College hockey is churning out the NHL's top-producing rookie defensemen
GRAND FORKS — Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association recently cast their votes for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top rookie.
Their decision was an agonizing choice: They had the option of voting for Quinn Hughes, who tallied 53 points for the Vancouver Canucks. They also had Cale Makar, who racked up 50 points in an injury-shortened season for the Colorado Avalanche. Also lingering there was Adam Fox, who had 42 points for the New York Rangers.
All three had exceptional rookie NHL seasons, and all signs point to Hughes or Makar becoming college hockey's first Calder Trophy winner since Dany Heatley in 2002.
They're also part of a bigger-picture trend in the NHL.
The NHL's top point-producing rookie defensemen are almost all coming from college hockey.
The top nine point totals by NHL rookie defensemen in the last decade belong to: 1. Hughes, Michigan (53); 2. Makar, UMass (50); 3. Zach Werenski, Michigan (47); 4. Shayne Gostisbehere, Union (46); 5. Will Butcher, Denver (44); 6. Rasmus Dahlin, no college (44); 7. Kevin Shattenkirk, Boston University (43); 8. Fox, Harvard (42); 9. Torey Krug, Michigan State (40).
Eight of nine are college hockey alums.
The only outlier in the group is Dahlin, the No. 1 overall draft pick, who played in his native Sweden before joining the Buffalo Sabres.
"I don't know if it's a trend that's going to continue or just something we're in right now," Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. "It will be interesting to see. As far as college guys go, there's a lot of development time. You have all the practice time, where you can really work on your skill level to elevate your game. I think that's huge."
Some of the trend may have to do with good recruiting.
Four of the eight players were taken in the top 15 of the NHL Draft — Makar (No. 4 overall), Hughes (No. 7), Werenski (No. 8) and Shattenkirk (No. 14). They were expected to be high-end players, developed and delivered.
But it's not just that.
The other half of the list features players who were not taken in the top 60 of the draft.
Fox and Gostisbehere were both third-round picks. Butcher was a fifth-round pick. Krug was undrafted.
"I think I go back to the environment they develop in," said University of North Dakota coach Brad Berry, whose team has tallied more points from defensemen than any college hockey program in the last 10 years. "They come into college hockey as young players and they're playing with high-end players in their own programs and playing against high-end players in their league and throughout Division-I college hockey.
"They're young guys playing against guys who are 20, 21, 22 years old. That's a hard league to play against. It's a hard environment to play in. You practice against them every day. You play against them on the weekends. It naturally makes you better every single day. When you come out of here, you're battle-tested and ready to play at a high level in the pros."
There's also no real trend in which league they come from. Alums from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Big Ten, The Eastern College Athletic Conference, Hockey East and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association are represented in those eight players.
Similarities in the stars
There are a few commonalities among the eight players who have easily made the transition, though.
No. 1: They all stayed at least two years in college, and almost all of them — if not all — passed up on opportunities to sign a year earlier. Hughes, Makar and Werenski played two years of college hockey. Gostisbehere, Fox, Shattenkirk and Krug all played three years. Butcher played four.
"Even though they're rookies, some of them are older," UND associate coach Dane Jackson said. "They have a lot of smarts."
No. 2: They all had individual success at the college level. Six of the eight were Hobey Baker Award finalists. Butcher and Makar won it. Fox was a Hobey Hat Trick finalist. Hughes, Gostisbehere and Krug also were finalists.
The two who weren't finalists — Werenski and Shattenkirk — may have been overshadowed by teammates. In 2016, three of Werenski's forward teammates were top 10 finalists in J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte. In 2009, Shattenkirk's fellow defenseman at Boston University, Matt Gilroy, won the award.
All eight were All-Americans. Seven were first-teamers. Shattenkirk was second team.
