A lot has been made this summer about the ongoing recruiting war over players between the CHL and NCAA programs. While the number of players backing out of their college commitment in favour of the CHL has actually gone down the last few years, the high profile players doing it in a short span this summer have drawn more attention to the subject.
I think it would be hard to argue that the CHL isn't winning this border skirmish and will continue to do so unless the NCAA alters some rules specifically for NCAA hockey and I am not sure if that is even possible for them to consider. But until then, they'll continue to lose more of the big players than they win.
But that's not to say that college hockey is not without some victories of their own. There are plenty of cases where high caliber players with CHL options are still headed down the college path, or at least haven't eliminated that option.
First, maybe we should change how we view college "commitments". Clearly verbal and even signed letters of intent mean nothing in terms of preventing players from deciding at the last minute to play in the CHL. Yet when such a player does make that choice, often after they are drafted and have a NHL team's opinions to take into consideration, the player is heavily criticized for it.
I've come to think of verbal or signed NCAA commitments as nothing more than an agreement between player and program that says "If I choose to play collegiate hockey, and that's IF, then I will play for you. However, until I've had a chance to discuss things with the NHL team that invests a draft pick on me, I reserve the right to explore other options including the CHL".
Maybe it's naive of me to think that way but that's obviously how the real world works in this case. If everyone felt that way then colleges wouldn't be stunned and scrambling a couple months before the start of their school year to find replacements. Or maybe not. Just a thought.
Anyway, despite the CHL defections of Jamie Oleksiak (DAL), J.T. Miller (NYR), John Gibson (ANH), Reid Boucher (NJ) and Connor Murphy (PHX) this summer it's not all doom and gloom for college hockey.
For clarification purposes... I'm about to start listing names of players who are currently on, or are expected to pursue, the NCAA path but appear on the protected list of a CHL team. The purpose of the exercise is to show that not all players who are wanted on both sides of the border end up choosing the CHL.
In July we broke the news that despite very definite interest from the Edmonton Oil Kings and apparently support on that from the New York Rangers, 3rd round pick Steve Fogarty (NYR) has chosen to play in the BCHL with plans to join the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in 2012-13. The Oil Kings have also been unable to lure Max Gaede (SJ) north and he's expected to play for Minnesota State this year.
North Dakota may have lost J.T. Miller to the Plymouth Whalers but the Fighting Sioux still have Rocco Grimaldi (FLA) and Mark MacMillan (MTL) in their freshman class. Grimaldi's CHL rights are held by the Portland Winterhawks who obviously would love to have him in the fold because they traded to get his rights a year ago. MacMillan has the option to play in the WHL as well, the B.C. native's rights are held by the Vancouver Giants.
I've had people tell me that the Kelowna Rockets have been expressing an interest in Fighting Sioux sophomore Dillon Simpson (EDM). However, both player and coach have told TPS that North Dakota will be his home again this year and that a much bigger role is awaiting him. Pure speculation on my part here but what if playing time was an issue for Simpson's camp last year and it doesn't get a lot better this year? Might the Rockets option become more viable? Personally I'd be surprised if it came to that but you never know.
Kelowna is still hoping to see Zemgus Girgensons at some point too but the Latvian is expected back in the USHL with Dubuque and does have a NCAA commitment with Vermont for the start of 2012-13. The Rockets usually find a way though, it helps that they are a first class organization with a great track record of developing NHL talent and are located in one of the nicest areas on the planet.
The Fighting Saints have another player joining them this year who had a WHL option; Max Gardiner (STL) left the Minnesota Golden Gophers and would have been welcomed in Tri-City but chose to go to the USHL instead of joining the Americans in the WHL.
Tri-City was successful in landing goalie Eric Comrie and forward Brian Williams, two Californians, but didn't luck out with Colorado College star freshman Jaden Schwartz (STL), Zach Budish (NSH), Zane Gothberg (BOS) or Justin Faulk (CAR) among others still on their protected list.
How about Seth Ambroz (CLB) who spent three years in the USHL waiting for a spot to open up at Minnesota? He could have been playing in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds for the past couple of years on a roster with guys like Colin Jacobs (BUF) and Marcel Noebels (PHI), two players who were drafted ahead of him this past June.
A couple of months ago in the QMJHL, the Memorial Cup Champion Saint John Sea Dogs drafted Connor Brickley who played his freshman season last year in Vermont. That move suggested that they had some level of confidence that the forward would play for them this year but that has not come to fruition. Brickley was originally drafted by Lewiston who saw all of their prospects returned to the pool when they folded.
The Denver Pioneers will bring in Scott Mayfield (NYI) this year (right), the 34th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft but the OHL's Kitchener Rangers hold his CHL rights making this situation one worth keeping an eye on.
Speaking of the Pioneers, Beau Bennett (PGH) never wavered in his NCAA intentions despite his rights being held by the Calgary Hitmen who were Memorial Cup contenders just 14 months ago.
The Hitmen also currently hold the rights to the highest drafted goalie from Western Canada during June's 2011 NHL event; Jason Kasdorf (WPG), however, as of now the Manitoba native is still headed to join R.P.I. in 2012-13.
The Everett Silvertips have a number of players on their protected list who are notable players in the college system right now including Nick Bjugstad (FLA), Mark Alt (CAR), Derek Forbort (LA) and Miles Koules (2012 eligible). Probably the most interesting 'Tips property considering the subject matter here is Seth Jones who is with the US-NTDP this year but most expect will go to Everett after the 2012 draft.
The point here is that as much as NCAA hockey has taken a few lumps this summer, there are still a boatload of players who have decided that, for them, playing college hockey is or will be the right choice for them. In some of the above cases, that may change after the NHL draft but if they do I don't know that college proponents should be pushing the panic button.
It still won't change the fact that NHL players come from a multitude of amateur backgrounds, including the NCAA.