Between the Lines: Hand-Wringing?
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Is it over yet?
That's what coaches and fans must be thinking as the number of underclassmen leaving early to sign pro deals reached 25 with today's departure from Michigan State by Dominic Vicari. Sixteen of those departures are from the WCHA, including four from Minnesota.
While the departure by Vicari is not along the same exact lines as the slew of other high-profile departures this offseason, it is another indication of the changing landscape of the sport.
"In this day and age, the reality is that not all players stay in college all four years," said Michigan State coach Rick Comley.
Teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota have been decimated this offseason, as they have attracted more blue-chip talent in recent years but also seen them leave early in increasing numbers. Such is the price to pay.
The topic has been talked to death this summer, both here and in publications all over the U.S. Whether you panic or chalk it up to "one of those things" depends on many factors, such as: your temperament, whether you are an optimist or not, whether you are a coach, or whether these losses are happening to your favorite team.
There are other factors too, ones that are more difficult to pin down still, besides just the improved recruiting these days. The new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allows for much smaller signing bonuses to rookies, is a factor, some say.
Interestingly, it was said to be a factor in last year's heavy departures, because players were rushing — wisdom went — to sign deals before the lowered bonus amounts kick in. But this year, the departure list is longer.
"I think with the new CBA, we went in thinking that it would keep more kids here because the money was so much less," Minnesota coach Don Lucia told thd Grand Forks Herald recently. "But it seems like what's happening is that teams only have to pay an $85,000 signing bonus, so they are willing to sign players and then see who pans out."
There's another factor ... maybe. Teams have less time to sign players after they graduate. It used to be up to one year. Now it will only be three months, creating a larger sense of urgency to do the deal after a player's junior year.
"No matter what, there are always going to be guys who are going to leave," said former Harvard skater and Minneapolis-based player agent Neil Sheehy to the Grand Forks Herald. "A guy like Zach Parise, he's only going to be a two-year college guy. That's been going on for some time now.
"Some guys don't like school and want to leave. Sometimes it's reactionary, where guys see everyone else going, so they think they have to."
Really, this goes around and around. Only long-term data will tell the real story.
And in another sense, it may just be something to get used to. Coaches are seemingly mentally prepared for it at this point, whether they like it or not. Fans will have to as well. Perhaps it can be looked at as a good thing, as a sign of the sport's growth in quality and popularity.
The question is whether a change in recruiting philosophy will be a result.
Last year, for example, Minnesota was stacked with blue-chippers, but couldn't get out of the first round of the NCAAs. Is it worth it to have all these guys leave early? There is something invaluable about a senior on your roster.
As Gophers coach Don Lucia recently told CSTV.com, "You're still going to go and try to get the best players you possibly can, but what you might want to try to do is mix in some kids you think are going to be around your program for four years, because we all have to be concerned about grad rates with some of these NCAA requirements and all that, and also from the standpoint that you hope you have not just role-players left who are juniors and seniors, that are front-line players, because teams that win at the end are not freshman-and-sophomore teams."
Comley, by and large, agrees.
"I don't know as a coach if you can ever not take the best player available," Comley said. "Phil Kessel's a pretty good player for one year."
Comley said what is happening moreso is that teams are stockpiling high-end recruits, and simply trying to be honest early on about the uncertainty of the situation.
"You're recruiting kids open ended," Comley said. "You can't say whether they'll be needed in the fall of '07 or '08. You have to be willing to see what opportunity is there.
"You over-recruit. And the the chances of finding someone late is non-existent these days."