College hockey players increasing in number, importance in NHL

Cory Conacher is one in a long line of college hockey players making an impact in the NHL. (U.S. Presswires)
Cory Conacher is one in a long line of college hockey players making an impact in the NHL. (U.S. Presswires)

"Where did this guy come from?"

That’s typically the first question your average hockey fan will ask when Tampa Bay Lightning rookie forward Cory Conacher ’s name pops up in conversation.

Now with 18 points through his first 20 games and a year removed from being named the American Hockey League’s MVP, Conacher is a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy.

His path to the NHL was perhaps a little unorthodox, but more and more players like Conacher are being found, signed and contributing in a big way at hockey’s highest level.

Conacher went undrafted out of Canadian junior A hockey and enrolled at Canisius College, a small Jesuit school in Buffalo that you might not know has an NCAA Division I hockey team.

The 5-foot-8 forward became a star over a four-year career with the Griffins and eventually earned an AHL contract, dazzled with the record-smashing Norfolk Admirals and now is the NHL’s top producing rookie.

The 23-year-old winger is just another in a long line of undrafted players out of the NCAA who are making major contributions at the NHL level and, more broadly, a good representative of the growing number of former U.S. collegiate players in the league overall.

Earlier this week, College Hockey, Inc., an organization that serves as the marketing arm of U.S. college hockey, released the infographic below detailing the increasing numbers among former collegians in the NHL. Some of the statistics included are rather surprising.

Among the most impressive numbers, a record 301 former collegians suited up for NHL teams at various points of the 2011-12 campaign. That means 31 percent of the players who appeared in an NHL game last season played college hockey.

That college alumni are playing and making an impact in the NHL is by no means breaking news. Former college hockey players have been playing a role in the NHL for about as long as the league has been around, but never in this great a number.

It’s a significant figure for college hockey, which has traditionally trailed the Canadian major junior system by a wide margin. Though the Canadian Hockey League is still the biggest source of the NHL’s talent, the gap is narrowing for college hockey.

Over the last 12 seasons, the NHL’s college hockey alumni population has increased by 43 percent over the last season.

So what’s different now?

There are several factors, but a big one is the growth of hockey in the United States and the overall rising talent level nationwide. The talent pool is deepening every year among American-born players. Seeing as that is college hockey’s primary source of recruits these days, that’s not necessarily a surprise.

More U.S.-based players are getting drafted into the NHL also, and those who aren’t get four or more years to prove teams wrong and earn a free-agent deal.

Another factor is college programs being strengthened through the recruiting arms race to provide better coaching, better facilities, more time in the weight room and other sound developmental practices that give an NHL prospect the right situation to grow as a player. Today’s college player is leaving his program better prepared for the NHL as a result.

A more direct reason for the recent growth, however, is the collective bargaining agreement that was drawn up coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. The new rules for signing college players gave teams a lot more flexibility and much less financial burden. This has made the college player that much more attractive to NHL teams.

This is particularly true of college free agents. If a player goes unselected in the NHL Draft and is no longer age-eligible to be picked, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. However, unlike a bidding war often seen among top players, the most that a team can offer a college free agent is the maximum allowed under the entry level system that year.

Of those 301 former college players in 2011-12, 84 were undrafted free agents. Notable undrafted former collegians include Conacher’s Tampa Bay teammate Martin St. Louis , San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle (Miami University), Boston Bruins Rich Peverley (St. Lawrence), Los Angeles Kings Dustin Penner (Maine) and Pittsburgh Penguins Chris Kunitz (Ferris State) just to name a few.

That’s why every team was hard after Justin Schultz , who became a UFA after opting not to sign with the team that drafted him (Anaheim) following his junior season at Wisconsin. In Schultz’s case, the Edmonton Oilers were able to pick up an impact player without having to out-spend everyone else.

The frequency of college players getting signed isn’t without some problems. More and more players are signing before their college eligibility is up, which has felled some of the great programs in college hockey in recent years. Losing players early certainly makes it tougher to build a championship program, but such is being a step on the developmental ladder to the professional ranks. It isn’t ideal for college coaches, but it is the nature of the current landscape.

One recent example of the impact of early departures can be found at the University of Denver. The Pioneers lost their top two scorers with eligibility to burn and an additional top player.

Florida Panthers rookie Drew Shore would have been a senior this year but instead has 10 points through his first 18 NHL games. Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild would have been a junior this season at DU but instead has three goals in the five games since recently being called up from the AHL. Beau Bennett , who was injured much of last season, also would have been a sophomore for the Pioneers. Sidney Crosby set up the Pittsburgh first-rounder’s first career goal last week.

Imagine what the Pioneers might look like with those three in the lineup this year.

Though losing players early might negatively impact the on-ice product, college hockey’s ability to produce top NHL prospects has a positive impact as well. When it comes to recruiting elite talent, the schools that produce the most NHL prospects -- like Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- tend to attract more NHL prospects.

Each year, it seems that former college players make more noise at the game’s top level. This season, four of the league’s top 10 scorers are college alumni -- including Thomas Vanek (Minnesota), St. Louis, Kunitz and Matt Moulson (Cornell).

Add to that Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), leading the Chicago Blackhawks to an unprecedented 17-0-3 start. New Hampshire alum James van Riemsdyk has discovered his scoring touch in his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs . Ryan Suter (Wisconsin) is playing more minutes than anyone in the NHL, averaging 27:34 per game, while former Michigan standout Jack Johnson is not far behind at an average of 26:13.

College hockey’s impact goes beyond the ice as well. Eight of the NHL’s general managers are former college hockey players, including the latest addition to the GM fraternity, Columbus Blue Jackets ' Jarmo Kekalainen, who played at Clarkson University. Among head coaches, 10 are former college athletes.

As the college hockey season ends for many teams across the country in the coming weeks, there will be a new batch of players signed out of the college ranks, including a particularly strong group of free agents.

Western Michigan defenseman Danny DeKeyser is looking like the most sought after UFA among current collegians. The junior opted to stay in school this season despite offers from a wide array of NHL teams last season.

Additionally, Nebraska Omaha’s Andrej Sustr should have teams lining up to acquire his services. The 6-foot-8, 200-pound defenseman is a native of the Czech Republic and has 21 points in 32 games. Also, Yale forward Antoine Lagniere has most of the teams in the NHL scouting him and is expected to receive a number of offers.

Not all of these players are going to turn out to be a Cory Conacher or Justin Schultz, but the likelihood continues to increase that GMs are going to get a dependable asset from the college ranks for a relatively affordable price that will help improve their teams.

That’s good for the NHL, it’s good for college players and it’s good for the game overall in the United States.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @chrismpeterson Twitter and like us on Facebook. Also, subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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