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The College Kids are all right

by Anthony SanFilippo / Philadelphia Flyers

Ten years ago, the Flyers had four players on their NHL roster who played collegiate hockey instead of Canadian Junior hockey or in European elite leagues.

John Leclair (University of Vermont) was easily the cream of that crop but he was joined by the likes of Dan McGillis (Northeastern) and Paul Ranheim (Wisconsin).

Signed out of Bemidji State, Matt Read led all rookies in scoring with 24 goals in 2011-12.

But, only one player – Chris Therien – who played at Providence College, came through the Flyers system.

There were seven draft picks in the system at the time who also played college hockey and two AHL free agents who originally signed with the Flyers, but of that group only Patrick Sharp (Vermont) and Neil Little (RPI) ever played in the NHL.

Fast forward a decade.

Now, there are five players already with NHL experience that were signed by the Flyers out of college – all as free agents: Erik Gustafsson (Northern Michigan), Ben Holmstrom (UMass-Lowell), Matt Read (Bemidji State), Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown) and Scott Munroe (Alabama-Huntsville).

There are two other collegiate free agents who are on the brink of breaking through and getting a shot at the NHL level - Mike Testwuide (Colorado College) and Matt Mangene (Maine) – Cal Heeter (Ohio State), who was signed to his first contract this summer and is considered a long range goaltending prospect, and three more who came from other NHL organizations: Matt Ford (Wisconsin), Cullen Eddy (Mercyhurst) and Blake Kessel (New Hampshire).

Finally there are six Flyers draft picks who are currently playing NCAA hockey: Anthony Stolarz (Nebraska-Omaha), Petr Placek (Harvard), Nick Luukko (Vermont), Michael Parks (North Dakota) and Shayne Gostisbehere (Union). A seventh, Oliver Lauridson, left St. Cloud State after last season to join the Adirondack Phantoms in the AHL.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren at University of Minnesota

“The influx of college players has certainly evolved, not just with our team but with everybody around the league,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. “Let’s face it, there are players that aren’t drafted and end up becoming late bloomers. So, every team now has gotten to the point where they have a [scout] whose job it is to specifically watch colleges.”

That scout for the Flyers is Ross Fitzpatrick.

A seventh round draft pick of the Flyers in the 1980 NHL entry draft, Fitzpatrick was a collegiate product himself, signing with the organization after four years at Western Michigan University.

Fitzpatrick had a cup of coffee in the NHL – playing 20 games after parts of four seasons with the Flyers (scoring five goals and two assists for seven points in that time), but he had a pretty solid AHL career scoring 308 goals and 311 assists for 619 points in 554 career games.

So it’s safe to say he knows what to look for when it comes to organizational depth.

“He’s done a tremendous job the last few years of recruiting,” Holmgren said. “That’s really what the job is – finding talented players and convincing them that our organization is their best chance of making it to the NHL.

“He was a big reason why guys like Read and Gustafsson and Testwuide have come to our organization and that’s been big for us.”

The NCAA ground is fertile now because of advancements in hockey programs at schools across the country. It was a shift in philosophy in the NHL once the salary cap was introduced where teams were looking for players who might be more physically mature than their teenage prospects who might be able to fill the void at a more palatable salary and still maintain the status of being a marginal prospect without just having their ceiling hit in the minors.

“In the last decade, hockey in the U.S. has really blossomed,” said Holmgren. “Look at all the draft picks coming out of the USHL. That’s really the NCAA feeding ground. It’s incredible.”

The USHL has become a strong alternative for players who want to play a good level of junior hockey but want to maintain collegiate eligibility.

Players who play in the Canadian major junior leagues are paid, and therefore lose that eligibility.

Six of the aforementioned players, Holmstrom, Parks, Read, Testwuide, Ford and Kessel, all spent time in the USHL.

And while the skill level of the NCAA might not be as high as Canadian junior hockey, nor is the game schedule as rigorous, the physical aspect of the game is far closer to the NHL.

“College hockey gave me the opportunity to develop my game as I became older and stronger,” Gustafsson said. “Because there are less games, there’s a lot more time for practice and workouts so you can fine tune your game while building up your body. There’s more time to work on the small details in practice while getting stronger and more mature.”

Holmgren also credits USA Hockey for growing the sport nationally, which has made it more prominent at the collegiate level at more schools – especially some non-traditional sports powerhouses.

“USA Hockey has done a fine job at the grassroots level,” Holmgren said. “They get kids playing. Now there are kids drafted from Atlanta, Southern California, Texas… it’s not just the hotbeds of Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota anymore.

“Look at Union College last year reaching the Final Four. I bet most people didn’t even know Union College had a hockey team.”

The year before it was Bemidji State. There’s also RPI and St. Cloud State and Colorado College (not University) among others.

“It’s definitely an area we have put a good amount of emphasis on in recent years,” said Chris Pryor, Flyers Director of Hockey Operations. “We’re seeing more and more guys make it to the NHL and having good careers after coming out of college, so it’s definitely an approach we want to continue using, hopefully with some success, in the future.”

Oh, by the way, before he broke into the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars, Pryor played four years at the University of New Hampshire.

Just saying.

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