Teddy Purcell signed with the Kings as a free agent after spending two years in the USHL and one year at Maine in NCAA Hockey East. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
“A fifth round pick who’s got holes in his game and something to work on – maybe his size, strength, or whatever – he has to the age of 23 in the NCAA and that can make all the difference in the world.” – Philadelphia Flyers scout.
Aside from all the off-ice pros and cons when choosing either the major junior or NCAA route for your career, there’s an on-ice component that makes you set out your career goals and tests your realism on how soon you’ll reach them.
Certain players would be wise to choose the major junior programs in Canada, while others would look like geniuses down the road for deciding on the United States League and/or NCAA. So how do you know which is more astute?
“High-end guys probably benefit more from major junior because it’s more of a pro-like atmosphere,” said one scout, who focuses on the United States before crossing over to Canada in the second half of the season. “Any kid will benefit more from the junior program as far as his personal development. That being said, if you go to junior, you’re done by age 20.”
And that’s the main drawback of the Canadian League. Once you play your over-age – or 20-year-old – season, you’re done. If the NHL team that drafted you isn’t comfortable enough with your development to invest in your future, you’ll become a free agent, while your counterparts in the NCAA, who may not have developed as quickly, are still playing and improving.
“A 20-year-old may not have put on all his weight yet; there could be some more development coming,” the scout said. “And you don’t know that, so you’re forced to make a decision.”
That decision is a binding professional contract, which a pro team only has a limited (50) supply of. While a junior player will finish his tenure at an age where he could still be developing, an NCAA player can still play a few more years until he is done school, which makes college players much safer wild card picks in the late rounds of the draft.
“If you go to college, there’s a better chance someone will take a chance on you,” the scout said. “If I see a kid who is 5-foot-10 and he has decent skills and smarts, but is only 175 pounds, that’s just not big enough. That’s the kind of kid that I would say would need an extra year to develop. If he was in the CHL, I wouldn’t want to draft him because I don’t think he’s going to be ready at age 20 for me to throw a contract at him.”
Of course, the playing styles of the two circuits are very different and certain players are much more suited for one over the other. In college, players play against competition that could be as much as seven years older than them, so it’s the closest non-professional thing to playing against mature men. On the other hand, the Canadian leagues have a longer schedule that resembles a pro season and a much more in-your-face attitude that will better prepare a player for professional life.
“In high school, college and even the U.S. under-18 program it’s tough to tell who’s tough and who’s not because you can knock people around and run the goalie and you’re not going to get what’s coming to you because there’s no fighting,” the scout said. “In the Canadian juniors and even the USHL, if you’re going to play like that you’re going to have to face the music.”
For the NCAA prospects, the increasingly popular and purely amateur USHL – the red, white and blue answer to the CHL – provides a sip of the other half and a taste of the realities they’ll face down the road, while keeping NCAA eligibility. In that league, unlike the NCAA, fighting is accepted, the schedules are 60 games long, and once a player turns 18 the masks are replaced with visors.
When comparing players from the USHL/NCAA to the Canadian juniors for scouting purposes, it’s not easy. The games are much different in style and substance and there is no formula to bring equilibrium to the stats.
For a player having to decide which career path to take it’s convoluted enough without worrying about any education consequences. For aspiring NHLers, it’s time to be completely objective in self-evaluation and seek counseling from those who understand what both options will provide.
A Scout's Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.