To cap off the SBN Summer Fill series, it's time to visit the college circuit with Western College Hockey Blog's Chris Dilks. WCHB follows both the CCHA and WCHA, along with general NCAA hockey news. The NCAA provides some of the best hockey around, and it's still severely under-served, both by the mainstream media and the hockey blogosphere (seriously, Versus, why not pick up a few games?). Fortunately, Chris is armed with knowledge to the teeth, and here are his very thorough answers to my questions.
1. How would you compare the competition level in NCAA to Canadian junior leagues, and why do you think some prospects leave their NCAA teams to go up north?
That's certainly a contentious issue in the hockey world. Head-to-head, I think the NCAA is a little stronger just because you're comparing 18-24 year olds versus 16-20 year olds, and that makes a huge difference. But both options are solid enough that if a player has the skill, he can make it to the next level.
As far as players leaving, it's fairly rare that a player would jump to the CHL once he's already on an NCAA team, unless he signed an NHL contract and wasn't ready for the AHL, or if there was sort of academic or discipline issue like with Tyler Pitlick and Josh Birkholz this summer. The CHL has certainly gotten a lot of kids that have made college commitments to jump to their league a year or two before starting in college. Part of it is that there is no great magic required in convincing teen-aged boys that they're the next Pat Kane or Drew Doughty, and that instead of going to school and giving themselves an insurance policy, they should play hockey full-time. The other reason, and this could be an essay all in itself, is a cultural thing, where players and parents always feel like they need to be on the fast track to the next big thing or they're going to be left behind.
There's really no substitute for age and maturity. Very, very few players are ready to play in the NHL at age 20, and the ones that do, for the most part, aren't all that effective (Derek did some work on this). Also, the advantage of only playing games on weekends is that there is a lot more time for coaching and skill development in practice, and more time to gain muscle through weight-lifting. Being able to juggle responsibilities with things in the classroom isn't a bad skill to have either.
3. Fighting is not allowed in the NCAA. Do you feel that the lack of fisticuffs affects the amount of dirty stickwork, either positively or negatively?
There's maybe a little more stickwork, and probably more pushing and shoving after the whistle. Some people say the lack of fighting, and full face shields for that matter, have led to an increase in hits to the head, which has been a problem in the NCAA, but the NHL had their own problems with hits to the head last year as well. I feel like fighting only adds entertainment to boring hockey games, which is why no one ever really misses it when it disappears in the NHL playoffs. With college hockey having a shorter schedule, every game is that much more important, and with the extra intensity, I don't really miss fighting.
4. Who are the best collegiate players that we'll see making the jump to the NHL over the next season or two?
This will be an interesting year because a lot of top underclassmen got signed with NHL contracts over the summer. Of my top 50 NHL prospects in the WCHA/CCHA last year, something like 15 of the top 20 got signed to NHL deals, and most of the remaining names were highly-drafted freshmen, so it will depend on who breaks out as a sophomore. A couple drafted players that I think could have big seasons are Denver's Matt Donovan(Islanders prospect), who is just a steady, smart defenseman, North Dakota's Danny Kristo(Canadiens prospect), who was the third cog on that great US line at the World Juniors last year with Derek Stepan and Jerry D'Amigo, who both signed NHL deals this summer, and Michigan's Carl Hagelin(Rangers prospect), who isn't that big, but is one of the most tireless workers I've ever seen.
There's also a couple really interesting potential free agent signings out there. I think Bemidji State's Matt Read is the top guy out there, along with Merrimack's Stephane Da Costa. There's a couple other guys out there that are a little on the small side, but can really put the puck in the net like Minnesota-Duluth's Justin Fontaine and Boston College's Cam Atkinson that may get looks if they continue to produce like they have.
5. FTR's Cassie had a post a little while ago about the potential addition of PAC-10 teams. Do you see this as feasible or a pipe dream?
It's something I've wanted to see happen for a long time. The good news is that men's ice hockey is one of the few collegiate sports that could actually turn a profit for a school, so I think athletic departments are always going to at least be open to the idea. The bad news is that there are two really major barriers to entry for new programs. The first is a building. Teams either have to lease out an arena to play in, which is unbelievably expensive and kills any hope of making money, or build their own arena, which costs tens of millions of dollars. Even retro-fitting a basketball arena to make ice is expensive to the point that you may as well just build new.
The other problem is that there aren't very many schools out there that can add the 18 scholarships necessary for men's hockey without also having to 18 scholarships for women's hockey due to Title IX compliance. Even if a men's team was profitable, it would be tough to make up for what a women's team would lose, especially with all the travel a west coast team would have to do.
So those are some pretty serious things to work around. It could maybe be done, but I think it would take like five or six schools in the Pac-10 to get together and all start at the same time, or take a very wealthy donor that really loves hockey, like what is apparently happening at Penn State.