Now, more than ever, collegiate hockey is churning out quality NHL hockey players. In the past, the popular route to accomplishing one’s dream of playing professional hockey was through major junior hockey in one of three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League. However, prospects and their families are now realizing the positive developmental impact of playing college hockey.
Typically, players will spend more than one season playing in college. Patience is the best approach with young players and organizations usually find that there is no need to rush their developing assets. However, this isn’t always the case. Every year, a few players sign their coveted entry-level contract after playing just one season in the NCAA.
Here are the four players that will likely do this after this season comes to an end.
The days of the Los Angeles Kings being one the NHL’s more dominant organizations is now history. After a few seasons of denial, the Kings are now fully committed to the idea of rebuilding. Although a few lofty veteran contracts remain, more young players are inhabiting roster spots. It only makes sense that the Kings add their fifth-overall selection from 2019 into the mix next season.
Alex Turcotte, a product of the stacked USNTDP program, is having a very strong freshman campaign with the University of Wisconsin. Transition to the college game is never easy, but with 6 goals and 11 assists through 21 games, he is more than holding his own. Even with missing a few games, he ranks fourth on the team in assists and fifth in total points. The Badgers are a second-tier team in the Big Ten and benefit mightily from Turcotte’s presence in the lineup. When he’s not in the game, Wisconsin struggles to produce victories. That says a lot about the freshman’s impact.
To say that Turcotte wouldn’t benefit from another season with Wisconsin would be a complete lie. Most young players benefit from more time to develop and the same goes for Turcotte. However, Los Angeles is going to look at his freshman year, compare that to the likely roster for next season, and decide that signing him is the best move for the organization.
When the Anaheim Ducks selected Trevor Zegras ninth overall in 2019, the overall understanding was that the Bedford, New York native would be a few years away from professional hockey. The USNTDP product possessed remarkable playmaking ability but needed a lot of work in a lot of the little areas of his game. When he finally became a finished product, Zegras could be a true difference-maker in the NHL.
Less than one year into his college hockey career, Zegras is proving that those who projected his initial timeline were a bit off. Through 23 games with Boston University, he ranks third on the team in points with 26. Additionally, his 18 assists are tied for the most among Terriers and he’s even scoring a respectable amount of goals on his own. Zegras has adapted to the college game a lot quicker than many expected, which begs the argument of whether he could do the same in the pros.
Similar to the Kings, the Ducks find themselves near the basement of the NHL and in the midst of a rebuild. Zegras’ success in his freshman year with BU is going to intrigue Anaheim enough to sign him to his entry-level contract. It’s too early to tell if he’d make the team’s opening-night roster next season but he’ll certainly receive NHL playing time as the year progresses.
The Montreal Canadiens simply lucked out when American goalscorer, Cole Caufield, fell to them at pick 15 in last year’s draft. At just 5-foot-7, Caufield’s lack of size scared away 14 other teams and the Habs came away with a steal in the middle of the first round.
Caufield has taken no time at all in making his presence felt at the college level. The Wisconsin native scored two goals in each of his first three games for the Badgers and now has 17 goals on the year. Tied with seven other players, he is ranked third in the league in goals. Additionally, he has the most goals amongst NCAA freshman, with the player in second place four goals behind him. On top of all of the goals he’s scored, Caufield also has 11 assists to his name. His 28 points are the most among Wisconsin players.
In today’s NHL, you can never get enough goal-scoring. Most likely missing out on the postseason for the third-straight season, Montreal will view Caufield as an opportunity to improve through internal means. Although he’s yet to complete his first NCAA season, there’s very little left for Caufield to prove at that level. It just makes the most sense for him to sign with the Canadiens and try to get them back into the postseason next year.
Of the four players mentioned, Shane Pinto has to be the biggest surprise on this list. Taken by the Ottawa Senators with the first pick in the second round, Pinto has had a fantastic year both with the University of North Dakota and with Team USA at the World Juniors.
Pinto’s 13 goals and 9 assists through 25 games has North Dakota back to being one of college hockey’s top programs. The Franklin Square, New York native ranks second among his teammates in goals and is also in second place among freshmen in that category. Although Team USA had a rather disappointing World Juniors, Pinto garnered a great deal of attention with a strong tournament. His four goals were good enough to make him tied for the lead among Americans and his seven points were second-most amongst his team.
It’s no secret that it’s all about the youth movement in Ottawa. After trading away their more well-known and production players over the past few seasons, the Senators are focused on the future. Pinto fits in nicely with that plan and should be able to find a place on the team’s opening-night roster next season.
Signing your professional hockey contract is not an easy task for anyone. However, with how these four prospects have been playing, suiting up for the teams that drafted them is a very real possibility.
John Gove is an elementary school educator who writes about hockey in his spare team. Over the past five years, John has covered the game at various levels. Now, he exclusively focuses his coverage on prospects and the developmental leagues.