCarron earlier this summer.
Earlier in the week, London rival Kitchener announced the signing of Ryan MacInnis, a forward who had not committed to a school, but left the U.S. National Team Development Program a year early. Two weeks prior, the Rangers also announced the signing of Mentor, Ohio, native and former Ohio State commit Nick Magyar days after confirming the club had inked Shattuck-St. Mary’s product and Davie, Fla., native Mason Kohn.
These were just the latest signings in what has been an increasingly busy summer for players once on the college path, even going beyond American players. Some Canadians previously on the NCAA path have changed course and signed with various teams across the Canadian Hockey League.
Even at this late stage of the summer, CHL teams are snapping up quality former college-bound prospects at a somewhat prolific rate it seems.
Among the other players who recently changed course, Tyler Hill, a 6-foot-6 Canadian-born forward who played in the USHL with the Chicago Steel and prep hockey at Hotchkiss before signing with the Ottawa 67s last week. Hill was uncommitted, but had reportedly visited some schools.
The same goes for goalie Callum Booth, another Canadian who spent time in the U.S. prep ranks at Salisbury School, but chose to continue his career with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.
There was also Jujhar Khaira’s departure from Michigan Tech after one season. He signed a contract to the Edmonton Oilers, who are expected to assign him to the Everett Silvertips of the WHL.
Earlier in the month, South Boston-native Cam Darcy, a 19-year-old forward who left Northeastern early last season to play in the USHL and presumably transfer, signed with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL.
In mid-July, Conor McGlynn, a Boston-born, Canadian raised forward pulled out of his commitment from Boston College in favor of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs.
Around the same time, former Cam Askew, who was also the top pick in the USHL futures draft and had commitments to Northeastern and later Boston University, was signed by the Drummondville Voltiguers.
Before that, Kevin Labanc dropped a commitment from Notre Dame to sign with the Barrie Colts.
There were also the losses of McCarron (Western Michigan to London), Willy Smith (UMass to Moncton), Joshua Wesley (NTDP to Plymouth) and Connor Chatham (Denver to Plymouth) detailed in an earlier post.
So when you throw them all in a list like this, it obviously denotes a strong movement north, perhaps stronger than other summers. I think I’m even missing a few. Not every player in this group is going to be an impact player in the CHL and may not constitute a great loss for college hockey, but it is clear the flow to the Canadian Hockey League among players previously on the college path has not been stemmed at all.
Edit (8/20): Among the few guys that I missed in the initial publication of this piece, former Quinnipiac commit Chase Harwell, a 1997-born Connecticut native who signed with the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL last week. He’ll be joined in Sherbrooke by Mitchell Lundholm, a Massachusetts native who had not been committed to an NCAA school.
Also, just this week, brothers Danny and Connor Moynihan of New Hampshire, signed with the Halifax Mooseheads, making this a banner summer for the QMJHL in its efforts to attract more American prospects. (h/t @EC_Kings)
College hockey isn’t all that is taking a beating this summer. Perhaps it could be said that the USHL, the league where most of these players would have spent next season, is taking it on the chin even worse.
Askew was previously signed to a tender by the Indiana Ice, making him the de facto first overall pick in the USHL’s futures draft, but he’ll never suit up for the Ice. That puts a fair amount of egg on the face of the organization and the league, which adopted the tender process to somewhat circumvent the draft in order to stem the flow of younger players to the CHL ranks. Last year, tendered Brendan Lemieux left the Green Bay Gamblers and a commitment to North Dakota mid-year to join the Barrie Colts. Plenty of other players haven’t broken tenders, but both Askew and Lemieux are pretty high-profile guys.
It doesn’t get much better with the others.
Dvorak was slated to play for the Chicago Steel, while Hill’s rights were still held by the Steel as well. Magyar was set to play a full season with the Sioux City Musketeers, where he would have joined McGlynn, who spent most of last season with Sioux City. Darcy was still part of the Muskegon Lumberjacks, while Labanc’s rights were also held by Muskegon. Meanwhile MacInnis and Wesley were due to return to the U.S. NTDP for next season before signing OHL agreements.
Something Christian Dvorak’s father told Madison.com in the wake of his son’s signing with London was that they thought his chances of making it to the NHL were slightly better by going to London. Not sure I agree with that, but due to the timing, as so many of these late-summer decisions can be, this is more than likely a decision about the NHL Entry Draft. Will Dvorak’s draft stock improve in the OHL? It’s possible.
Just as another example, Labanc told the Staten Island Advance, “My USHL rights had been acquired by Muskegon and I felt the competition in Barrie was going to be stronger and more beneficial to me as I look towards the future.”
The USHL may have to ask itself a difficult question in regards to these departures. All of those players listed would have been in the league next year and most would have been draft eligible. If those players thought they had a better chance of getting drafted in the CHL, which very well may be the case, is there anything within the league’s control it can do to halt future high profile players from making the same decision?
As good as the USHL is, and it is very good, it definitely has a perception problem among top players, which could hurt it — and, by default, college hockey — in future recruiting battles.
The league continually puts itself next to the CHL leagues and man-for-man, it might be close, but when comparing the elite players of the CHL and the elite of the USHL, there’s no comparison. It’s not close. That’s the perception battle the league must wage.
