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Last week, I looked at undrafted NCAA players and discussed how they can be a resource to teams looking for cheap organizational depth. I also looked at what schools these players came from and pointed out that there wasn’t one school superior at producing talent in that area, as the top school, Boston College, produced a total of six UDFA’s who blossomed into NHL players. However, something I did notice was that most of the UDFA players from the NCAA were coming from the WCHA conference and most of those who turned into NHL players came from either there or the CCHA.
What about NHL players in general, though? Is there one school (or group of schools) that is superior at generating NHL talent compared to their peers? One would assume so because there are more kids playing hockey in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, so we would expect there to be more draft picks and NHL talent generated from schools in those states. That assumption can be very misleading, though as there are many successful hockey programs out east that have also produced NHL talent.
To see which schools have produced the most NHL-ers, I looked at every NCAA player who was either drafted by an NHL team (entry & supplemental) or signed as a free agent out of college.
Who gets drafted?
List of draft picks from each school
The University of Minnesota leads in terms of overall players who have either been drafted or signed as a free agent. They have a pretty comfortable lead over the Universities of Michigan and North Dakota who had 127 and 125 total players either drafted or signed respectively. It is also worth noting that of the top-10 schools who have produced NHL draft picks or free agents, all but three come from the WCHA or CCHA. The other three are Boston-area Massachusetts schools, so it’s pretty easy to tell that a good chunk where a good chunk of the NCAA talent comes from.
This data is a little misleading, though because it counts all NCAA players, including those who never played for an NHL club or any of their affiliates. NHL teams are obviously looking for players who can have somewhat of a career at the pro level, so it probably doesn’t mean much if a school produces a lot of draft picks if over 50% of them don’t even make the NHL. To determine whether or not that is the case with the schools above, I limited the data to players who had at least 100 games played. Were the results any different? See for yourself.
Draft picks who play at least 100 NHL games
After we weed out the players who had no NHL careers, we start to see some more eastern schools emerge, the most notable ones on this list being Maine and New Hampshire. We also see another mid-western school appear in Bowling Green but the schools at the top of the list are mostly the same. The difference is that Minnesota and Boston College dropped in the rankings while Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan State rose to the top-four. This may indicate that those schools have produced more NHL talent but if you look at the raw numbers, the difference isn’t terribly significant. Those top five schools are still the leaders when it comes to producing NHL talent.
Trends over time
Another thing that needs to be considered with this study is that it covers many different eras since this is over 30 years of data. While schools like Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota have maintained good ice hockey programs during that time, there have been others which have come in gone. Take Bowling Green for instance. During the early-70’s and most of the 80’s, they were a great hockey program but have fallen off quite a bit since then. Of the 20 NHL players they have produced, Kevin Bieksa is the only one who played for them after the year 2000. Outside of him, the next closest player to an NHL-er they have produced since then was Dan Sexton with 88 NHL games played.
While programs such as Bowling Green have struggled in recent years, other schools have seen their hockey programs emerge and produce more NHL-ers. A good way to illustrate that is by looking at the number of draft picks & NHL-ers coming from each school over the years. Let’s look at the top 20 schools in each category.
Draft picks by school in each era
Ever since the beginning of the entry draft, NHL teams have targeted players from the University of Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota pretty regularly. Michigan saw more draftees during the mid-80’s and most of the 90’s but there still were a lot of Wolverines drafted in the last 13 years. Michigan State has also seen a lot of their players drafted in all three eras, but they had a pretty noticeable peak in the 90’s. The number of players coming out of Minnesota-Duluth and Denver has also remained pretty consistent over the last 30 years, but there were fewer players being drafted from those schools than the national powerhouses.
Schools that NHL teams have been targeting more in the last 20 years are Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado College, Miami and Cornell. BU and BC were pretty popular during the early 80’s but more teams seem to be drafting players from there now than they were before. Wisconsin also falls into that category since they have always been very popular but they have seen more players drafted in recent years than ever before. The Badgers actually have the fourth most players drafted and signed by an NHL club since 2000.
School that have declined in popularity in terms of draft picks are Northern Michigan, Bowling Green, Michigan Tech and Providence College. I mentioned Bowling Green earlier and I’m not sure what contributed to their downfall these past few years but it is pretty staggering. The low amount of draft picks coming from Michigan Tech since the millennium is very noticeable, as well. Maine has also seen a bit of a decline in popularity since the turn of the millennium despite having over 20 players drafted or signed.
