Caleb Jones (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)
Zach Werenski, Caleb Jones and Chase Pearson will hear their names called at the draft in Florida later this month and all have made decisions as to where they will play next season. But will some of those destinations change?
As the draft approaches, NHL teams are finalizing their lists and honing in on their favorite prospects. Elsewhere in the hockey world, college programs and major junior teams are also trying to secure talent – often from that same pool. So it's a big time of year for the kids and once again, it puts the recruiting battle between major junior and the NCAA into focus.
Just this morning, for example, draft-eligible center Sam Miletic of the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers committed to the OHL's London Knights. Miletic put up a ton of points on the same Michigan high school team that produced Buffalo pick (and Boston College commit) Christopher Brown in 2013-14, but put up just so-so numbers with Green Bay, a team that struggled overall.
Given how good the Knights look for next season – they've already signed 2016 draft stars Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones and will likely return top-10 2015 prospect Mitch Marner – playing in London could result in a lot of success for Miletic, who had been committed to the University of Michigan.
Some NHL franchises have preferences for major junior or NCAA, so this might help Miletic's draft stock if he knows which teams are interested in him (and just to put things in perspective, there's no guarantee he gets picked this year – Central Scouting didn't have him on their final rankings, nor did ISS).
Another player who might have to make a Michigan-or-London choice later this summer? Current Wolverines defenseman Zach Werenski.
Michigan's best blueliner last season, Werenski did so, incredibly, as a 17-year-old freshman. He will be one of the first D-men taken in the NHL draft thanks to his skating, size and hockey mind. During the draft combine, he was asked by teams if he would jump over to the Knights next year, should his new NHL team want him there.
"I’m open-minded," Werenski said. "I’m comfortable at Michigan and I was really happy with how things turned out, but it’s good to have options and I definitely would consider it.”
One player who seems to be going the other way is center Chase Pearson. A big kid with a great hockey IQ, he played for a loaded USHL Youngstown this season and recently committed to the University of Maine, despite the fact OHL Windsor was in hot pursuit.
“Right now, I’m pretty much 100 percent committed to college," Pearson said. “It suits my game better. I need to mature physically and once I add a few pounds, that will help me get ready for the next level.”
The son of former NHLer Scott Pearson, Chase may play one more season with Youngstown, as he is still figuring out his academic transcripts. But the appeal of Maine went beyond the on-ice component and though it seemed odd that he just announced his intention to join the Black Bears recently (his USHL season was long over), Pearson had his logic.
“I had to make sure the school was right for me," he said. "The time that I took was to get more info on each school and feel it out. I grew up in Alpharetta, Georgia, which is an urban area, lots of people. So it will be a change of scenery for me, which I wanted in a college experience.”
Another prospect with NHL ties is defenseman Caleb Jones, the younger brother of Nashville blueliner Seth Jones. Caleb played for the U.S. National Team Development Program and like Seth, is taking his talents to WHL Portland to play for the consistently excellent Winterhawks.
Caleb, who makes a good first pass and plays with an edge, had also visited UMass and Wisconsin. If he hadn't chosen Portland, he would have gone to Wisconsin, but the lure of his brother's former team was too inviting.
“They’re both great routes," Jones said. "The ‘Dub’ was just a better option for me. I’m really comfortable with coach (Jamie) Kompon in Portland and his staff. He coached in the NHL, so I trust him with my development to get to the next level. And the game schedule prepares you for the pros.”
The Badgers really could have used Jones on their back end next season, since this year was an unholy failure, but in Portland he'll have the chance to take on a big role on a team that will once again be dangerous.
In the end, it's all about fit for these players and both routes are great options. It will be interesting, however, to see how many kids end up on different teams than they may have originally planned on next season.