NCAA Experience Earns NHL Debuts

In less than a month, the regular season will be over and the playoffs will begin. But before the league’s top teams battle in the postseason, we can expect a handful of rising up-and-comers to make NHL debuts in the final weeks of the 2017-18 season.

Last year, the brilliant goal scorer Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks debuted on Mar. 25, 2017, and played in eight games after that. Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes played in three games at the end of last year and so did the Colorado Avalanche’s Tyson Jost – he made his first NHL appearance on the last day of March and played in a total of six games.

Brock Boeser Canucks
Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Interestingly, these three stars all played in the NCAA prior to their NHL debuts and eventually became rookie phonemes and more players from the NCAA will make an NHL appearance sometime over the next couple weeks too. Although there are tons of first-round picks who’re developing in the NCAA right now, hockey fans have a few preferences in mind.

1. Henrik Borgstrom

The first is Henrik Borgstrom, a 20-year-old Finnish centreman drafted in 2016 by the Florida Panthers at No. 23. He’s playing in his second year with the University of Denver Pioneers and was just named one of the Hobey Baker award’s top 10 finalists. The Panthers’ general manager Dale Tallon has already said Borgstrom could join the roster this season, maybe even make his debut in the playoffs. He’s just waiting for the Pioneers’ season to end.

NCAA Division 1 Men's Ice Hockey Championship
CHICAGO, IL – April 6, 2017: NCAA Division 1 Men’s Ice Hockey Championship semifinal game at the United Centre. Henrik Bergstrom (5) scores against Notre Dame. (Patrick Green / Denver Pioneers Athletics)

2. Cale Makar

The second is Cale Makar, a defenseman drafted last year at No. 4 by the Colorado Avalanche. Usually, defensemen have to wait a couple seasons after they’ve been drafted to crack an NHL roster but when they’re drafted within the top 10 spots, the standard rules don’t apply. In the last two decades, eight defensemen have been drafted in the first 10 draft spots who’ve also developed in the NCAA and only two of them spent more than one season in the NCAA after they were drafted.

Cale Makar
LONDON, ON – Dec. 20, 2017: World Junior Championships preliminary game against the Czech Republic at Budweiser Gardens. Cale Makar (7) (Photo by: Dr. Jonathan Eto)

Makar is in talks with the Avalanche and his NCAA coach says he wouldn’t be surprised if they want him to turn pro. This was the exact same decision Jost made last year and it’s why Makar will likely play in a few NHL games this year as well.

It doesn’t matter that it’s rare for a defenseman to make their NHL debut at the end of a season. Avalanche general manager, Joe Sakic is known for making bold moves and smart ones at that. The only issue is, if Makar plays in even one NHL game, he can’t go back to the NCAA. He either has to stay in the NHL or head over to the AHL. It’s fairly safe to assume he’ll be playing in the NHL in the 2018-19 season but whether or not he makes his NHL debut this year is uncertain.

3. Kieffer Bellows

The third is Kieffer Bellows, a left-winger/centreman drafted in 2016 at No. 19 by the New York Islanders. There’s a good chance we’ll see Bellows in the Islanders’ lineup this year and here’s why. Even though he’s playing for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks this season, he spent the prior season playing in the NCAA for the Boston University Terriers. For Garth Snow, NCAA experience influences his decision regarding their NHL entry date.

Kieffer Bellows Portland Winterhawks
Kieffer Bellows, Portland Winterhawks, Nov. 4, 2017. (Chris Mast/Everett Silvertips)

Snow has been the Islanders’ general manager since 2006-07 and since then, he’s been responsible for integrating 11 first-round draft picks into the NHL. Of these 11 players, only two spent time in the NCAA and only one went to the NHL during the same season he played in the NCAA, Kyle Okposo.

Okposo was drafted in 2006 at No. 7 and played for the University of Minnesota in the 2007-08 season – even though it was only for 18 games. He then started playing for the Islanders’ AHL-affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and eventually moved over to the NHL for the Islanders’ last nine games that year. The second is Brock Nelson, a centreman who was drafted at No. 30 in 2010. He played for the University of North Dakota for two seasons before spending one full season in the AHL.

Bellows’ point production with the Terriers was pretty similar to Okposo and Nelson in their first years of college hockey. However, his point production in the three years he represented Team USA in the World Junior Championships outshines theirs by far. Furthermore, he told the NHL his plan is to play for the Winterhawks for one season and then head over to the Islanders.

We can be pretty confident that Bellows will be playing in the NHL next year, which means he’ll probably get a few games in a professional league this year though it’s uncertain if it will be in the AHL or the NHL.

4. Ryan Poehling

The fourth is Ryan Poehling, a centreman drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2017 at No. 25. Right now, he’s playing in his second season with the St. Cloud State University, a team that finished first overall in the NCAA standings this year. On top of that, he’s a pretty creative player, as you will see in this impressive goal he scored at the beginning of the month:

The video went viral and highlights what Poehling is capable of; it’s the kind of thing that wins evenly matched games in championships. The NCAA regionals begin on Mar. 23, 2018, and if Poehling’s team makes it to the Frozen Four, his last game could be on Apr. 7, 2018, which also happens to be the last day of the Canadiens’ regular season. Although there’s a good chance Poehling will make it to the Frozen Four this year, if he doesn’t, he could play up to six regular season games with the Canadiens.

5. Casey Mittelstadt

The fifth is Casey Mittelstadt, a centreman drafted by the Buffalo Sabres last year at No. 8. We’ve always known that he’d finish the 2017-18 season in the NCAA but what happens once his season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers is over? After all, it’s over now and so he’s available to play for the Sabres today.

Casey Mittelstadt Team USA
Casey Mittelstadt #11 of United States celebrates after scoring a goal against Slovakia in the third period during the IIHF World Junior Championship at KeyBank Center on Dec. 28, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

The pressure on the Sabres to turn a new leaf has been building for a while and it isn’t out of character for this organization’s management team to debut a first-round pick in April. However, the Sabres have a new general manager in town, Jason Botterill, who came from the Pittsburgh Penguins as the assistant general manager.

During his tenure there, not once did any of their first-round picks make their NHL debut at the end of a season. Perhaps Botterill will play Mittelstadt regardless but this practice wasn’t learned in Pittsburgh.

The final days of the NHL’s regular season can be really intense, especially for teams who’re teetering on the cusp of playoff contention. It can also be exciting for teams seeking a new source of hope for the future by introducing new young talent.

For the Panthers, Borgstrom is certainly an enticing addition to the struggling roster and if they act soon, he could help them make the playoffs this year. For the Avalanche, Makar has the potential to be an impact player in this year’s playoffs and for the Islanders, Snow may realize that Bellows is fully capable of playing at the NHL level now and not later.

If Poehling and Mittelstadt made NHL debuts this year it would be surprising but it’s possible considering the fact that NCAA-developed players entering the NHL today are having lots of success early on. Considering the success of Boeser, Keller, and Jost this year, a new trend may start to emerge and we may start seeing it as early as the next couple of weeks.