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Nashville Stands To Benefit As The College Player Population Continues To Rise

by Jimi Russell / Nashville Predators

When the Nashville Predators signed a franchise-record five free agents on July 5, it was not only a record-setting day for the club, but a day that mirrored a growing trend in the National Hockey League. That trend is a surge in college-trained players joining the NHL ranks.

A Surging Trend in the United States

The recent surge in collegiate players who have made it to the NHL is a significant step forward for college hockey in the United States, as it has traditionally trailed the Canadian Hockey League in terms of supplying NHL caliber talent. Though the CHL remains the primary source of talent, the latest figures show that the gap between the two hockey hotbeds is narrowing.

Since 2001, the college alumni population has steadily increased and the number of college-trained players in the NHL during that 12-season span has nearly doubled (a 43 percent increase). Last season, more than 270 collegians took the ice in the NHL. That is 31 percent of the total 839 skaters and 82 goalies who played at least one game in 2012-13. While the overall percentage remained stable from the season prior – it was also 31 percent in 2011-12 – the total number of college players was down slightly from the record 301 skaters in 2011-12. The slight dip in the total number of skaters is due, in large part, to the lockout-shortened season.

Here is an infographic from College Hockey Inc., which serves to promote collegiate hockey in the U.S., produced with the NHL college alumni numbers during the 2011-12 season (the NHL’s last full season):

The growing pool of talented young players in the United States can be seen as a direct factor in the increase of the college alumni population in the NHL. As this pool grows deeper, many young American players are no longer leaving home to play major junior hockey in Canada, instead they are seeking high-profile hockey scholarships which have become readily available in the recent years. With the shift in mindset among young players in the United States, the level of competition at the collegiate level has also grown exponentially, which in turn attracts more fans and players to the game and to college hockey in general.

The collective bargaining agreement has also been beneficial to college-bound players by removing a lot of the previous restrictions and allowing teams to be more flexible with player’s development. The CBA states that players who are drafted and elect to attend college are allowed a maximum of four years before signing their entry level contract (see CBA 8.6 (c)). This definition allows college players to develop and mature longer than the two years afforded to those who decide to remain in junior hockey leagues in the United States and Canada.

In addition to a higher number of players attending college, the level of coaching, on- and- off-ice preparation and other developmental processes have also had to adjust to the influx of talent. All of these enhancements will continue to improve in the coming years and attract more players away from the major junior leagues.

While hockey has been a bona fide sport at many colleges and universities in the north, many non-traditional hockey schools are now sinking large sums of money into developing their own hockey programs. This is evidenced by the recent shift in the college hockey landscape as the Big Ten Conference begins play as its own entity for the first time in 2013-14. The founding of hockey’s Big Ten Conference broke up two long-standing hockey conferences, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), but it became necessary when Penn State University, which had club hockey for years, established a NCAA Division-I hockey program for the first time in its 158-year history. Penn State may be just the first domino in a long line of non-traditional schools that will begin to incorporate hockey into their athletic departments. As more schools begin to add legitimate hockey programs, more players will continue to flock to college campuses.

The growth in not just limited to players when it comes to college hockey products; there has also been an increase of college alumni among the coaching and management ranks as well. In 2012-13, eight of the NHL's 30 general managers are college hockey products, including Nashville Predators’ President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile, who played at Northeastern University and still holds the record for most career hat tricks (11). In addition to the management personnel, 10 of the 30 NHL head coaches in 2012-13 were former college athletes.

Canadian University Players

The College Hockey Inc.’s infographic above did not include those players who previously played collegiate hockey in Canada. The Canadian Interuniversity Sport (formerly known as the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union) is the governing body for all university athletics in Canada, much like the NCAA here in the United States. Many of the players who graduated from Canadian university hockey and continued on to play in the NHL have, in most cases, attended university following their junior hockey careers. The CIS doesn’t place the same restrictions upon colligate players that the NCAA does; however, the CIS does not award scholarships like the NCAA does (The NCAA has rules in place that if a player elects to play in the CHL, they immediately become ineligible to play collegiate hockey). But the option of playing collegiate hockey affords players who were not immediately drafted out of a major junior system the opportunity to continue playing, while receiving their education and improving their game.

