A growing amount of college players are making the NHL, so don't be surprised if you're hearing names such as Brandon Hickey, Tyler Bird or Miles Gendron in a few seasons.
They're not the type of players that jump straight to the NHL as teenagers, but the prospects that head to the NCAA ranks have been growing in both number and quality lately. Because their development takes a bit longer, often these players are available in the middle rounds of the draft, but they still get to the NHL.
At the draft combine in Toronto, many college commits were in the early groups for fitness testing. Brown University commit Tyler Bird, a power forward from Kimball Union Academy in New England, was actually the 2014 guinea pig for his peers.
“I was the first guy to finish and do all the events, so that was a little nerve-wracking," Bird said. "But it was good to get out of the way and it was a good experience.”
The Andover, Mass. product will join the Bears for 2014-15, fast-tracking his commitment to the school after Kimball Union won its league title.
“They were going to see how I did my senior year," he said. "After the championship it was decided it would be best that I go in next year; I can be a big contributor and help out the team.”
Brandon Hickey was a big help to his Spruce Grove Saints team this season. The Boston University commit helped the Alberta Jr. A squad to a 42-10-3 record, plus a playoff championship. He'll be head out east next season after doing a lot of research. Hickey also visited Michigan State, but ultimately loved Boston's campus and facilities. The Terriers are in a bit of rebuild, but have an excellent freshman class coming in that also includes top 2015 prospect Jack Eichel and Jonathan MacLeod, who is also up with Hickey in 2014.
"The rebuilding thing is key, actually," Hickey said. "You get to play quite a bit your first year, so you can get used to that NCAA speed and pace. That will really help with my development.”
Even though he may not be as well known to fans as some of the big names from major junior, Hickey doesn't have to worry about his cred with NHL scouts; they love his skating and his ability to move the puck as a blueliner. But if teams wanted to get to know him better at the combine, he was happy to be oblige during interviews.
“They do their work pretty well," Hickey said. "They dig into your character, which is a huge thing in the dressing room. It's a huge thing knowing what kind of person you're bringing into your organization.”
Miles Gendron wasn't going to let teams forget him: The New England prep schooler wore neon orange sneakers to the combine, knowing he had the chance to make a big impression.
“For sure it was a big deal," he said. "Coming from a smaller school you don't get as much exposure as the CHL guys.”
Gendron played for ex-NHLer Shawn McEachern this year at the Rivers School, which has not traditionally been a powerhouse. But after starting his prep school career as a fourth-line left winger, Gendron switched up to defense when the team hit a spate of injuries and now NHL teams are intrigued (though some scouts still prefer him as a forward) by his puck-moving skills from the back end.
Gendron will go to the B.C. Jr. A League next year before heading off to the University of Connecticut. The Huskies are the newest members of Hockey East and that jump in competition from the Atlantic Hockey conference was a factor in his choice.
“The Hockey East switch was a huge part of it, playing against the best competition," he said. "I really liked the coaching staff and the campus is awesome. Hopefully I'll get a chance to play right away as a freshman on the power play and PK.”
That's two years out, but if NHL teams are patient, they may pick up a gem next month in Philadelphia. That's the hope with all three players and the long-term potential they all possess.
Brandon Hickey photo courtesy Tim Bates/OJHL Images