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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

One-and-done a hockey problem?
In this game’s dynamic, it’s not even the half of it

Out of the most volume troughs of American sports media comes the chronic complaint that fresh-faced basketball phenoms merely use the collegiate ranks as a split-second finishing touch to their jump into the NBA. No later than January are there a handful of surefire top draft picks who will labor the rest of the year under speculative eyes wondering not if they will defect come summer, but which professional program will seduce them to do it.

True, in the NBA, as well as the NFL, once you’re property of a pro team, your collegiate convenience instantly expires. But disgruntled college basketball junkies can take solace in knowing that their sport has no answer to the Canadian major junior leagues, the AHL, or the ECHL.

In hockey, one has the luxury of choice. But it leaves fans –and, though they’ll never be forthright about it, coaches- sweating that much harder over the heightened “How much longer can we have him?” ambiguity.

There’s little question that NHL teams like to push the cut-off age limit when planting flags in their prospects and having them set for The Show in swift fashion. It offers an easy explanation as to why BU’s Colin Wilson was the lone seasoned collegian whom Central Scouting made visible to the public eye before the June draft.

Since 2000, the first year in which 30 franchises had a staff table on the Entry Draft floor, there has been an exponentially noticeable tendency for players to be selected while still playing at one of the various “college prep” levels, be it US high school, the USHL, the BCHL or an equivalent Canadian league, or the US National Team Development Program. Since 2004, no more than three seasoned collegians have been picked in the first round whereas no fewer than four latent collegians also had their selection nationally televised. Theoretically, this only lessens the odds that a player will make himself a long-term benefit to the school that worked so tirelessly to win his commitment.

The most recent NHL first-rounder to compose a full-length collegiate career was BC’s Brian Boyle, the #26 selection of the Kings in 2003 straight out of St. Sebastien’s School who went on to a productive four years with the Eagles before hopping on with AHL Manchester for the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs. Before him, former St. Seb’s teammate Mike Morris stuck with it at Northeastern (even with a redshirt year in 2005-06) before finally getting reacquainted with the Sharks organization that drafted him in 2002.

The 2004-05 lockout year played a feasible deceleration role in the hasty stepping-stone hops of some prospects, but since then, the latest player development trends have boomed to space view.

Out of eight players selected in the first round of the 2005 draft, only Sasha Pokulok of Cornell had already consumed some collegiate experience. Pokulok lasted one more year in Ithaca then broke away for the Capitals system. Five other draftees –most notably Jack Johnson and Jack Skille- went forward to their college programs, but all wound up two-and-through cases. TJ Oshie, the Blues 24th overall pick that year, just relinquished what would have been his senior year at North Dakota, leaving fellow Sioux Joe Finley, still a Capitals prospect, as the lone potential college graduate from 2005’s elite draft class.

Three of the top five selections in 2006 were rising or experienced collegians. Only one, Jonathan Toews, hung about for a second year at North Dakota, which is partially attributable to his having played his whole freshman year at the collegiately unripe age of 17. The Minnesota Gophers, meanwhile, lost Phil Kessel to immediate signing with the Bruins and were only allotted one year to utilize defenseman Erik Johnson, the Blues #1 pick straight out of the US development program.

Three first-rounders from 2007 have already salted their collegiate ice. Kyle Turris was nabbed 3rd overall by Phoenix, enrolled at Wisconsin, then squeezed in his first three NHL games shortly after the Badgers’ trek ended. Turris’ signing with the Coyotes occurred the same day that Maine’s Andrew Sweetland took off for the Panthers system. Senators prospect Jim O’Brien transferred to Seattle in the major junior ranks after one year at Minnesota (the same move Chuck Kobasew pulled on BC in 2001). And barely a week ago, Michigan scoring beacon Max Pacioretty sealed a glistening three-year pact with the Canadiens, making him the sixth one-and-done case cited this off-season.

Whether or not Wilson will be the seventh –or even a higher number- as the hard sellers incessantly suggest will not be confirmed until Wilson himself steps out of the conflicting Terrier red and Predator blue dust and holds up the winning sweater.

Could it be worse? Yes. The Philadelphia Flyers could have continued to clutch the bottom feeder and decided to press James vanRiemsdyk into signing rather than letting him return to New Hampshire for another year. But “two-and-through” remains fairly common in hockey and it still means thrashing a player’s allotted college tenure in half.

