If you’re a fan of the Calgary Flames, you’ve probably heard of Sven Baertschi — the wunderkind prospect hailing from Switzerland who tore up the Western Hockey League during the 2011–12 season.
But John Gaudreau, Jon Gillies, Mark Jankowski and Bill Arnold are lesser-known names that should be on every hockey fan’s radar.
It is important to note that there are two common threads that link all of these players, except Baertschi: they are Flames prospects and play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I hockey program.
The ncaa, as a organization, has been around for over 100 years — initially founded as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States — but it has only really taken off as a breeding ground for some of professional hockey’s top prospects over the past decade or so. It was around the time Calgary product Dany Heatley was drafted second overall by the then Atlanta Thrashers out of the University of Wisconsin that people started to take the ncaa seriously as a developmental league.
Prior to Heatley’s selection, the ncaa was thought of as a place for those who played high-level junior hockey to finish their careers and get an education while doing so. A prime example of this would be the AJHL’s former all-time scoring leader, Mark Bomersback. After his junior career finished, Bomersback accepted a scholarship to Ferris State University, where he went on to appear in 136 games and tally 89 points.
The Flames, like many other teams, have changed their drafting strategy in recent years to reflect the talent distribution in leagues that produce draft-eligible players. For the Flames, the man at the head of this evolution is John Weisbrod, the Flames’s assistant GM and former gm of the nba’s Orlando Magic.
In the two seasons Weisbrod has been aboard, the Flames have drafted more NCAA players than they did the previous five years combined. Thus far, it seems like that strategy has the potential to pay off, and in a big way.
The standout of the Flames NCAA draft class is without a doubt John Gaudreau. Selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Gaudreau has always been viewed as a long shot to make it to the NHL due to his size — listed between five foot seven and five nine and 140 to 160 pounds depending on where you look — he is definitely on the smaller size when it comes to the typical size of an NHL player. However, Gaudreau hasn’t let that slow him down, as he’s not only been one of the best players on his powerhouse Boston College team — which last year was victorious in the ncaa Frozen Four tournament — but also one of the best players in the entire country. He’s scored more than a point per game so far in his time in the ncaa, notching 33 goals and 37 assists in just 60 games. Add on the fact that at the most recent World Junior Championships he scored seven goals in seven games to help the United States capture gold, Johnny Hockey’s future is looking quite bright.
Gaudreau’s teammate, Bill Arnold, is in his junior year at Boston College and throughout his 100 games, he is viewed as a player who can drive possession against the other team’s best — a valuable trait for any player to have. However, that doesn’t mean Arnold hasn’t produced points — he is played on the top-two lines for the Eagles his entire collegiate career, leading to 73 points in 100 games thus far.
Gillies and Jankowski are both in their freshman years at Providence College, but they are both playing significant roles early in their NCAA careers. Gillies was part of the same American team as Gaudreau in Ufa, Russia this month as the backup and has been thrust into the starting role for the Providence College Friars, where he has compiled a ridiculous .931 save per cent in 17 games.
Jankowski, Calgary’s first round pick in the 2012 draft, has struggled with nagging injuries so far this season but he’s still managed to anchor the powerplay and the top line for Providence when played. Born on Sep. 13, 1994, he is currently one of the youngest players in the NCAA and projected by the Flames to be a top-line centre in the NHL within five years.
Since 2000, when Heatley was drafted, there has been an influx of high-level talent coming from the NCAA to the NHL. Names like Jake Gardiner, John Carlson, Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty, Erik Johnson, Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson and Paul Stastny all marinated in the NCAA while waiting for their chance to jump to the show.
While most people still view the CHL and its leagues — WHL, OHL and QMJHL — as the prime location of draft-eligible players, there is no questioning the emergence of the NCAA as a legitimate developmental league for top-level players looking to make the step up to the NHL level.