Signs of the Times

NHL teams differ in their policies regarding signing college draftees

June 14, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky

CSTV.com

 



ELLIOT OLSHANSKY

Elliot is CSTV.com's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on CSTV.com.
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Even though he was ready for the next level, Paul Stastny found it hard to leave Denver.

 

So, he made sure he didn't.

 

The former Pioneer forward signed with the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2006, a little over a year after the team chose him in the second round (44th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and proceeded to make the NHL roster out of training camp. 28 goals, 50 assists, and one scintillating rookie season later, Stastny is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year.

 


 

 

He also puts his team in a rare category when it comes to early signings. Colorado's other early signee from the 2001-2005 drafts, Dartmouth forward David Jones, has not played a professional season yet, and could not be factored into this analysis. Thus, the Avalanche is one of two teams in the NHL with a perfect record on early signees playing in the NHL as first-year pros, based on the drafts in question.

 

Just the way the Avalanche planned it, right?

 

Not exactly, according to Avalanche Director of Player Development Craig Billington.

 

"If anyone ever professes to know exactly what's going to happen," Billington said, "quite frankly, they're full of it. The great part of our game is that there are surprises every year. For [Stastny] to come out and have an immediate impact in the NHL lineup, that's a tremendous accomplishment for him. Certainly, we welcome it."

 

Still, the Avalanche is also one of seven teams in the league that has signed less than 10 percent of its college draftees from 2001-2005, owing, perhaps, to the team's relatively laidback philosophy when it comes to early signings. According to Billington, it depends on the player's wishes far more often than not.

 

"In terms of signing underclassmen, it's at the player's discretion when he feels it's time for him to move on," Billington said. "Typically, what happens is that a player, at that point in time when he feels he's ready, will make contact with us. We track our kids, and we have a good feel of where they are developmentally, but in terms of our college kids, it really comes to a point where they feel they're ready to come out. Once they come to that feeling, that's when we make an assessment. If we don't feel that to be the case, we definitely don't move forward.

 

"I think our track record speaks for itself when it comes to our college players and how we do business."

 

While not every NHL team may leave the ball in the player's court (to use a mixed metaphor) to the extent that the Avalanche does, one thing that appears to be constant is that each player is his own individual case.

 

"Each case is different," said St. Louis Blues Assistant General Manager and Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen. "Right after the draft's done, we get the players on our depth chart, and we keep evaluating. Based on where they're at, we make our decision on what's the best for that individual as far a developing goes."

 

The other constant when it comes to early signings is the expectation that the player will play in the NHL.  Just when the player is expected to play in the NHL may vary from team to team, but it's considered unproductive to make an effort to sign an underclassman if he's not expected to play in the NHL somewhere along the line.

 

"Ultimately, if you're taking a kid out early, it's because you feel he's a pretty good NHL prospect," said Chuck Fletcher, Assistant General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose team also signed less than 10 percent of its college draftees as underclassmen. "A few years later, you're hopefully looking back with the knowledge that he's now an NHL player. That's why we sign these players. We sign them to be NHL players. If you're pulling a player our early, that should be the standard, in my opinion. Otherwise, what's the rush? If he's going to be an American League player, or even an East Coast League player, you may as well let him develop fully in college. You should never have a kid sign early to be an American League player. It just doesn't make sense"

 

For some, the expectation that an early signee will play in the NHL is immediate. The Atlanta Thrashers were one of two teams in the NHL that did not sign a single underclassman from the 2001-05 drafts (Carolina was the other), and General Manager Don Waddell, who played collegiately at Northern Michigan from 1976 through 1980, is known for his belief in the benefits of four years in college.

 

"I think there's some people in the league that feel that the sooner they get a player in their system, the better off they're going to be, and the quicker they're going to be an NHL player," Waddell said. "Our thinking is that if a player's ready as a freshman, sophomore, or junior to play in the National Hockey League, I should bring him out. If he's just going to go play for our farm team, to me, there's a lot of benefits to playing college hockey, especially if they're playing for good programs with good coaches."

 

When the Thrashers drafted Wisconsin's Dany Heatley second overall in 2000, it wasn't hard to see the potential for an exception to the rule...not to mention a Calder Trophy, which Heatley won in 2002, a year after forgoing his final two seasons of college eligibility to sign with Atlanta.

 

"There's a good example," Waddell said of Heatley. "Here's the second pick overall in the draft, wanting to come out. I really felt that he'd be better off going back one more year, and playing one more year at Wisconsin. So he went back, and we signed him after his sophomore year and put him immediately on our team. He's the only player that we've ever done that with."

 

At the other end of the spectrum are players who are so far from being ready for the NHL that they spend most of their first pro seasons in the ECHL or the UHL, and some teams find themselves in that situation more often than others.  Tampa Bay sent two of its five signed underclassmen to the ECHL

 

Still, as Fletcher points out, those signings - much like Colorado's very successful ones - often come back to the players' own wishes.

 

"There's some situations where the player, after his junior year, would come to you and say, `I just want to turn pro,'" Fletcher said. "He may be frustrated with something in the program, or he may just not like school and just want to get started, and in that case, when you have a drafted kid and he's played three years of college hockey, in some cases, maybe you do pull a player at that point."

 

In the end, as college hockey fans watch intently next weekend in Columbus to see which players are drafted by which teams - and what that means in terms of how long the player will be in school - the truth is the decision is partly based on the player, partly based on the team, one very large part uncertain.

 

"It's not an exact science," Billington said, "but it's what we're paid to do: make decisions and have opinions on players' development and when they are ready."