No. 3: They almost all had team success. Six of the eight reached the NCAA Frozen Four with their teams. Shattenkirk, Gostisbehere and Butcher won NCAA national championships. Hughes, Makar and Fox all played critical roles in snapping Frozen Four droughts for their programs. Hughes led Michigan to its first Frozen Four in seven years. Fox led Harvard to its first Frozen Four in 23 years. Makar led UMass to its first Frozen Four ever.
"I think the game has changed," Pearson said. "To create offense, you need your defensemen to get involved in the offensive play. Because of how the game is played, coaches are exploring ways to create offense and getting your defensemen involved in the play is part of it.
"The second part is the skill development with these guys. It's unbelievable how skilled they are with their skating and Hockey IQ. We've got some of our better players playing defense. Obviously, you get more ice time. Some of these (youth) coaches are smart and throw their best player on defense and maybe they play more than a forward. I see a trend: There are a lot of really good defensemen."
Who could be next?
Who are some candidates to be the next rookie offensive-producers at the next level? It can be difficult to project, but here are 10 players to watch:
Scott Perunovich, Minnesota Duluth (St. Louis Blues): Perunovich has all three elements in common with the eight NCAA defensemen who had early success in the last decade. He stayed three years — a year beyond what most thought he would. He was an All-American. He won the Hobey. He had team success, bringing the Bulldogs two national titles.
Cam York, Michigan (Philadelphia Flyers): York had a solid freshman season at Michigan, and the flashes of brilliance and high-end offense were there. York wisely is returning to Michigan for another season, where he is expected to be the centerpiece of Michigan's attack.
David Farrance, Boston University (Nashville Predators): A Hobey finalist and first-team All-American in 2020, Farrance surprisingly opted to return to BU for his senior season after putting up 14 goals and 43 points from the back end.
Ian Mitchell, Denver (Chicago Blackhawks): An excellent skater, Mitchell ran the power play at Denver, where he helped the Pioneers to an NCAA Frozen Four and earned first-team All-American honors.
Chase Priskie, Quinnipiac (Florida Panthers): Priske was a Hobey finalist, who played in a Frozen Four at Quinnipiac in 2016. He spent last season in the AHL, but after a trade to Florida, there might be a path for him to step into the NHL next season and contribute right away.
Jake Sanderson, North Dakota (draft eligible 2020): The top-10 defenseman picks in college hockey have proven to be excellent lately at the next level. While Sanderson's forte isn't free-wheeling on offense, he is a terrific skater, who has the ability to generate. With a couple of years of development likely in front of him in college, he could be a future key for whichever team drafts him in 2020.
Owen Power, Michigan (draft eligible 2021): Despite being one of the youngest players in the USHL last season, Power dominated, racking up 40 points in 45 games for a loaded Chicago Steel team. He will play this season at Michigan, despite only being 17 years old for the first month and a half, and will go high in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Cole Hults, Penn State (Los Angeles Kings): The Big Ten player of the year in 2020 signed with the Kings in the offseason. He put up a combined 58 points in the last two seasons for the Nittany Lions.
K'Andre Miller, Wisconsin (New York Rangers): Although the Badgers struggled as a team during Miller's two collegiate seasons, and defending was an issue for Wisconsin, Miller has potential to be a terrific offensive producer at the next level.
Jacob Bernard-Docker, North Dakota (Ottawa Senators): Bernard-Docker is generally viewed as an all-around defenseman and someone who won't overwhelm teams in the offensive zone, but he does have some good offensive skills. He's adept at changing the angle of his shot to get pucks through and he has a pretty good stride.
Most points by NHL rookie 'D' in last decade
53 – Quinn Hughes, Michigan, first round
50 – Cale Makar, UMass, first round
47 – Zach Werenski, Michigan, first round
46 – Shayne Gostisbehere, Union, third round
44 – Will Butcher, Denver, fifth round
44 – Rasmus Dahlin, no college, first round
43 – Kevin Shattenkirk, Boston University, first round
42 – Adam Fox, Harvard, third round
40 – Torey Krug, Michigan State, undrafted