Generally, players taken in the last two rounds of the NHL Draft are long-shots to ever play in the NHL. More often than not, these players shuttle around the bus leagues for a few years before moving on to the “regular” workforce, if they even play beyond the amateur levels. The odd time, players emerge from the late rounds to become serviceable, contributing NHL regulars (a la Grant Clitsome: Drafted 271st overall in 2004) or even NHL stars (Ever head of a guy named Pavel Datsyuk? Drafted 171st overall in 1998).
With the odd exceptions in mind, is there a way for NHL teams to get an edge when selecting players in the later rounds? My opinion might be a bit biased, but I believe there is a smart formula for selecting players deep into the draft. Grapes likely won’t agree with this, but my belief is that teams should primarily look at picking current NCAA or NCAA-bound players (which would be NCAA players who have just completed their freshman season or players who are committed to NCAA programs for the following season).
The most obvious advantage to selecting an NCAA player is outlined in the NHL rules governing prospect rights. When selecting a major junior player, NHL teams have a two-year window to get the prospect under contract before potentially losing their rights to free agency. NCAA players, or players bound for NCAA programs, offer a longer rights retention period. If an NHL team selects an 18-year-old Boston College commit, they have four years to sign the player before they risk losing their rights.
When NHL teams map out their draft plan, the expectation is for their first round pick to play in the NHL either right away or within two years. Their second and third-rounders will likely be under contract within two years and hopefully making the jump to the NHL within three to four years. Beyond that, there is really no expectation—only hope.
With that in mind, what is it about NCAA players that might be attractive to an NHL team? Firstly, a lot of NCAA players were late bloomers—players that might have had late growth spurts or weren’t superstars at the age of 15 or 16. Where you might have an OHL player going into his draft year with two seasons of top notch calibre hockey under his belt (a veteran who is closer to his peak), an NCAA player at 18 is really only just getting started in his development. Also, the NCAA schedule is more geared towards learning systems, building strength and playing against older men.
Another aspect that is involved is attitude and mindset. The mindset of a 20-year-old major junior player who hasn’t lived up to expectations within the two seasons after being drafted is completely different than the NCAA player who has had two tough seasons after being drafted but still has hope with his junior and senior seasons on the horizon. The window doesn’t close as quickly on an NCAA player as it does on a major junior player. When there is even a small crack left open in that window of opportunity, it can mean the world.