The Runner Sports

NCAA Hockey: Leaving School Early… A Success Or Failure?

Student athletes leaving college early is a common occurrence in football and basketball. Although this issue happens mostly in those sports, it has started to head its way over to the NHL. The NHL requirements state that eligible North American players must be no younger than 18 years old before September 15th, and no older than 20 years old before December 31st. With most players being drafted in the NHL before they enter their first college season, it differentiates hockey from the other two major college sports (football and basketball).

Drafting early can go one of two ways, success or failure. When early drafts happen, it can either be a success or failure on many accounts. For example, if a player is drafted early and goes on to have a successful career, it could be a failure for the organization losing that player, and vice versa. One problem that appears in college hockey is when any class level (freshmen, sophomore etc.) player leaves school early to enter the draft because all one has to be is 18 years old to enter. There are several examples of players who have been drafted earlier than usual, which resulted in either a success or failure for the player or organization.

When the end of the college hockey season rolls around, one might find that there have been many incidents where teams lost players. These players that left early wanted to take a shot in playing in leagues ranging from the NHL to SPHL (Southern Professional Hockey League). Some cases where teams lost players are Boston College and The University of Michigan. Boston College lost to Quinnipiac in the Frozen Ffour and then also lost four players; two juniors, one sophomore, and one freshman. Michigan lost all three members of its high scoring CCM line (Kyle Conner, J.T Compher and Tyler Motte.). Many teams will start to face players exiting early because either those players are signing with a team that drafted them or signing as a restricted free agent.

One example of a success for the player and not for the organization is John Gibson. He committed to The University of Michigan while also being a member of USA hockey’s developmental program. A few months after he agreed to play at Michigan, he opted out of the agreement and decided to play for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He later went on to showcase the skills that Michigan missed out on in the 2013 World Junior Championships, where he was named MVP. Gibson now plays for the Anaheim Ducks, and was recently named to the NHL All-Star game this past season.

Justin Schultz’s case is one of the strangest sagas when it came to players leaving early to play in the NHL. However, Schultz’s case wasn’t a success, but rather a failure as a player. He was a defenseman for The University of Wisconsin up until his mid-junior year. In 2008, the Anaheim Ducks drafted Schultz as their 43rd overall pick. He failed to agree to a contract with the team, and instead opted for a “de-registered” from Wisconsin. This left Anaheim with 30 days to sign or trade Shultz’s rights. Anaheim ended up not being successful in either of those actions, so Schultz signed with the Edmonton Oilers on a two-year deal and was assigned to their AHL affiliate. He was later traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round draft pick during this most recent season. Although he was traded to the Penguins, he was recently reported as a scratched player in a playoff game against the Washington Capitals when Olli Maatta returned from injury.

Another example of when hockey players leave school early is Anthony Stolarz. He is a prospect of the Philadelphia Flyers, and signed a three-year contract with them. However, he has been assigned to play for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Flyers AHL affiliate), and still yet to play in an NHL game. In the 2012-13 college hockey season, Stolarz enrolled at The University of Nebraska-Omaha on a hockey scholarship. He played in eight games for the Mavericks before he decided to leave the program to play for the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. After joining the Knights, he helped lead them to back-to-back Memorial Cup appearances while playing in 55 regular season games over the course of those two seasons.

With many players leaving school early it can result in a struggle to install an ‘at least’ year limit requirement like basketball and football. In an era where former NCAA players make up 30 percent of NHL players, it is becoming harder for college programs to keep elite players for the full four years. The NCAA needs to find a plan that will keep the talent from leaving school early to keep improving the development and level of play in college hockey.