In the USHL’s defense, it seemed to take a real step out of the shadows and into the spotlight when non-NTDP players Zemgus Girgensons (Dubuque), Michael Matheson (Dubuque) and Jordan Schmaltz (Green Bay) were all taken in the first-round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, on top of the NTDP’s Jacob Trouba, Stefan Matteau and alum Henrik Samuelsson. That was a big show-me moment to prospects that the league was capable of producing elite talent for the NHL Entry Draft.
However, if the league is to step out of those shadows full time, placing three to six players in the first round draft has to become an annual thing, which of course is easier said than done. In all honesty, I think that’s putting too much emphasis on the draft and not the end result of overall NHL placement, but it is a pretty solid measuring stick in the short term.
The draft is also one of the biggest marketing tools at any junior team’s or league’s disposal. Rightly or wrongly, the draft is an immediate, tangible data point. The more players they have drafted, the better the likelihood they’ll attract more top talent. It says, “Come play here. You will be seen. You will be drafted. You will have a chance to make it to the pros.”
Surprisingly, the draft numbers might even be more powerful a lure than the amount of alumni actually playing in the NHL for some players.
That’s why the departures of Dvorak, Magyar and MacInnis probably sting the most as each is expected to get some serious high NHL Draft consideration, with MacInnis making a few early lists as a projected first-rounder. Askew is a big one as well as he is considered one of the top 1997-born players in the country. Guys like that help the USHL in its own battle to recruit top talent.
The battle however is continually being won by teams like London and Kitchener, which have been able to position players for high selection in the draft on a seemingly annual basis. There isn’t a team in the USHL or even in college hockey that has experienced the type of NHL Draft success of the Knights.
Since former Knight Patrick Kane was selected first overall in 2007, London has had a total of nine players taken in the first round. In the two years the team hasn’t had a first-round selection, it signed one — Jarred Tinordi in 2010 and John Carlson in 2008, luring them away from college commitments in the process. That’s a lot of pedigree, the kind that speaks to young hockey players with big aspirations.
Windsor, Kitchener and Plymouth also have solid numbers, as does Portland in the WHL and Quebec in the QMJHL. Those are the teams that also seem to have the most success drawing in U.S. talent and are harder to compete with.
This year, London also has the extra draw of hosting the Memorial Cup, which is as high-profile a scouting event as you’ll find. Being able to essentially guarantee that exposure is certainly key (though that doesn’t explain Kitchener’s increased success with Americans this summer).
The CHL used to not even be a consideration for most players, but I’d bet the vast majority of top-end players take time to seriously consider both routes now, which I actually think is a good thing anyway. Most should be doing that to ensure they’re making the best possible decision for themselves.
Though it never receives the coverage like a decommitment, the fact is, most players on the college path will remain on it. The majority stay. Those numbers are unignorable.
What is also unignorable is that as more previously college-bound players make the move to the CHL, the sample size gets bigger for players looking to make a decision on their future. It’s also far less taboo in U.S. hockey circles for an American kid to go the CHL route than it was even three years ago, due in all likelihood to its increasing regularity.
There’s also this uncomfortable truth for college hockey: While more top-level Americans go north, the number of elite Canadians choosing college hockey is down to a trickle. There are many Canadian players, but the very top tier guys aren’t making the jump as eagerly.
Jonathan Toews in 2006 was obviously a big one, but since then, Jaden Schwartz, Phil Di Giuseppe and Riley Sheehan are the few who have been Canadian-born upper-round picks. Beyond Toews, there hasn’t been a suitable torch-bearer leading the charge to try and stoke a trend coming the other way.
There is one high-profile case college hockey can hope will help alter the perception, if only slightly. Ryan Gropp, a 17-year-old Canadian forward who plays in the BCHL, recently committed to North Dakota. Assuming he makes it to campus in the fall of 2014, he could be an important player in the ongoing recruiting battle.
A lot of this post has centered around the NHL Draft and I do believe it plays a large role in the decision process for any player that is under the age of eligibility heading into a given season. I also think that the added exposure of the NHL Draft in the U.S. over the last few years, with it now available on national TV, has contributed in a big way to the perception shift among potential college recruits.
Even though there are plenty of college-bound or current college players selected, watching the Draft on TV is almost like a two-day commercial for the CHL. That’s not even to say the TSN broadcast is biased in any way, it’s just the high volume of picks out of the CHL makes it tough for a kid to ignore.
To be completely fair, however, the NHL Draft is of over-inflated importance to prospects it seems. The draft should never trump what is best for a player’s long-term development, which can get lost in this decision, particularly among younger players.
A look at the draft numbers that skew heavily in the favor of the CHL seem attractive, but when it comes to actually making it to the NHL, draft status is just a number. It’s an indication a team thinks a player can make it to the league, but it doesn’t matter if that player’s development goes south.
The fact of the matter is, a player playing at London or Kitchener isn’t going to guarantee his NHL future. Nothing will, which is what makes this ongoing recruiting battle so fascinating. So often, whether a player is going to be drafted or not, or make it to the NHL or not, is based on the player alone and not where he plays. Sure, his team can help him with exposure and talking to NHL teams, but players still have to play.
Most players, if they are good enough, are going to be found and are going to make it to the NHL. That, along with the ebbs and flows of the trends among American players, are what makes this ongoing recruiting battle so fascinating and why it’s something I’ll continue to examine as long as I have a space to do so.
Both paths seem to understand that the other is a valid path to the next level, but this recruiting battle will continue to rage on. If this summer is any indication, it’s as heated as ever.