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The Bruins-Flames game from Wednesday night spoke volumes about the changing path from amateur to pro hockey.
Canadian juniors still reigns supreme, but college hockey is on the rise. In 2000, just 20 percent of the NHL came from the NCAA ranks; two seasons ago, a record 314 former college players played, comprising 32 percent of the league.
It is the ninth straight season with more than 300 NCAA veterans skating on NHL rosters. As USA Hockey — despite questionable roster decisions — has started to make a bigger name for itself on the world stage, much of that has to do with college development.
The game in Calgary felt like a mini-reunion of the Beanpot. It was former Terrier Charlie McAvoy leveling former Eagle — and Hobey Baker winner — Johnny Gaudreau with a hit that sparked controversy. McAvoy's former defensive partner at BU, Matt Grzelcyk, and Harvard's Ryan Donato skated for the Bruins, while former BC defender and Gaudreau teammate Noah Hanifin played for the Flames.
One-and-dones are also becoming more common, among them BU stars Clayton Keller with the Coyotes and Brady Tkachuk with the Senators. (Tkachuk, injured earlier in the week and projected out for a month, was impressive early in his professional tenure.) Around 71 percent of college hockey players in the NHL played at least three seasons, among them BU's Jordan Greenway (Minnesota) and Harvard's Jimmy Vesey (Rangers), but super-talented players are shrinking that number.
Before the season, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy noted some NHL teams squirm as their drafted collegians reach their junior season out of fear they will "pull a Vesey" — playing four seasons in the NCAA and nullifying the drafting team's rights to become a free agent.
Tkachuk was among 67 NCAA players taken in the 2018 draft, the most since 2012. That's no doubt helped by players jumping from college to the pros without missing a beat quicker than ever, notably McAvoy in the postseason two seasons ago and Donato last year.
A year ago, 49 of the 60 NCAA hockey programs had skaters in the NHL, from the powers like BU and BC to Alabama-Huntsville — goalie Cam Talbot of the Oilers, who faced the Bruins on Thursday. The Bruins alone have representatives from BU, Notre Dame, Harvard, Denver, Providence, Michigan State, Vermont, Michigan, Miami, Colgate and Minnesota State.
The 12 former college skaters is ahead of the 11 with the Penguins and Wild, and 10 with the Ducks, but the rest of the league has taken note as well.
It's also not just Americans — 52 Canadians on NHL rosters played in the NCAA, with presences from Finland and Sweden as well.
The Bruins will face a Senators team for the second time on Tuesday that dresses eight former NCAA players, including Chris Wideman, who was a Miami University teammate with Sean Kuraly.
Early hit parade has some on alert
Edmonton's Matt Benning won't face a hearing or possible suspension for his Thursday night high hit on David Backes, which sent the Bruins center to the dressing room. (He returned and finished the game.)
In light of the Mike Matheson hit on Elias Petterson in Vancouver earlier in the week, big hitters are on higher alerts. Similarly, McAvoy won't face any repercussions for his hit on Gaudreau. The Bruins defender did reach out to the Flames skater, but Gaudreau didn't have a problem with the hit.
Keeping those scoreboards rolling
Despite scoring being far from a concern early, the Bruins have been connected to Artemi Panarin of the Blue Jackets. Starting price, according to reports, is expected to be McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk — certainly a high-cost for a team that entered Friday top 10 in goals.
Darren Dreger of TSN reported the B's seek another center. With Backes moved to the middle, it isn't out of the realm of possibility.
The NHL is on pace for its highest-scoring season since 1995-1996, with teams averaging 3.11 goals/game 98 contests into the year, though it's not too much higher than it was a season ago. Five teams had more than 25 goals entering Friday's play, compared to seven last Oct. 19.
Toronto is again leading the league, off last year's total by just one. There's a lot of time left for defenses and goalies to settle into their systems, but scoring is trending toward a fourth straight season on the rise.
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