NHL Column: The power of college

Colorado Avalanche center Alexander Kerfoot (13) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Kids playing hockey, or any sport for that matter, dream about one day being drafted by their favorite team. They imagine signing with the team that selects them and playing with them for their entire careers. But these days, in the NHL, hockey players in the NCAA are frequently abandoning the teams that select them in the league’s entry draft.

College players, under the current collective bargaining agreement, have the power to choose what team they would like to play for. Once a college player is drafted, they have until the end of their graduating year to sign with the team that selected them. After that, they become a free agent, with the ability to sign with any team that offers them a contract.

When they reach this phase, a team can offer a maximum of $925,000 annually for three years. This means, essentially, that teams cannot compete with each other financially when the best prospects become available. Franchises must convince players why they should come wear their colors for non-monetary reasons. With that, comes the power of being an NHL prospect at the college level.

The scenario is a unique one in the sports world, as it is one of the few situations where top prospects can regularly ditch the team that chose them on draft day. But if they have the opportunity to choose, why wouldn’t they take advantage of it?

Of course, this means they have to finish out a full college career, which can be a drawback for youngsters eager to break into the pros. Guys getting picked in the top 10 picks usually are not going to wait an extra year or two if they know they are ready to be an NHL player.

But for the skaters who know they need more development anyway, it is only logical to wait out the situation. Rather than be a bubble NHL player, or be stashed in the AHL, they can continue to work on their game for their collegiate team. Then, once they graduate, they have around 10 suitors instead of just one.

In 2010, Kevin Hayes was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks 24th overall, but following the end of his career at Boston College, he decided to sign with the New York Rangers instead. The Rangers repeated this luck in 2016, when they signed Jimmy Vesey out of Harvard. Vesey chose to sign with New York, despite being drafted for the Nashville Predators four years earlier.

In 2017, the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils made a “trade” of sorts. The Avalanche had drafted Will Butcher a few years before, while the Devils had selected Alexander Kerfoot. But instead of the typical route, at the end of college, Kerfoot signed with Colorado and Butcher signed with New Jersey.

These tails can be frightening as teams lose out on true potential stars. Butcher, for instance, was coming off a Hobey Baker Award winning season for being the best NCAA hockey player of the year, when he signed with the Devils. Kerfoot, meanwhile, is also a rising star, who often plays on Colorado’s top line.

Many see this common occurrence as a loophole in the NHL’s system, but really it is just the nature of the business. Players and teams will always act in their own best interest. When drafting, it is a team’s responsibility to understand the risk of losing a college prospect to free agency down the road. Similarly, it is their job to show the prospect why they should join their organization.

It is somewhat unfair that teams lose their promising assets for nothing, but everything balances out as teams steal talent from each other. This is proven by the New Jersey and Colorado pretend swap in 2017.

Each year, the unsigned college prospects who finish college become free agents on Aug. 15. If nothing else, the movement of prospects adds a little excitement to the dullness of August in the hockey world.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.