Great Overlooked Collegians

July 29, 2005

NHL Draft
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Great Overlooked Collegians

Many NHL stars were overlooked in college


By Adam Wodon

Special to


The NHL Draft, like all drafts, is an imperfect science. Players slip through the cracks, and a dozen years later you slap your head and wonder what in the world you were thinking when you didn't use the opportunity to grab a player that turns into an NHL star.


But most of the NHL star players who went undrafted were not drafted for a reason. Sometimes those reasons are based on old prejudices, but sometimes they are for sound philosophy. These days, especially with advanced scouting methods, a player rarely, if ever, just slips through the cracks by accident.


Clearly, the best former college hockey player to go undrafted is Adam Oates. The 5-foot-11 centerman played 1,337 games in the National Hockey League, scoring 1,420 points. He is known as perhaps the best passer in the last 20 years outside of Wayne Gretzky. Oates spent three seasons at RPI, winning a national championship in 1985, before reaping the benefits of that distinction.


Oates entered school as a 20-year old freshman, already past his draft eligibility, when he blossomed at RPI. Often times, this is what happens when players are overlooked. Oates went on to sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Actually, the Red Wings binged that offseason on a series of big-ticket free-agent deals, but only Oates panned out.


And pan out he did. Among the top 50 points scorers in NHL history, Oates is the only one from the draft era who was not drafted.


Jamie Macoun was not a defenseman that put up impressive numbers, but the Ohio State product wound up playing 1,128 games in the NHL through the 80s and 90s. Other defensemen that were overlooked included Norm MacIver, a North Dakota standout in the early 80s, and Mike Milbury, who played two years at Colgate before a distinguished career with the Boston Bruins. Milbury is one of many ex-college players that are now executives in the NHL, a quickly growing group.


A player like Doug Smail, a star on the North Dakota national championship teams of the early 1980s, was purposely bypassed because of his size. At just 5-9, Smail was victim of the prejudice that still exists to this day against younger players. But after Smail left Grand Forks, he played 845 NHL games, scoring 459 points, largely for Winnipeg.


Joe Mullen was in a similar boat, though he had the double whammy of being both small and an American, another bias of NHL GMs of the time. Mullen was from New York City -- not exactly a hotbed -- and went to college at BC. All he did was go on to become the most prolific scorer among American-born players ever, with 1,063 points in 1,062 games.


Perhaps the biggest area of overlooked players, however, comes in the goal. Three huge names in the last 30 years were undrafted college starts who went on to big NHL careers: Ed Belfour (North Dakota), Curtis Joseph (Wisconsin) and Glenn Resch (Michigan Tech). This is easy to explain, because goaltenders tend to develop at a more inconsistent pace than skaters.


These days, some of the prejudices have faded away, but not entirely. For evidence of that, you need look no further than the most recent NHL MVP -- Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 5-foot-9 skater was a wonder in juniors, but bypassed in the draft because of his size.


He went to the University of Vermont, where he did nothing short of dazzle the fans on a daily basis. But when he graduated, the NHL still bypassed him. He played years in the minor leagues, putting up great numbers, finally got a token chance in the NHL with Calgary, then was released. Tampa came to the rescue. St. Louis told the coach to play him and he'd produce, and he delivered on his promise in spades.


The story of other more recent college stars is less dramatic, and in most cases, NHL GMs can't really be faulted.


Two of St. Louis' contemporaries in the ECAC circa 1997 have also made a name for themselves in the NHL: Jeff Halpern of the Washington Capitals (via Princeton), and Todd White of the Ottawa Senators (via Clarkson).


In Halpern's case, he was a relative no-name, a native of Potomac, Md., and not short, but thin, when entering Princeton. Even when he exploded during his junior year, and Princeton's lone NCAA appearance, no one, including probably himself, took NHL aspirations seriously. But through sheer grit and innate skill, and tremendous hockey sense, he has fashioned himself an NHL career that has already spanned 368 games, more than St. Louis and White.


Todd White had the size problem, but also vision problems which later turned out to be cataracts. When that was solved, he exploded in 1997 and beat out St. Louis for ECAC Player of the Year. But he also toiled in the minors until Ottawa gave him his first legitimate shot. His skill and shot, not to mention his two-way play, are evident.


Others on the overlooked list are John Madden (Michigan), Brian Rafalski (Wisconsin) and Dan Boyle (Miami). Madden was an All-American who set a record for career shorthanded goals, and has continued that propensity in the NHL. He's played 400 NHL games, the most of any player of his era in college that went undrafted.


This year, in particular, may create a lot of overlooked players, because the draft has been reduced from nine rounds to seven. But if history tells us anything, it's that, if you're talented enough, you'll make it one day eventually, draft or no draft, bias or no bias.



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