College players graduating to the NHL have a chance for longer test run
By Gary Santaniello
Each spring as college hockey seasons conclude, several top players — highly drafted underclassmen and free agents, for the most part — quickly progress to the pros. But there is a bonus for those players this year.
Because the NHL season did not start until January, and was extended to May 19 to accommodate games postponed and rescheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic, college signees will arrive with more games left in the NHL regular season than usual, giving them six additional weeks to acclimate themselves to the pros. With more games to evaluate players, burning the first year of an entry-level contract becomes less fraught for teams.
Some players are initially assigned to American Hockey League affiliates, depending on whether their NHL team is in rebuilding mode with plentiful ice time available, or is chasing a playoff spot.
Another complicating factor this year was that the NHL trade deadline, normally in late February, was pushed back to April 12. Trade acquisitions have affected ice time — positively and negatively — for recent collegians.
Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher signed Michigan sophomore defenseman Cam York, the No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 draft, on March 31, five days after the Wolverines had to withdraw from the NCAA tournament because of positive coronavirus tests. With the Flyers trying to remain in playoff contention, they sent York to their AHL affiliate, Lehigh Valley, which had about 20 games remaining when York signed.
“Normally, when these kids sign out of college, they might get a handful of regular-season games prior to the summer break,” Fletcher said, adding “It’s an opportunity for him to really get some games, get some experience.”
The most recent college signees to make their NHL debuts were Ottawa’s Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker, who signed entry-level contracts shortly after North Dakota lost the NCAA Midwest Regional final on March 27. After completing their required seven-day quarantine periods, they had their first practice with their new teammates Tuesday. Bernard-Docker made his debut Wednesday, and Pinto, the No. 32 pick in 2019, played his first game in Montreal on Saturday and had an assist.
“It’ll be good for me to get some experience,” Pinto said, “and then I’ll have a whole summer to figure out what to get better at.”
Montrealers will have to wait for the rookie they most want to see: Cole Caufield, who capped his two years at Wisconsin by winning the 2021 Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in men’s college hockey.
Caufield, 20, who led Division I in goals (32) and points (52), signed the day after his Badgers were eliminated in the NCAA tournament. Although the Canadiens were in need of scoring help — they held the final playoff spot in the North Division entering Sunday — they assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket. In his first two games, he scored three goals, two of them winners, earning the moniker Goal Caufield.
Montreal called up Caufield on Friday, but he was placed on the taxi squad. Caufield can practice, but his only way into the lineup will require the Canadiens clearing cap space or a player being injured.
A return to Laval would not be the worst thing for Caufield. In the estimation of Bill Guerin, the Minnesota Wild general manager, there are several benefits to starting a pro career in the minors, which he did for parts of two seasons for Utica in the AHL, before playing 18 years in the NHL.
“The teammates that I had helped me develop, learn how to be a good teammate and how to act like a professional and carry yourself,” Guerin said.
Guerin himself signed a player out of college last month — 20-year-old Boston College sophomore Matt Boldy — and sent him to the Wild’s AHL team in Iowa.
“As soon as Matt’s ready and proves himself at 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 that when he gets here, he can help us win.”
Unlike Boldy, former North Dakota defenseman Matt Kiersted immediately jumped to the NHL and quickly saw the difference. Kiersted made his pro debut April 3, two days after signing with Florida, joining a team in a three-way battle with Tampa Bay and Carolina for first place in the Central Division.
“The faster play is what stood out for me,” Kiersted said after the Panthers’ home victory against Columbus on April 3. “Things happen quicker, guys are better at making plays, and it’s a little tougher to defend.”
After the Frozen Four, defenseman Zac Jones of national champion Massachusetts was among those who signed pro contracts. Jones joined the New York Rangers last Thursday, but coach David Quinn has yet to play him.
In his sophomore season at UMass, Jones finished third in the nation in scoring among defensemen with nine goals and 24 points in 29 games. Still, college credentials do not guarantee automatic entry into an NHL lineup.
Even with the calculation changed for teams, a simple factor remains important, especially for the Rangers as they entered Sunday six points out of a playoff spot.
“They’ve got to earn it and give you reason to put them in,” Quinn said. “We certainly won’t hesitate putting him in there if we think he can help us win.”