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Is College Hockey the Best Way to the NHL?

Annabel Curry

Luke Hughes, Adam Fantilli, and Matthew Knies – three players who began from the collegiate level.

What is the best route to the National Hockey League (NHL)? This question has been asked and researched without a clear answer.

Recently, college hockey players have dominated both the draft and the rookie season. I am not going to include the 2022 draft because players – including Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud – continue to develop and have not yet played at the NHL level, which prevents any fair comparison to players like Shane Wright and Juraj Slafkovsky.

From previous years, amazing players have come out of college hockey. In the 2021 draft, the first two picks, Matty Beniers and Owen Power, came from the University of Michigan. Both players took an extra year to develop at the college level and are now two out of the three Calder Memorial Trophy nominees. Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson, picks four and five, similarly came form University of Michigan. Draft success continues with players like first pick Jack Hughes and first-round pick Trevor Zegras.

The list of talented college hockey players in the NHL is extensive: Quinn, Jack, and Luke Hughes from the University of Michigan, Dallas Stars Captain Joe Pavelski, Alex Turcotte from the University of Wisconsin-Madinson, Thatcher Demko, Johnny Gaudreau, Alex Tuch, Andover alum Chris Krieder ’12, young star Joseph Woll from Boston College, Matt Grzelcyk, A.J. Greer, Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, Jake Oettinger, Brady Tkachuk, and Trevor Zegras from Boston University. This list continues with stars like Devon Levi, Adam Fox, Jake Guentzel, Andover alum Garnet Hathaway ’10, Connor Hellebuyck, Torey Krug, Johnathan Quick, Troy Terry, Tage Thompson, and Johnathon Toews. The list goes on and on. (See end for more)

In addition to draft success, college hockey players have had great transitions to the NHL. As mentioned above, Calder Nominees Beniers and Power are both nominated for the Calder trophy, after taking an extra year for college. Within these 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, all eyes have been on Matthew Knies from Minnesota College and Luke Hughes, after they joined their respective teams once the college season ended. Both of these players made incredible transitions, Knies scoring a goal and three assists in seven playoff games, and Hughes having two points in three games, additionally tallying 25 minutes of ice time in the final game of the New Jersey Devils. Both of these young stars made quick and easy transitions directly into the heat of the playoffs.

Another example is Devon Levi. Levi was the Northeastern goaltender, joining the Buffalo Sabres after his season. Levi jumped right in and averaged a 0.905 save percentage over seven games. He won five out of seven games and beat several red-hot playoff teams. He may be one of the final pieces, along with breakout stars Tage Thompson and Owen Power. On the West Coast, the Anaheim Ducks have strengthened their rebuild with All-Stars and former college hockey players Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras.

When it comes to prospect development, college is the best option. While superstars such as Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby may be able to succeed right away, the most consistent development strategy is college hockey, specifically an extra year. This past year, players like Slafkovsky and Wright have been criticized for being busts or not living up to their hype. It is important to note that it is not only the college league that is consistently setting up stars for the future but also the patience to develop. Within an extra college year, players have time to mature around players their own age and truly master their skill before it is tested at the next level. While it can be exciting to have a new prospect with a bright future, the key is to let them develop at the right pace. It is better to have a mature player a year later, than a young kid that struggles to make the immediate adjustment.

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