Going through Major Juniors in Canada has always been the prototypical path for top end NHL prospects to take. While this still holds true today, the NCAA has quietly become another reliable source for future NHL talent. The most skilled prospects still generally opt for the WHL, OHL, or QMJHL, but that doesn't mean the NCAA is full of a bunch of scrubs.
Over the years, more and more NHL players are coming out of the college ranks as Hockey East and the WCHA have done a lot to increase their level of play by bringing in better and better coaches, installing bigger and more advanced facilities, and making more perks available to players who choose not to put all of their eggs in one proverbial basket.
The Stars roster currently boasts a few college stand outs. Richard Bachman, the backup goaltender, played at Colorado College for two years, going 39-20-11 from 2007-2009. Ryan Garbutt spent 4 years at Brown University of the ECAC where he put up 58 points in 116 games. Alex Goligoski spent 3 years at the University of Minnesota, scoring 98 points in 117 games. Eric Nystrom spent four years with the University of Michigan Wolverines where he had a pretty prolific career (110 pts in 159 gp).
Jamie Oleksiak only spent one year at Northeastern playing for the huskies. He only scored 13 points in 38 games, but he felt that switching to the OHL would better his development, and it did. Finally, Reilly Smith, who has become a very highly touted prospect in the system, spent three years at the University of Miami (OH) where he went over a point per game with 122 in 121 games. More notably, he scored 28 then 30 goals in his last two years and was a Hobey Baker nominee at the end of his third year.
Overall, the NCAA tends to produce players with a lot of grit and good speed who can take the puck to the net but also play great defensive hockey. Because of the physical level of play in the NCAA, players have to quickly learn how to use their bodies to hold on to and push others off of pucks. So even the most skilled players in the NCAA play very physical games.
This is why a lot of NCAA players who make it to the NHL end up as third and fourth liners. Take a guy like Eric Nystrom for example. Nystrom had a great career at the University of Michigan where he scored 110 points in 159 games. Those numbers would seem to point to a guy who would end up being relied upon as a top-six contributor at the NHL level. After a great Freshman season at Michigan, where he scored 18 goals and 31 points and earned a spot on the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's All-Rookie team in 2002, he was dfafted 10th overall by the Calgary Flames. Fast forward 11 years and he's playing fourth line minutes and killing penalties for the Dallas Stars; clearly his offensive abilities in the NCAA haven't really translated to the NHL level.
This is the danger with NCAA prospects. They learn how to play physically in the NCAA and their physical play leads to goals in that league – the power-forward is the prototypical NCAA scorer. The problem with this for a lot of top prospects from that league is that in order to first make the NCAA roster, they realize that they need to hit, play defensively, and get onto a bottom-six line from where they can hopefully move up.
This is kind of a catch-22 for a lot of guys. They have the skill to put up points and worked on that during College, but the top prospects from the NCAA still have to work into the good graces of their coaches at the AHL and NHL levels. This isn't to say that CHL prospects are babied and just thrown top-six spots (Scott Glennie anyone?). But many College prospects have a shorter shelf-life than guys coming from the CHL; when they can't stick they usually get sent down pretty fast and often find themselves not getting a second offer and becoming journeymen ECHL and AHL players.
So, the main objective for many NCAA prospects is to simply make the NHL and stick; for some reason the top-six scoring knack seems to get lost along the way because in order to work through the pro ranks many former Collegiate stars need to bulk up and get acclimated to the physical side of the game.
The problem with this is that once they do this they often seem to lock themselves into a place where if they tried to go back and work on the scoring touch again to become top-six or top-pairing guys, they'll lose their NHL job.
It's hard to peg where NCAA prospects should end up in the NHL, but it's worth it to look at some possible routes they could take in order to better understand where they are going in their careers.