BUFFALO -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are proving that NCAA Division I men's hockey is much more than just another development path to reaching the NHL.
With proper patience and timing, it could offer the building blocks to create a championship-caliber program.
The Penguins had 13 college hockey alums on its 2016 Stanley Cup championship roster and 15 former college hockey players helped them win the Cup for the second straight season in 2017.
"College players have more years to develop by staying in college, so you get those late bloomers and if you develop them properly you get what you see with the Penguins," general manager Jim Rutherford said. "There's guys that play major junior who aren't drafted that are overage players who can do the same thing, but right now there appears to be more college hockey guys who are late bloomers."
No path is the wrong path to building a hockey resume, but the fruits of the Penguins' labor in either drafting or signing college hockey players the past 10 years is impressive.
"In the cap era, where teams spend a big portion of their money on their core guys, [college players] can add a lot to your lineup," said Tim Army, assistant coach for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate. "Some need more development than others but you can find those guys that can add some elements to your lineup."
The 15 former NCAA players who contributed to the Penguins' six-game victory against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final last season are draft picks Jake Guentzel (University of Nebraska-Omaha), Carter Rowney (North Dakota), Josh Archibald (Nebraska-Omaha), Bryan Rust (Notre Dame) and Scott Wilson (Massachusetts-Lowell). Acquired talent via free agency or trade include Chris Kunitz (Ferris State), Conor Sheary (Massachusetts-Amherst), Nick Bonino (Boston University), Ron Hainsey (Massachusetts-Lowell), Matt Cullen (St. Cloud State), Brian Dumoulin (Boston College), Carl Hagelin (Michigan), Phil Kessel (Minnesota), Ian Cole (Notre Dame) and Justin Schultz (Wisconsin).
Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (Massachusetts-Lowell) didn't see any time in the Final, but appeared in six Stanley Cup Playoff games. Rowney might fill the third-line center role this season once held by Bonino, who signed a four-year contract with Nashville on July 1.
"I just think you have at least four years that a player can develop without forcing the issue," Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin (Boston College) said. "Most players aren't ready at 18. After that you need to factor in the time they're going to spend in the AHL because once you dominate the college level there's still another level to figure out before you even get to the show."
The Penguins have three talented players out of college competing in the Prospects Challenge at HarborCenter this weekend: center Adam Johnson (Minnesota-Duluth), defenseman Jeff Taylor (Union College) and highly touted right wing Zach Aston-Reese (Northeastern).
Aston-Reese (6-foot, 204 pounds) led the NCAA with 31 goals and tied for first with 63 points in 38 games last season. He signed a two-year, entry-level contract on March 14 after his senior season and had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 10 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"I think you grow a lot as a person between the ages of 18 and 24, and when you go to college and are in that culture you go through those tough times when you're 18," Aston-Reese said. "A lot of what you do away from the rink carries over to the rink, so I feel you have a lot more time to mature as a person."
Many within the Penguins organization believe Aston-Reese plays a similar game to right wing Patric Hornqvist.
"I think he's tough, smart, good in the battle areas and in front of the net," coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's pretty strong along the wall and he's got a mature game. I think it's a matter of getting him into training camp and watching how he does with some of our veteran players. He's a guy who hopefully will continue to develop and push for a roster spot."
The most successful college hockey alum for the Penguins last season was Guentzel. The forward had 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 regular-season games, and 21 points (13 goals, eight assists) in 25 playoff games. Guentzel played three seasons at Nebraska-Omaha before signing a three-year entry-level contract on May 23, 2016.
"We knew [Guentzel] was a good player but when they do something like that, it's like 'Wow'," Guerin said.
How does management and the player know when the time is right to sign a professional contract?
"When they get to a point where they're dominating a level, it's time to move up," Guerin said. "When the game is becoming consistently easy, and they're scoring and producing at a consistent rate, they've hit that mark. The player has to be challenged in order to get better so when you hit that mark it's time to move on."
Fourteen of the 19 goals the Penguins scored in the Stanley Cup Final were by former college players.
"It's not surprising to see NCAA alumni playing important roles on the Penguins' rookie camp roster, given the record-setting number of NCAA alumni on their Stanley Cup winning teams the past two years," said Mike Snee, College Hockey Inc. executive director. "They continue to find success in all types of NCAA alumni, from first rounders to undrafted players. It will be exciting for college fans to see if other teams follow a similar formula. Given Pittsburgh's success, it seems natural that they would."