The NHL's Schools Of Thought

NHL teams differ on drafting college players

June 13, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky



Elliot is's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on
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Countless young hockey players in the state of Michigan grow up dreaming of one day pulling on the Winged Wheel and skating out onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.


It goes without saying that few will ever get the chance, based on the long odds against most young players making it to the National Hockey League, but based on recent NHL Entry Drafts, the odds are particularly long in Hockeytown. From 2001 to 2005 (inclusive), the Red Wings selected only three college or college-bound players in the NHL Entry Draft, by far the fewest of any NHL team.


Overall, though, while not everyone drafts as heavily from the college ranks as the Colorado Avalanche (21 college players drafted), the Los Angeles Kings (19) or the San Jose Sharks (18), interest has increased dramatically in college and college-bound players in recent years, according to Chuck Fletcher, Assistant General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins (the Penguins drafted 18 college players in the 2001-05 drafts).




"I think certainly, if you look back through the 1990s and even 2001, '01 and `02, for a long time, I think that the preference was always major junior hockey and Europe," Fletcher said. "I think the hockey was considered to be at a higher level in major junior by many people - not by all, but certainly by many clubs - and Europe, for a while, was a place where there were a lot of skilled and talented players being developed. There were definitely some teams that didn't regard college hockey in the same light, but I think a lot of that's beginning to change, whether it's through signing undrafted college free agents or drafting kids out of the USHL who are going to college or directly from college, I think you're seeing more teams recognizing the tremendous amount of talent that's been coming through the NCAA, and I think that there are some biases that have been dismissed and overcome in the past few years."


A total of 346 college or college-bound players were selected in the 2001-05 entry drafts, an average of just over 11.5 per team. Still, though, some teams' preferences remain in place, as evidenced by the limited forays into the college ranks by teams like the Red Wings, the Toronto Maple Leafs (six college draftees), and the Montreal Canadians (six).


"There's no doubt, if you look around at how teams draft, there are certainly teams that have patterns that they just aren't going to go away with," said Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell. "That's fine. People find success in one way, and they want to stay that way. There are obviously other clubs that try to look at every avenue possible and try to project where a player's going to be three or four years from now, and we'll draft that player, whichever league he's coming out of."


Waddell isn't alone in that kind of open mind. Ten of the 30 NHL teams drafted between 10 and 12 college players from 2001 through 2005 - approximately two collegians per year in the seven-round draft - and even among some of the teams that draft fewer, it often comes down to who's available at a particular time.


"It's hard for me to say anything on behalf of anybody else," said Jarmo Kekalainen, Assistant General manager and Director of Amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues, "but the Blues don't prefer any area. We're just trying to find a better player, whether it's a college player, European or major junior."


Things can also turn around quickly, with the New York Islanders as a prime example of that. In the years tracked by for this year's NHL Draft Preview, the Islanders selected only five collegians.  However, in the 2006 draft, the Islanders more than doubled the collegiate and college-bound talent in their system, drafting six players who will skate in college next season (most notably rising sophomore Kyle Okposo of Minnesota), along with Troy Mattila, who has yet to commit to a college.


While it isn't necessarily a factor in the change on Long Island, one development that figures to affect the way NHL teams draft in the future is the changing nature of the relationship between the NHL and Europe. While the NHL changed its rules regarding the drafting and signing of European players in the collective bargaining agreement that went into effect in 2005, the effects of the change are still being felt.


"We used to draft European players, for the most part, and if they did not come over right away, you could classify them as a defected player, an unsigned draft choice with defected status, and that pretty much gave you perpetual rights to that player," Fletcher said. "Now, with the new rules, we're being forced to make decisions on whether or not to sign European players within two years, much like you have to do with major junior hockey. I think the tendency with many clubs in the past was to draft European players with your late picks. Now that you only have two years with European players, now clubs are looking at the USHL and college as that venue where you can draft a player and have his rights for four or five years."


Furthermore, the recent difficulties NHL teams have had with Russian players and their clubs overseas also figure to play a role going into the future.


"I think there's definitely a fear factor there," said Waddell, whose Thrashers drafted Russian defenseman Andrei Zubarev in the sixth round in 2005, despite his being ranked among the top 10 prospects in Europe by the NHL's Central Scouting Service. "You don't want to waste a first, second or even third-round pick on a guy that you have no chance of ever getting. I think it's out there, I think it's a legitimate concern, and it'll be interesting to see what happens this year with the Russians."


For now, though, while patterns may be changing among the NHL teams, college hockey fans can still look at the history for a sense of what to expect June 22-23 in Columbus.