Put me in coach: College to NHL is new norm for top players
Nineteen hours after Brock Boeser’s college hockey tenure ended, his NHL career began.
After North Dakota lost the seventh-longest game in NCAA Tournament history, Boeser traveled back to campus, told coaches and teammates he had decided to turn pro and the next morning boarded a flight from Grand Forks to Minneapolis. He signed his first NHL contract, got a crash course from the coaching staff and was in the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup against his hometown Minnesota Wild with family and friends watching.
The Canucks brought his parents into the locker room to read the starting lineup, and his father, Duke, got the chance to say, ”Starting on right wing, I can’t believe it, Brock Boeser!” His son then scored a goal in his unforgettable debut.
Boeser’s 19-hour whirlwind is an extreme example, but going directly from college to the NHL within days is now the norm as teams see benefits outweighing the risks.
The Coyotes played top prospect Clayton Keller two days after Boston University was eliminated from the NCAA tourney. The Buffalo Sabres signed free agent C.J. Smith and the New Jersey Devils signed Michael Kapla soon after UMass-Lowell was out. Elsewhere, the Avalanche injected some youth into their miserable season by bringing in first-round pick Tyson Jost from North Dakota, and the Canucks inked free agent Griffen Molino out of Western Michigan.
”It gives them a chance to get some games underneath their belt to kind of get accustomed to the speed and the size of NHL players,” Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said. ”I think the players now, they’re so smart and they’re so well-coached that they understand different systems and once they’re explained to them, they pick them up pretty fast.”
How and why college players jump right into NHL action is different on a case-by-case basis. For Boeser, Keller and Jost, it is about getting acclimated to the best league in the world at the end of the season with dividends potentially paying off in training camp and beyond.
College free agents can get the jump on the next contract. Competition for some of these undrafted players is so fierce that TSN analyst Craig Button called it the ”price of doing business” to sign a player, thrown him onto the ice and ”burn” a year of his entry-level contract. The Blackhawks’ Kyle Baun (2015) and the Devils’ Miles Wood and Steve Santini and Jets’ Brandon Tanev last year are just a few of the many examples.
”Sometimes it’s the bottom line between getting a guy and not getting a guy,” said New Jersey general manager Ray Shero, who didn’t have the luxury of salary-cap space to sign and play college free agents during his time in Pittsburgh. ”A lot of times it’s going to come down to a number of teams chasing the same guy, and if a team’s willing to put the kid in the NHL right away, that could be the tipping point.”
Burn a year of an entry-level contract puts a player one step closer to more money with a new deal. For teams, it’s a chance to add a top, young player without spending a draft pick. Shero and other GMs noted they still have a player’s rights as a restricted free agent and would rather add the talent now and worry about the next deal later.
That’s how the Flyers signed Union College star Mike Vecchione last week, giving him a one-year contract that will be over already in June, even if the Hobey Baker finalist as NCAA player of the year gets into one game or sits on the roster and just practices.
”It’s one of those things when a guy is in demand,” Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall said. ”You want to get in the game or get out of the game. If you’re not going to bring him right in, you’re out of the game.”
Like Boeser with Vancouver and Jost with Colorado, Keller was joining Arizona as the seventh pick last year and arguably the top prospect outside the NHL. Keller made it clear when the Coyotes drafted him that wanted to turn pro as soon as possible, and they were eager to see what he’s got in the NHL as soon as possible.
”It allows him to kind of hopefully take that next step sooner rather than later in terms of being an impact player,” GM John Chayka said. ”The fact that the coaching staff can kind of ease him into it and help him along the way I think it only helps his growth and development.”
Smith made his Sabres debut Sunday after a couple of days of practice, and coach Dan Bylsma knew the expectation was to play him right away.
”C.J. and others are courted by 20 teams, 25 teams, 30 teams who are … trying to sway the kids to come to their program and their teams,” Bylsma said. ”He narrowed it down to a handful of teams a few days ago and chose to become a Buffalo Sabre. And that’s going to afford him the opportunity to get in the game.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .