The Fastest Growing Route to the NHL
There’s not just one way to get to the NHL. But ask NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr which path he has seen first-hand continue an upward trend, and it’d be the USHL.
“It’s evolved to the point where it’s the next step for a lot of young players in their hockey career," Marr said at the USHL Atlantic Challenge Forum this past September. "They’re young professionals when they get to this level."
NHL scouts used to just focus on Canadian major juniors, Marr said. But about a decade ago, the USHL was added to the list. Now, it’s a must for all NHL scouting depts.
“It’s a prime scouting ground for NHL scouts,” Marr said. “It’s actually a fun league to scout just because of the competitive nature. We like the fact that when we go there, we’re almost guaranteed we’re going to see a good hockey game. We’re going to see good hard-working players out there and we’re going to see a talent level.
“The talent continues to improve – and that’s shown through the drafting tendencies of NHL teams,” Marr said.
The College Pipeline
About 31 percent of current NHL players took the college hockey route. College hockey is the fastest growing development path to the NHL – and more than 95 percent of USHL players will go on to play college hockey.
The Chicago Blackhawks have become a model franchise. In the 2014 NHL Draft, they selected four USHL players within their first five picks. They believe in the development path.
“We’ve had a lot of success with the league, but the NHL as a whole has had a lot of success with the league – Joe Pavelski, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad. There are numerous players,” said Mark Kelley, Senior Director of Amateur Scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks. “The unique thing about the USHL that we like is it allows players to develop at their pace, not dictated by a team. It allows them to develop.”
The average age of NHL rookies is now 23 years old. Rushing to the next level can be detrimental to a player’s development. The USHL allows players that bridge to transition into college hockey and beyond.
“Sometimes a player is on the curve at 17, and sometimes he won’t hit that part of the curve until 18 or 19,” Kelley added. “And again that’s why this league allows them to develop. The things we look for is skating ability, we are looking at their hockey IQ, and we’re looking at how hard they compete. These are the things we look at when projecting a player.”
NHL Players Agree
Paul Stastny made his NHL debut just two years removed from the USHL, where he spent two years developing with the Omaha Lancers before starring for University of Denver.
“I think over the last five, six, seven years, I think (the USHL) has gotten a lot more respect and a lot more views than it used to,” said Stastny, a two-time U.S. Olympian and current St. Louis Blues standout. “I think with the new NHL being more of a speed game and a skill game, you don’t have to be 6-foot-2, 220 pounds to be a first-rounder now. If you have that hockey sense and you’re a smart player, I think teams will look at you.
“I think with me it started with colleges, and once I was being recruited by colleges, then NHL teams started to come look at me.”
Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons took a different route to get to the NHL. After spending two years developing with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Girgensons was selected in the first round of the NHL Draft before attending Buffalo’s training camp where he was able to decide between signing a NHL deal immediately or playing hockey at the University of Vermont.
“It was the toughest decision of my life and I wasn’t sure until the day I signed,” said Girgensons, NHL All-Star and current first-line center at 21 years old. “I asked some of the guys around camp and they said I was definitely read to play in the AHL (American Hockey League).”
Unlike major junior, where teams own player rights until 20 or two years after they are drafted, players from the USHL can choose to sign a NHL deal and be sent to the AHL in order to further develop.
Despite his decision to forego college, Girgensons still sees the USHL and college route as the best option for players who hope to make it to the NHL one day.
“The USHL is a great league and if you’re going the college route it’s the best option for you,” Girgensons said. “Most people should take that, because for me, I got lucky they offered a contract. Most of the time it’s a lot harder.”
It has almost been three years since Girgensons was drafted in Pittsburgh at the 2012 NHL Draft, yet the day remains special to him, his country, and for his former USHL team.
“It was a big honor for me, being the highest drafted Latvian. And to represent Dubuque when they called it out was just amazing. To actually hear ‘Dubuque Fighting Saints’ on the stage was pretty nice.”