Now let’s see how much NHL talent these school have produced over the years.
NHL players by school in each era
North Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota appear to be the schools that have consistently been able to produce NHL talent over the three different eras. Michigan State is also high up on this list, but the number of NHL-ers coming from there has decreased a fair bit since the turn of the millennium. The same goes for Boston University, who have produced a lot of draft picks but not many of them have turned into NHL-ers as of late. They are still ahead of most of the pack, though.
Something you may notice from looking at this chart is that Michigan didn’t become a powerhouse at producing NHL talent until the mid-80’s/early 90’s. Before then, the Wolverines had only five players that went onto have NHL careers but they have had quite a knack for producing pro-level talent since that time. So much that they are tied with North Dakota for most NHL players produced since the introduction of the entry draft. Boston College has a similar situation only they haven’t produced nearly as many NHL players as Michigan.
The declines of Bowling Green and Providence are easy to see here but one other school I didn’t touch on earlier was Lake Superior State. The Lakers had produced 37 draft picks and free agents from 1979 to 1999 and have produced only 13 since then, none of which went onto have NHL careers.
Programs on the Rise
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Since the cut-off point to be considered an NHL player by this study is 100 games played, it does not take into account some of the rookies and younger players such as Matt Read and Justin Faulk. There are also schools with a lot of players drafted in recent years who could turn into NHL-ers somewhere down the line. It’s very possible that we could see some newer schools emerge as ones that are known for producing NHL if some of their more high-end draft picks end up panning out. There are a good number of schools that fall into this category but I’ll talk about a few of them below.
Notre Dame: The Irish’s hockey program has slowly been improving over the years and they have produced 32 draft picks & free agents since the millennium, with 15 of those players being drafted since 2008. The only NHL-ers the Irish have produced since the millennium are Brett Lebda and Erik Condra, but they have also produced quite a few promising young players who could be playing in the NHL regularly soon. Among them are Kyle Palmieri, Ryan Thang and Ian Cole. There have also been quite a few early round picks coming from Notre Dame in recent years whose chances of making the NHL are currently unknown but the potential is definitely there.
Minnesota-Duluth: This might sound silly because the Bulldogs have been a good hockey program for quite some time now and have a history of producing NHL talent, but there seems to be a lot more higher-end players coming from this school since the millennium. The school has produced only 12 NHLers since 1979 and three since the millennium, but there have also produced 27 NHL draft picks and free agents during that time and a good few of them are likely going to become contributing NHL-ers. Justin Faulk is obviously the most recognizable name of the bunch, but other players from UM-Duluth include Dylan Olsen, JT Brown and Evan Oberg who already have some NHL experience. With the school producing 12 NHL draft picks & free agents over the last five years, we’ll have to wait and see who else they churn out.
Cornell: Matt Moulson, Ryan O’Byrne and Colin Greening are the only every-day NHL-ers since 2000 to come from Cornell, but the Big Red have produced the 10th most draft picks & free agents from an NCAA school during that time, so I’m willing to bet they won’t be the only Big Red alumni in the NHL for long. They haven’t produced that many draft picks in recent years, but there is still some good young talent in NHL farm systems from this school.
Miami (Ohio): The Redhawks started to gain some ground in the 90’s and lately, they have produced some very good NHL prospects. The reason why I say prospects is because there are only three players currently in the NHL who played at Miami after 2000, but it’s worth noting that the school has produced a lot of good prospects since the millennium and some of these guys could be in the NHL soon. A few of them such as Alec Martinez of the LA Kings and Tommy Wingels of the San Jose Sharks currently have some NHL experience while others like Reilly Smith and Andy Miele have bright futures ahead of them.
A couple other schools I would be on the lookout for are Ohio State and St. Cloud State, as more NHL picks and players seem to be coming from those schools in addition to the ones I listed above.
There are always going to be players in the NHL from a wide variety of schools but after looking at this data, I think it’s safe to assume that most NHLers generally come from either WCHA or CCHA schools, with Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State leading the way. There are a lot of good programs that have been gaining some steam in recent years, but most of the powerhouses appear to be centralized in the Northern Midwest of the United States.