TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.
– What are the odds of scoring a game-winning goal in an NCAA championship, signing an entry-level contract with the Red Wings and sharing a bench with goalies Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood in a span of 12 months?
If your name is Justin Abdelkader, the chances are pretty good.
The 21-year-old forward, one of 19 players at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament who starred in college last season, is now hoping to earn his keep and a possible full-time role with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
How does this happen? Does college really prepare players for the rigors of the NHL grind?
"I think college hockey really prepared me well for that next level and I just went out there and tried to fit in and the guys did a really nice job of taking me in and helping me out," Abdelkader told NHL.com. "I was so nervous playing in those last two games before the playoffs, but the guys really made me feel so comfortable. I was an absolute ball of nerves."
Not only did Abdelkader perform in the final two games of the regular-season with the Wings, but he practiced with the team throughout their postseason run and was even part of the media sessions during the Stanley Cup finals. On the day the Wings signed him to a one-day amateur tryout, April 3, he took three shots, had three hits and earned 11:20 of ice time against Columbus.
The very next day, the former second-round draft pick (No. 42) in 2005 was given a three-year contract. Abdelkader was awarded Mr. Hockey in Michigan as a junior in high school and later earned the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player at Michigan State after scoring the game-winning goal in the 2007 NCAA championship against Boston College.
"The biggest change for these college kids is playing every second or third night," said Jim Nill, vice president and assistant general manager of the Wings. "They're used to playing the weekend schedules and practicing a lot. You're really just going from playing 45-to-50 games to playing 80-to-100."
8:00 PM ET - Thrashers vs. Lightning
10:00 PM ET - Stars vs. Blues
Monday, September 15
8:00 PM ET - Wild vs. Blues
10:00 PM ET - Stars vs. Blue Jackets
Wednesday, September 17
8:00 PM ET - Rangers vs. Lightning
10:00 PM ET - Red Wings vs. Thrashers
Thursday, September 18
8:00 PM ET - Third Place Game
10:00 PM ET - Championship Game
*All games on next-day tape delay
Even though the Traverse City tourney happens to be Abdelkader's first organized camp with the Wings, Nill likes what he sees.
"He's made the transition well, is well-educated and committed physically to working out," Nill said. "The nice thing about college players is that they are a little bit more mature. Instead of coming out 18 or 19 years old, they're usually 22 or 23, so they're more settled in their life which helps."
Speaking of settling down, there also happens to be another former collegian who was recently married in his hometown of Wilcox, Saskatchewan -- forward Rylan Kaip of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Kaip, who was selected by Atlanta in the ninth round of the 2003 draft, served as captain at the University of North Dakota last season when the Fighting Sioux reached the NCAA Frozen Four a fourth straight season. In 143 career college games, he had 15 goals, 38 points and 230 penalty minutes. Kaip joined former teammate and Traverse City prospect T.J. Oshie, the 24th pick in the '05 Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues, as the only Sioux players to sign professional contracts last summer.
"(Kaip) is another late-round pick who can skate and shoot," said Dan Marr, Atlanta's director of scouting and player development. "He's not the finesse player or the guy you lean on for offense, but Rylan possesses all the necessary intangibles that a guy brings to the table. He plays with heart, courage, is a responsible player and natural leader. He's played in winning organizations and winning traditions and we like a player who can bring that to the table; players who will go against anyone."
"I'm just trying to play one game at a time and play my hardest," Kaip said. "I don't want to leave Traverse saying I could have played better heading in training camp. I enjoy playing with an edge and while I'm no heavyweight, I've always been competitive and looked after the defensive zone. I enjoy giving our team a spark when needed."
Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell would suggest to every collegiate player to remain in college if undecided.
"I've been a big believer in having the players stay longer in college unless they are really ready," Waddell said. "We've only had one player come out early and that was Dany Heatley and he was certainly ready to come out. I think the development, whether it's junior hockey or college, allows players an opportunity to mature not only as athletes but individuals."
"College is a lot more running around, hitting and fast-paced; more run-and-gun," he said. "In the minors, it's more system-orientated with a little more trapping. As for maturing, every league and every level you move up is a learning process. I learned a lot from the coaches and players at Providence, so it was a good experience. It got me here so that was certainly a plus." - Dallas Stars prospect Trevor Ludwig
Heatley spent two seasons at the University of Wisconsin before joining the Thrashers in 2001-02, posting 41 assists and 67 points en route to winning the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
Defenseman Trevor Ludwig, who was drafted by Dallas in the sixth round (No. 183) in 2004, just completed his senior year at Providence College. As one would expect, he received plenty of advice from dad, Craig, who attended the University of North Dakota before embarking on a 17-season NHL career.
"Dad played college hockey eons ago, but he told me that no matter how long or how successful you are in pro, you eventually will have to stop playing hockey and fall back on your college degree," said Ludwig, who majors in management. "It's a backup plan and something good to have in your back pocket when you're done playing. Dad didn't force me to go to college but suggested it was probably the smartest way to go because of the uncertainty in the future."
Ludwig, who had a goal and a plus-2 rating through two games at Traverse City, felt the college game was a lot different than the style he played in the American Hockey League. Ludwig played seven games with Iowa, Dallas' AHL affiliate, last season and finished with three assists and plus-3 rating.
"College is a lot more running around, hitting and fast-paced; more run-and-gun," he said. "In the minors, it's more system-orientated with a little more trapping. As for maturing, every league and every level you move up is a learning process. I learned a lot from the coaches and players at Providence, so it was a good experience. It got me here so that was certainly a plus."
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer