UPDATE: Parting early for NHL can be such sweet sorrow for college players and their teams


Nebraska Omaha junior forward Jake Guentzel: Gone.

Minnesota Duluth sophomore goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo: History.

Michigan sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski: Buh-bye.

All three are among the nearly three dozen underclassmen who have signed pro contracts since the college hockey season ended on April 9, when North Dakota defeated Quinnipiac to win its eighth national championship. Ten of them competed at the Frozen Four in Tampa, which showcased a total of  31 NHL draft picks, including Denver sophomore forward Danton Heinen — ASN’s first Player of the Year.

Who goes and who stays can have a significant impact on the landscape next season.

North Dakota fans have had a mantra since midway through the season speaking of enjoying today’s success because who knows who will be left tomorrow.

UND will graduate four seniors, but had 12 draft picks on its roster. So does Boston College. Two of UND’s underclassmen signed with the NHL following the Frozen Four, junior defensemen Troy Stecher (Vancouver Canucks) and Keaton Thompson (Anaheim Ducks).

Every season NHL teams raid the top schools’ rosters, and every year the schools with the best pedigrees reload.

NHL fan sites were ripe with discussion about underclassmen such as Stecher, Yale sophomore goalie Alex Lyon (Philadelphia Flyers) — both free agents — and Boston College sophomore Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) and freshman Colin White (Ottawa Senators) as well as Michigan junior captain JT Compher (Colorado Avalanche) and freshman Kyle Connor (Winnipeg Jets, below). All of them have signed in the past month.

12/5/15 The University of Michigan ice hockey team tie Wisconsin, 6-6 (SO, W), at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, MI.

One reason players leave early despite not being completely ready is they can burn a year of  the entry level contract and continue to develop in a team’s farm system. While that path can lead to more money quicker, it can also stunt a player’s growth. Many who take that route never reach the NHL.

UND coach Brad Berry knows how the heart tugs in both directions.

As a defenseman at UND, Berry left in 1986 after his junior season to join the Jets for the final 13 games of the regular season and bolster their depleted defensive corps.

The next season UND brought in goalie Ed Belfour, now an NHL Hall of Famer. Tony Hrkac, Bob Joyce and Steve Johnson (father of Luke Johnson, current UND junior forward) all returned and combined to form the Hrkac Circus (it rhymes) as North Dakota won the national title and set an NCAA record with a 40-8-0 record.

“I think about it every single day,” Berry said of missing out the title run with his former teammates. “But you never want to dwell on the past. You always want to look to the future and where you want to be and where you are.

“I left after my junior year and it was a case of opportunity with the Winnipeg Jets. They were depleted on the backend and rebuilding a bit and I got the opportunity to play right away. I played 13 games after we were done with our playoffs and played the next year 62 games and had a good chance in my career, but you always look back.

“When I left Eddie Belfour came in and played one year here and was a big reason why and Tony Hrkac came back and Steve Johnson and Bob Joyce, so they had a lot of talent and a really good team. They have a lot of fond memories and won a championship.”

Berry’s team was 18-2-2 in January when he talked about the upcoming conversations he’ll have with some of his players who are contemplating going pro over the next few weeks.

Any advice, coach?

“I will be very very honest with them,” Berry said. “By me not staying my senior year there was  couple of things that happened. I think if I would have stayed another year, or not maybe, I would have become a more experienced player on the leadership side of it. You always want to come back and make sure you’re well-rounded and have no holes in your game and on the leadership side.

“So that’s the the biggest thing for me is if a player is ready to leave and is as close as you can to being ready for the NHL, then so be it. But, if you aren’t  ready and have holes in your game and you need to polish the rough edges, why hurry?”

Berry also suggests that before a player leaves they look at the entire situation and make sure there is opportunity at the next level. He wants to make sure they’re armed with the best information possible before making a choice.

“Whatever NHL team it is you’ve got to make sure there is good opportunity there for you that year or shortly thereafter in a close time frame so that you don’t become one of those players who gets buried in the minors for a long time,” he said.

UND senior Drake Caggiula (above), regarded as one of the top free-agent forwards, remains unsigned. He had several offers after his junior season but opted to return so he could add strength and work on what he felt were weaker parts of his game.

Jimmy Vesey of Harvard, a third-round pick of the Nashville Predators, also came back for his senior season. Demand for him is so high now he’s decided to give himself the free-agent option and not sign until after Aug. 15.

“I look at Matt Green and how he had a chance to leave after his second year and he said, ‘Nope, I’m coming back,’” Berry said of the Los Angeles Kings’ alternate captain. “He said he had to get better and he wanted to be a leader on the team. He ended up being a captain (as a junior) and that last year helped him, his puck skills and his feet. It helped him to the point where after he left after his junior year he only played two months in Iowa with the Iowa Wild and got called up and never went back to the AHL level.

“You really have to look at yourself individually and know if you’re really close to making it at the NHL level. If not, don’t go.”

• Who signed where: USCHO.com tracks offseason signings

Above: Alex Lyon, Yale’s sophomore goalie, is among college hockey’s underclassmen facing a decision about staying in college or signing with the NHL. (Courtesy Steve Musco)
Middle: Michigan’s Kyle Connor in action against Wisconsin earlier this season. (Courtesy Michigan Athletics)
Below: North Dakota’s Drake Caggiula opted to return for his senior season to improve his game. (Courtesy North Dakota Athletics)



Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. Follow him on Twitter @DakotaHI.