Every spring as the hockey seasons of the university end, there are several top players – mostly well-placed underclassmen and freelancers – advancing rapidly in the professional ranks. But there is a bonus for the players this year.
Because the NHL season only began in January, and it has been extended until May 19 to accommodate games that have been postponed and rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, college signatories will be left with more games in the NHL regular season than usual, which they six give additional weeks to apply themselves to the pro game. With more matches to evaluate players, the burning of the first year of an entry-level contract becomes less of a hindrance for teams.
Some players are initially recruited to the U.S. Hockey League affiliate, depending on whether their NHL team is in rebuild mode, with enough ice time available for players with a promise or to chase a playoff spot.
Another complicating factor this year was that the NHL deadline, normally the end of February, was moved back to April 12th. Trade acquisitions have affected the ice age for recent colleagues – positively and negatively.
Philadelphia general manager Chuck Fletcher signed Michigan’s second defender, Cam York, the overall number 14 in the 2019 draft, on March 31, five days after the Wolverines had to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament due to positive coronavirus tests. While the Flyers try to stay in the playoffs, they send York to their AHL, where they can evaluate him before a possible promotion. Lehigh Valley had about 20 games left when York signed.
“Normally, if these kids drop out of college, they could get a handful of regular season games before the summer break,” Fletcher said.
“It’s an opportunity for him to really get some games, to get some experience,” Fletcher added.
The most recent university entrepreneurs to make their NHL debut were Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker of Ottawa, who signed entry-level contracts shortly after North Dakota lost the NCAA Midwest Regional final on March 27th. After completing their required seven-day quarantine periods, their first practice with their new teammates was Tuesday. Bernard-Docker made his debut on Wednesday, and Pinto, the overall no. 32 in 2019, played his first game in Montreal on Saturday and had some help.
“It would be good if I gained some experience,” Pinto said, “and then I have a whole summer to figure out where I can get better.”
Montrealers will have to wait for the rookie they most wanted to see on Saturday: Cole Caufield, who ended her two years in Wisconsin by winning the 2021 Hobey Baker Award, awarded to the best player in men’s college hockey.
Caufield, 20, who led Division I in goals (32) and points (52), signed a day after his Badgers were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament. Although the Canadians needed help scoring points – they held the final playoff spot in the Northern Division entering Sunday – they assigned him to their AHL subsidiary, the Laval Rocket. In his first two matches he scored three goals, including two match winners, who earned the monk Goal Caufield.
Montreal called Caufield on Friday, but he was placed in the taxi team. Caufield can practice, but his only way in the lineup requires the Canadiens to clear the cap space or injure another player.
A return to Laval will not be the worst thing for Caufield. According to Minnesota general manager Bill Guerin, there are several benefits to starting a pro career with minors, which he did for two seasons for Utica in the AHL before playing in the NHL for 18 years.
“The teammates I helped develop me learn how to be a good teammate and how to act like a professional and carry yourself,” Guerin said.
Guerin signed a player from college last month – 20-year-old Boston College sophomore Matt Boldy – and sent him to their AHL team in Iowa.
“Once Matt is ready and proves himself in Iowa, we’ll take the next step,” Guerin said. ‘He’s a very important piece of our puzzle. We’re going to do the things that are right for his development so he can help us win when he’s here. ”
Unlike Boldy, former North Dakota defender Matt Kiersted immediately jumped into the NHL and quickly saw the difference. Kiersted made his pro debut on April 3, two days after signing for Florida, joining a team in a three-way battle with Tampa Bay and Carolina for first place in the Central Division.
“The faster game is what struck me,” Kiersted said after the Panthers’ home win over Columbus on April 3. “Things happen faster, guys are better at making plays, and it’s a little harder to defend.”
After the Frozen Four, defender Zac Jones of national champion UMass was among those who signed pro-contracts. Jones joined the Rangers last Thursday for their morning skating, but coach David Quinn has yet to play him in a game.
In his second season in Massachusetts, Jones finished third in the country by scoring among defenders with nine goals and 24 points in 29 games. Still, colleagues do not guarantee automatic entry into an NHL series.
Even if the calculation for teams has changed, a simple factor remains important, especially for the Rangers, as they scored six points from a playoff spot on Sunday.
“They need to deserve it and give you reason to put it in,” Quinn said. “We will certainly not hesitate to put him in there if we think we can help win.”