But even that, one could argue, is not the worst team-building puck a coach has to digest. Not long before he took a seat in the bowels of Scotiabank Place, would-be UMass Minutemen rookie John Carlson hastily decided that major juniors would serve his advancement better.

One-and-done, two-and-through, three-and-flee, or never-knew-ye. They’ll all continue to obstruct college hockey, no matter what kinds of pro-college commissioner compromises are attempted.

Cronin completes staff refill
Soon-to-be fourth-year Northeastern men’s coach Greg Cronin has hauled in his second and third new sidekicks of the summer after all three of his 07-08 colleagues dispersed from Huntington Avenue. This week’s appointees of note are goalie coach John Carratu and assistant Albie O’Connell, a former BU Terrier and direct import from Mark Dennehy’s Merrimack cabinet, to go with new assistant coach Sebastien Laplante, who was appointed to that post in early June. Carratu will reportedly carry out his duties of fostering Brad Thiessen and Mike Binnington on a part-time basis while O’Connell has been formally distinguished as NU’s new “top assistant,” more or less a momentous promotion for him. The Huskies will be the fifth collegiate program with which O’Connell has worked, the first of which happened to be Cronin’s alma mater of Colby, in a span of six seasons.

So you think you can play net in Hockeytown
University of Maine alumnus Jimmy Howard –now going on his fourth pro campaign- may finally have gotten his break with the Detroit Red Wings, as his freshly stamped three-year contract implies. It goes unsaid that a young face in the Wings’ system requires more patience and more convincing development than any other NHL satellite. But now that Dominik Hasek has hung up the blades (though we’ve heard that from him twice before in 1999 and 2002), nothing ought to stand between Howard and established starter Chris Osgood. Howard has not really stood at the forefront of hockey minds since Maine’s near-miss against Denver in the 2004 NCAA championship, but he has caught a few NHL ice chips on his tongue, earning credit for four games last season. Osgood’s recent history indicates he won’t be hogging up the majority of games played, though Howard will have newly acquired Ty Conklin –ironically a UNH product- to outplay at training camp. Conklin will also potentially reunite with former Wildcat teammate Darren Haydar, who agreed to a one-year pact with the Wings on Wednesday.

A mystery until March
The Women’s Hockey East 2008-09 composite schedule, unleashed for all web viewers to see on Friday, cites the “higher seed” as the host cite for the preliminary playoff round and “highest seed” for the subsequent semifinal and championship rounds over the weekend of March 7-8. In other words, contrary to its previous six seasons where a campus site was selected in advance, it will be a good old-fashioned matter of who earned home ice advantage during the 21-game regular season derby. This season, for the first time, six teams will earn bonus action when the regular season closes February 22, with the top two seeds standing by for the results of the 3-6 and 4-5 showdowns February 28 and March 1, to be respectively held in the #3 and #4 school’s barns.

Quick Feeds: PC men’s coach Tim Army and Schneider Arena manager Ross Brooks plan once again to be on hand for the annual Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society reunion next Sunday (August 3). This year’s gathering –the eighth of its kind- at Warwick’s Goddard State Park will reportedly draw record attendance in the way of former Reds, other Rhode Island hockey personalities, and guests, including the widow of Reds “Player of the 20th Century” Zellio Toppazzini, who coached the Friars from 1964-68…The ECHL’s Trenton Devils –overseen by 1994 PC alumnus Chris Lamoriello- locked in former Friar Tony Zancanaro for a sophomore season as well as Brown University graduate Chris Poli, who hopped on immediately after completing his career with the Bears and pitched in four goals in an 11-game experimental stint. Elsewhere in the Lamoriello Family Firm, rising PC junior Mark Fayne spent the week at New Jersey’s prospect conditioning camp while the franchise has also signed former Friars Jay Leach and Jon Disalvatore –both career minor league nomads with four and five NHL games to their credit so far…The Vermont women’s program confirmed the commitments of seven players for the forthcoming season, including Middletown resident Kailey Nash. Nash, a December 2007 NLI signee, won the Rhode Island Hobey Baker High School Character Award her senior season at Middletown High School then shuffled across the border for a PG year at the Taft School and a rigorous skill-honing project with the Connecticut Polar Bears U19 powerhouse.

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