The number of CIS players who have made it into the NHL is significantly lower than those who come from the NCAA, but Nashville has been fortunate to have acquired several players from the Canadian collegiate hockey world, including Stu Grimson, Kevin Henderson and Joel Ward.

The CIS has also been successful producing coaching and management personnel. Poile isn’t the only college alumni on Nashville’s hockey operations staff – Preds Head Coach Barry Trotz began his coaching career at the University of Manitoba. Other coaches who started their careers north of the border include Detroit’s Mike Babcock, the late Wayne Fleming and former NHL coach, Mike Keenan. The newest addition to this list is Dallas Stars’ General Manager Jim Nill, who spent a year at the University of Calgary.

How Does This Trend Affect the Preds?

As a young expansion franchise, the Predators had to rely on college talent from their outset and they have continued to follow the overall college trend throughout their 16-year history. Between the inaugural season in 1998-99 and the 2001-02 campaign, Nashville had 16 different collegiate players appear on their roster at one time or another. Players like Greg Classen, Tom Fitzgerald, Stu Grimson, Adam Hall, Greg Johnson and Rob Valicevic all honed their skills at the collegiate level before making it to the League. Two of those players, Fitzgerald and Johnson, served as the first two team captains in Preds history.

In 15 seasons, 44 college alumni (including some who played in Canada) have taken to the ice for Nashville, seven of whom were drafted and developed by the Preds. Additionally, 27 of those players were U.S. citizens, while the remaining 17 hail from Canada. Michigan State University leads the pack with five alumni players donning a Preds sweater, followed by Boston University and the University of North Dakota with four, while five other universities produced three future Predators each.

The number seven seems to be a key number when looking at college players who have made the jump to Nashville’s roster over the years.

In nine of their 15 seasons, the Preds have had at least seven college players on their roster. The high-water mark came in the 2001-02 season, as 11 collegians played at least a game for the Predators. The number of college alumni playing in the Music City has never dropped below five in a season.

Seven college players have suited up for at least one game in each of the last two seasons. In 2012-13, Bobby Butler, Hal Gill, Kevin Henderson, Chris Mueller, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Brandon Yip all saw time. While Gill, Blake Geoffrion, Jack Hillen, Smith, Ryan Suter, Wilson and Yip all helped the Preds make the second round of the playoffs in 2011-12.

As far as the current roster goes, all five of the players the Preds added to their roster in free agency played collegiate hockey – Matt Cullen played two seasons at St. Cloud State University, Matt Hendricks played four in the same program, Carter Hutton finished a four-year career at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Eric Nystrom spent four years at the University of Michigan and Viktor Stalberg played three seasons for the University of Vermont. Those five players are expected to join Smith and Wilson during the upcoming season to once again bring the alumni number to seven.

The Entry Draft has also been the key source of college talent for Nashville, as it has selected a total of 39 college or college-bound players dating back to 1998. The Predators have been forward-heavy in their drafting of collegiate players with 24, but they have also added 11 defensemen and four goalies through the Entry Draft.

Dating back to the 2009 Entry Draft, 11 of the Preds 41 picks have been college-bound players, five of whom are expected to return to their respective schools in 2013-14. The most recent draft was no exception, as Nashville added two players bound for higher education – defenseman Teemu Kivihalme, who is destined for Colorado College in 2014-15, and forward Wade Murphy, who will play his freshman season at North Dakota this year.

In terms of college players making to the NHL, the Predators have seen relative success in drafting and developing college prospects throughout their history. Eight of the 39 collegiate players drafted by Preds have made it to the NHL, with the greatest success stories being Geoffrion, Suter, Smith and Wilson. In recent years, they have seen a marked improvement in their college prospect crop with up-and-comers like Western Michigan’s Chase Balisy, Minnesota alum Zach Budish, Boston University’s Garrett Noonan, Minnesota State’s Zach Stepan and Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey.

The continued influx of talent into the collegiate hockey systems will only prove to be good for the game, not only at the collegiate level, but at professional level as well. As the current college trend continues to produce quality talent, the Predators will continue to benefit from a practice of drafting college players that is as old as the franchise itself.

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