The Recipe for Success for the NCAA’s Best Hockey Players

The Recipe for Success for the NCAA’s Best Hockey Players

NCAA prospects such as Luke Hughes, Matthew Knies and Brock Faber turned pro. Rachel Doerrie explains how NHL teams should set them up for long-term success.

Matthew Knies

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

With the NCAA hockey season officially coming to an end over the weekend, we are seeing college players turn pro. Every year, a handful of NCAA free agents decide where they want to play, and top prospects forego their remaining eligibility to begin their professional careers. Congratulations to Quinnipiac, a masterful coaching performance complete with an early goalie pull and set faceoff play to win the title.

Now that we have reached the signing stage, teams should want to set their young prospects up for long-term success.

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Each prospect is different and will have a different development path based on many factors. A top prospect signing with a team outside playoff contention, starved for talent, is far more likely to get top-six minutes right away. The same cannot be said for a top prospect on a top-five team.

This is also why you see NCAA free agents sign with teams outside of playoff contention more often than not. The player understands the opportunity with a team well outside the playoff picture is likely to be better because the team usually shifts focus to give younger players an opportunity. It is rare that a top college free agent will join a contender because those teams have talent depth, so the same opportunity does not exist.

The past five years have given us a few examples of how various teams handle their top prospects once their seasons end. 

The multi-year pattern has emerged for high-end defensemen. Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Charlie McAvoy and Owen Power all played two seasons in the NCAA before stepping into the NHL. This year, the notable D-men to play multiple years in the NCAA are Brock Faber, Luke Hughes and Corson Ceulemans. Of those three, Ceulemans is on a team outside the playoff picture. All three are burning the first year of their contracts regardless of playing time because of their age. 

One player to note is Lane Hutson. He was arguably the best defenseman in college this season as a freshman and, given his size, would benefit from another year in college. If he follows the same pattern as the players mentioned above, he will be a top college player next season.

Most defensemen will spend time in the AHL after turning professional. Charlie McAvoy played a few AHL games before injuries necessitated his recall to Boston. He never looked back and became one of the top 5-on-5 defensemen in the NHL. 

Faber and Ceulemans are likely to see AHL before establishing themselves as everyday NHL players. On average, defensemen take 24 percent longer to develop than forwards. There is an adjustment period to playing against stronger, faster competition at the pro level, specifically in the defensive zone. 

There is no harm, nor should it be considered a slight to play a year in the AHL after college. None of these players will immediately step in and play the role they did in college, not even Luke Hughes. There are players ahead of them on the NHL depth chart who occupy those slots. Allowing a young blue-chip prospect to get AHL time, learn how to run a power play or penalty kill at the pro level and play big minutes in key situations will make the transition easier. 

Rushing a player directly into the NHL lineup playing a different role can shake a player’s confidence and interrupt their development. It is not a race to see who makes the NHL the fastest – it is a marathon to develop the player into the best version of themselves.

Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar played the last few games 2018-19 season. They did not run the power play the day after they signed their contracts. Expectations were already sky-high, and throwing a fresh-faced college kid out to quarterback an NHL power play would have been unfair to them. Both played as part of the second unit and ran the power play in their first full season out of necessity. Charlie McAvoy averaged fewer than two minutes of PP time per game until the 2021-22 season. 

Hughes and Ceulemans will find themselves in similar positions to McAvoy. New Jersey has Dougie Hamilton to mentor Hughes, and Columbus has Zach Werenski. This will allow the young defensemen to gain valuable knowledge learning from players who have been successful. It will also remove some of the pressure to be a star off the bat and allow them to develop their defensive acumen at the NHL level.

There are too many instances of teams rushing players fresh out of college into spots in the lineup ahead of their development curve. Will Butcher did not need to run a power play fresh out of college. Neither did Justin Schultz or Noah Hanifin. There is a legitimate argument to be made that all three players had their development impacted by playing higher up the lineup than they were ready for. It serves as a cautionary tale for teams with young defensemen coming out of college today.

