With Sonny Milano’s decision to join the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and back out of his commitment to play for Boston College, an old debate has been rekindled. What is the best path of development for young hockey players? Is it better for them to play in the Canadian Junior Leagues for just a couple of years and then head to the pro ranks or is it better to spend a longer time developing in college before making the jump?
There are many sides to this debate, but to put it bluntly, it is hard to make a case that one path is better than the other. Each path serves a different purpose.
In general, players who go the college route are more “long-term projects” while those who go to juniors will make a faster transition to the NHL. Here are a few reasons why:
1.) Contracts: Four Years vs. Two Years
A player who is drafted that is set to play college hockey has four years to sign an entry-level contract with the NHL team that drafted him. The player can use all four years of NCAA eligibility to develop and his NHL team will maintain his rights. Of course, if the player then decides not to sign with that team (see: Kevin Hayes) then the team can still lose that player.
A player in the Canadian Junior Leagues has two years to get under contract. Players do not typically go back to juniors for a 3rd (overage) year after being drafted. That is because they can join the AHL by then. By that point, the player is usually too physically developed to be playing against 16 year olds.
2.) More Games vs. More Work-Outs
The typical college hockey season has about 40-45 games, including playoffs. Most of these games come on Friday and Saturday nights, although that is not a hard and fast rule. Therefore, college hockey players have more time to work out and gain physical strength (also avoiding injury) while not seeing as much game time experience.
Players in juniors, however, play 68 regular season games and then many have to worry about the playoffs. The schedule is similar to that of the AHL/NHL and is great preparation for players who want to make an immediate jump to the pro game.
3.) Pure Skill vs. Complete Game
It used to be said that the most highly-skilled players would play in juniors while more “complete” players went to college. Although that generalization is slowly going away because college hockey is producing more and more highly skilled players, there is something to be said for that sentiment.
Take a look at scoring leaders in junior leagues and college hockey. Even seemingly average players can be point-per-game type guys at the junior level. Thejunior leagues foster a more wide open game that leads to skill development. A college hockey player can still be a point-per-game player, but it means a lot more to accomplish that feat in the NCAA.
So now I want to hear from you. What do you think is the best path of development for NHL prospects?