NCAA Defencemen Graduation Rates and NHL Success

Northeastern UMass Hockey 8657.jpg
Northeastern UMass Hockey 8657” by SignalPADFlickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

I’ve been playing with some NCAA prospect numbers lately and I had a hypothesis.

To set the stage, under the current CBA NHL teams have up to 30 days after a prospect leaves school to sign their drafted prospects to an NHL Entry Level Contract (ELC), or by August 15th after they’ve graduated.

What this means is that teams have an incentive to encourage players they think will become NHLers to sign as soon as possible. The trade-off with signing an NCAA player is the player loses their amateur eligibility and automatically has to move to another league. NCAA prospects typically move on to the AHL or NHL but it is not unheard of to see prospects take a side-step to the CHL in the odd circumstance.

If teams do not sign a highly attractive NCAA prospect by the end of their third summer, the prospect usually has incentive to not sign with his drafted team.  Instead the prospect can become a UFA on August 15th where he can sign with the team that meets his preferences. This happens to 1-2 prospects/teams every year.

As I looked at NCAA prospect data, I had a hypothesis in the back of my mind – the earlier a prospect leave school, the more “talented” he is, as the team has calculated the risk/reward of signing him now versus allowing him to develop in the NCAA for another year.

Specifically I was interested in NCAA defencemen (as I am writing another piece on Canucks prospect Ben Hutton). I queried my database and found between 2000 and 2010 there were 1906 defencemen playing in the NCAA.

My first question in the data evolved to looking at each player that went on to become an NHL regular (200+ NHL games played). Of those 1,906 players, only 52 players have become NHL regulars so far (with the odd player likely to join that cohort). Breaking that group down by how many exact years of schooling they played through the success varies by year.

Year Departed n n Regulars Success
1 420 10 2.4%
2 406 8 2.0%
3 332 22 6.6%
4 748 12 1.6%

These are very small samples of success (but then again very few prospects are successful). With this data, there is no clear trend that additional years in college leads to greater (or lesser) success.

When I broke it down further, the question shifted. How does the success of NCAA prospects look when they play 1+ game in the NHL the year following leaving school?

Year Departed n Success n Played Success
1 5 8 62.5%
2 6 13 46.2%
3 16 25 64.0%
4 9 21 42.9%

Again the samples are very small but now we are seeing much higher success rates which is what we would expect for someone who is able to play in the NHL right away. There is no trend that necessarily pops out.

Interestingly enough, players who have 1 or 3 years in school tend to do better than players with 2 or 4 years of schooling. I am not able to guess at why that is, it could be an issue of sample size. My intuition would have guessed that playing 1-3 years all would have a higher success rate than playing a full 4 years.

For prospects in the ages of 18-22 we typically care more about drafted prospects than we do all players, especially in the NCAA where over 85% of players were not drafted.  NHL teams are more likely to spend resources developing their owner drafted prospects then investing in players that could sign anywhere.  With that I re-ran the same numbers but this time only querying the NCAA defencemen who were drafted.

Year Departed n n Regulars Success
1 59 8 13.6%
2 61 7 11.5%
3 74 19 25.7%
4 108 8 7.4%

The sample size is much smaller, only 15% of the size of all NCAA defencemen but now we have a better picture.  Right away we can see that any drafted prospect who leaves after 1/2/3 years has a better chance of developing into an NHL regular.  Those who spend 3 years seem to have the best chance of success, this may be the perfect “sweet spot” to develop prospects which may be a result of not “rushing your prospects” which we often hear about (a theory I am not fully subscribed to at this point).  There’s also the noticeable drop for players who spend all 4 years in the NCAA, that is the cohort with the lowest chance of success of developing into an NHL regular, so there may be something to my hypothesis.

Looking at those drafted NCAA defencemen who jump from the NCAA right to the NHL:

Year Departed n Success n Played Success
1 3 5 60.0%
2 5 10 50.0%
3 13 19 68.4%
4 6 15 40.0%

We are seeing a similar trend as last time but a smaller sample.  Those who play 1/2/3 years of college typically have a better chance of success than those who play all 4 years, so there might be something to this.

This data is all for NCAA defencemen but I would imagine that forwards follow a similar trend.

The lessons at this point seems to suggest non-prospects should play all 4 years of school  while drafted prospects seem to have a high success rate if they are convinced to leave school early, especially for those players who can jump directly to the NHL. Don’t be a fool kids, stay in school.

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