Don Cherry opened his window and yelled at another cloud this morning. This time, it was shaped like a college degree and colored like a star-spangled banner.
1) Leafs love those College guys. Signed Eric Knodel from University of New Hampshire. Going to get a tryout with the Marlies. That means— Don Cherry (@CoachsCornerCBC) March 26, 2014
2) he takes a spot from some guy slugging it out on the buses. If you want to make the Leafs or get a tryout just go to a US College.— Don Cherry (@CoachsCornerCBC) March 26, 2014
We'll try to translate. Basically, Cherry's angry that the Maple Leafs use the NCAA hockey system as a prospect pool, like many clubs do this time of year as players wrap up their college careers and turn pro. We're not talking about players who were selected in the NHL draft previously (although Knodel was drafted by the Leafs, which makes his point even more insane) -- these are mostly late-blooming players who went undrafted at age 18, and now at age 21, 22 or 23 are free agents, able to be signed by any NHL club.
In recent years -- be it with American-born, former collegiate athlete Brian Burke at the helm or more recently with Dave Nonis in charge -- the Leafs have used the NCAA pool to their advantage.
Tyler Bozak is their shining example, signed as a free agent in 2009 after two years at the University of Denver. He now plays on the Leafs' top line with fellow collegians James van Riemsdyk (drafted 2nd overall by Philly in 2007) and Phil Kessel (drafted 5th overall by Boston in 2006). Trevor Smith is another Leaf who was signed as a free agent. He's played 27 games in Toronto this season. Spencer Abbott, too, but he's played just a game in Toronto.
College free agents tend to be hit or miss by their nature; they're older, so there's less room for error and less time to grow as a professional player, and of course, they went undrafted in the first place. But when teams hit with these guys, they can hit pretty big.
Here's a list of some notable college players who joined NHL teams as free agents:
- Torey Krug, Bruins defenseman (Michigan State, signed in 2012)
- Dustin Penner, Capitals forward (Maine, signed in 2004)
- Martin St. Louis, Rangers forward (Vermont, signed in 1997)
- Teddy Purcell, Lightning forward (Maine, signed in 2007)
- Ben Scrivens, Oilers goaltender (Cornell, signed -- by the Leafs! -- in 2010)
- Danny DeKeyser, Red Wings defenseman (Western Michigan, signed in 2013)
- Dan Boyle, Sharks defenseman (Miami, signed in 1998)
- Chris Kunitz, Penguins forward (Ferris State, signed in 2003)
- Rene Bourque, Canadiens winger (Wisconsin, signed in 2004)
- Matt Read, Flyers forward (Bemidji State, signed in 2011)
- Rich Peverley, Stars forward (St. Lawrence, signed in 2004)
There are Olympians and All-Stars and Stanley Cup winners on this list. Some of these guys had to work their way through the AHL and even the ECHL before earning a spot on an NHL roster, but they were given the chance to do so after their college careers ended, and they've built themselves nice careers as a result.
All told, 30 percent of NHL players are former collegiate players, and as College Hockey, Inc. will proudly tell you, that number has skyrocketed in the last six-to-10 years. The NCAA is a viable alternative for many young hockey players who either don't want to or are not ready to commit to Canadian Major Junior teams at age 15 or 16, especially when an NHL career is far from guaranteed. The NCAA offers both a college degree and a legitimate chance at the NHL, if you're good enough.
That's what this really comes down to: It's not an NCAA vs. CHL thing, or a USA vs. Canada thing. It's a skill thing. NCAA free agents are good enough to play in the AHL and "take spots from guys slumming it on buses," and many are good enough to play in the NHL. (Not that midnight bus trips between Ithaca and Potsdam are glamorous or anything.)
College players deserve just as much of a spot on pro rosters as anybody else, and if a current AHL player doesn't want his job taken by a college kid, he could always get better at hockey.
And for NHL teams, ignoring the college free agent prospect pool is a huge mistake, especially when all it takes to sign one of these guys is the skill to convince him your organization is better than 29 others. Be glad that Don Cherry doesn't run your favorite team.