The forwards have not developed a noticeable pattern the way defensemen have, but high-end forwards are starting to play more than one season in college. Matty Beniers signed at the end of his second season, though his first season occurred during his draft-eligible season. Ditto for Kent Johnson. Other recent instances of top prospects playing more than a year in college before making an impact at the NHL level are Matt Boldy, Cole Caufield and Josh Norris.

Looking through the careers of players who left college after their freshman season shows wild inconsistencies. 

Kyle Connor left Michigan after one season and is a consistent scoring threat in the NHL. Ditto Brady Tkachuk. Oliver Wahlstrom signed and has yet to reach the ceiling the Islanders were hoping for. Tyson Jost left college after one season, and his development stagnated in Colorado. Alex Turcotte is yet to play in the NHL consistently since leaving after his freshman year. 

Teams may be anxious to sign their player, but these examples show that professional hockey may not be the best development path for everyone. In speaking to executives and scouts, deciding between college and professional is largely dependent on maturity, both physical and mental, and fear of stagnation. If the player is dominant at the NCAA level, meaning they are leading their team in scoring and in the conversation for the Hobey Baker after their freshman year, a conversation about turning pro is merited. If they are not at that level, there is still room to grow, and most executives and scouts believe another year in college is the best route.

This year, the crop of high-end prospects includes Matthew Knies, Jimmy Snuggerud, Mackie Samoskevich, Rutger McGroarty, Cutter Gauthier and Logan Cooley. Knies has signed, and it is expected that Samoskevich will sign in Florida. Gauthier and McGroarty are returning to college next season. 

The two players making the jump are accustomed to premier minutes, something they are unlikely to get in the NHL. Toronto fans are rightfully excited about Knies, as they should be. There is a need for a scoring winger, but expecting Knies to step into a top-six role on a top-five NHL team is setting the bar astronomically high. 

Toronto should take a path similar to the one Tom Fitzgerald laid out for Luke Hughes. Both players are ineligible to play in the AHL this season because they’ve signed their ELCs. Getting Knies acclimated by being around the team and practising, perhaps playing in a game or two to finish the regular season, is the right approach. Should he show well in his games and the need arise for scoring in the playoffs, then you explore the possibility of inserting him in the lineup. 

Playing Knies in a bottom-six role is the wrong approach to take, as that is not the role Toronto sees him in long-term. Having him practise and be ready for a top-six role should the need arise will allow him to play a role like the one he’s played in college and make the transition smoother. If he and Samoskevich are going to play for their respective clubs this year, it should be in a role they are most likely to thrive in. Putting them in the lineup for the sake of putting them in does no one any good and should be avoided at all costs.

The most interesting decision rests in the hands of Logan Cooley. Clayton Keller, his Arizona teammate, played one year before signing. Cooley was the third overall pick in the 2022 draft and was a Hobey Baker finalist. All three of Knies, Samoskevich and Cooley are ready to play at the NHL level. Only one of those three would be handed a top-six role immediately, and it is Cooley. He’s still on the small side, and given Arizona’s stage of the rebuild, it may be best for Cooley to play another year in college before making the jump to the NHL, where he will be expected to produce off the bat. 

Rushing a player in Cooley’s situation may be a recipe for disaster, something the Coyotes cannot afford. Regardless of Cooley’s decision, Arizona should take the same approach with him as other teams take with their high-end prospects.

Not every player who signs out of college is ready to thrive at the NHL level. Just because Cooley would be Arizona’s best center doesn’t mean that is the best path for him to reach his ceiling. Knies, Samoskevich, Hughes and Ceulemans are all capable of playing for their NHL clubs today. They are better than some of the players their teams currently dress. But that is not the goal. 

The goal for these players is to be impact players for a decade or more, not bottom-of-the-lineup guys. They should be played if, and only if, they are ready to step in and succeed in the roles the team envisions them filling for the foreseeable future. 

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