Hockey Notes

Colleges being forced to play shorthanded

By Fluto Shinzawa
August 7, 2011

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This summer, the number is nine. It’s down from 13 the previous summer. In 2009, it was 17.

But when the number stands for kids who treat their NCAA letters of intent and verbal commitments with the importance of ATM receipts, nine remains too high.

“Maybe it’s the way I was raised,’’ said Paul Kelly, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “I’m a believer that when you make a commitment, you stand by it and honor it. It is disappointing to me. It’s disappointing to coaches. When kids make a commitment, particularly when that commitment takes a more formal form in a letter of intent to attend that school, then you break that commitment, frankly, if I’m an NHL GM, it might cause me some concern - that a player I drafted can so easily walk away from a commitment he made.’’

Traditionally, and for the foreseeable future, major junior is the route most often taken to the NHL. Of the 20 Bruins who played in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, 16 starred in the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the three leagues that operate under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella. Three played juniors in Europe. Just one chose college.

That said, those four seasons at the University of Vermont served Tim Thomas well.

There is no right or wrong way to graduate to the NHL. Proponents of major junior and college have their respective arguments as to why their approaches are preferable.

An OHL player will have a game-heavy schedule that mimics what he’ll experience in the NHL. A Hockey East player will enjoy a well-rounded atmosphere - attending classes, meeting people outside of the rink, a rich social life - that will help him transition to adulthood.

So those on either side have nothing to carp about when a kid says yes to one and no to the other. But what’s irking Kelly, coaches, and the NCAA is when a player commits to college hockey, then pushes the reset button and bolts for a junior team.

While that player, his family, and his new club move on, his former college coach suddenly has a hole on his roster. Late in the game, at that.

“You have these kids continually lobbied, influenced, and romanced,’’ Kelly said. “Not only directly by the coaches and staff, but by the players under direction of coaches and staff. When they leave in late July, it leaves the college in an incredible bind. When Michigan loses a goaltender at the end of July, less than six weeks before the start of the school year, they either go with what they have, or they reach out for another goaltender. That’s usually a goalie off a USHL team. Now that leaves that team in a bind. There’s a trickle-down effect.’’

This summer, there have been three high-profile de-commitments. J.T. Miller, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Rangers, would have been a freshman at North Dakota this fall. Last month, Miller signed with Plymouth of the OHL.

Phoenix drafted Connor Murphy with the No. 20 pick in June. Murphy, a native of Dublin, Ohio, had committed to Miami University. Last month, Murphy opted for Sarnia of the OHL.

John Gibson, the second goalie picked in the draft (Anaheim), would have been a freshman at Michigan this fall. Late last month, Gibson signed with Kitchener of the OHL.

Gibson was the second goalie Michigan lost in the last two years. Jack Campbell would have been a freshman in 2010. Instead, Campbell signed with Windsor of the OHL.

There isn’t an overriding reason why future collegians are opting out of the classroom. It could be academics. It might be heat from NHL personnel who believe junior is the preferred route over college. Money could also be a factor.

“As much as the CHL denies it, there are still instances where money is being paid to the family to lure kids away and de-commit from colleges,’’ Kelly said. “It’s off the books, under the table, whatever you want to call it. If your dad is a fisherman, an out-of-work machinist, or a farmer, and a CHL program comes along and offers you $300,000 in cash, it’s tough for these families not to accept that type of proposal.’’

One solution might be a first-year grace period. For example, a collegian would be off limits from NHL or CHL contact for his freshman year. If he believes that college isn’t for him after one year, then he’d be free to consider other options.

The main issue, however, is age. For most 16-year-olds, the hardest decision they make is between M&Ms or Sour Patch Kids at the movie theater. When you have to make life-changing choices so early, there will certainly be ripple effects.

Kids change their minds all the time. But when you say no to a person when you’ve already said yes, there are significant consequences.

They figured on Weber raise Of the 23 arbitration cases filed this summer, only one made it to the proverbial courthouse. But boy, was it a whopper.

On Wednesday, Nashville captain Shea Weber was given a one-year, $7.5 million award. Weber, a Norris Trophy finalist, now carries the highest annual cap number of any NHL defenseman.

“We are a member of the National Hockey League,’’ said Nashville GM David Poile during a conference call. “These are what salaries are for one of the best, if not the best, defensemen in the league. If we want to be part of the league, this is what we have to pay.’’

According to The Tennessean, the Predators submitted their value for Weber at $4.75 million annually. That would have been only a $250,000 raise from what Weber was earning per year on his previous deal. It would have been cheaper than the likes of James Wisniewski ($5.5 million) and Michal Rozsival ($5 million), two who will only be associated with the Norris if they swipe the trophy from Nicklas Lidstrom’s basement.

The Predators don’t view Weber as a $4.75 million player. They submitted that number to provide the widest gap possible to the $8.5 million Weber’s representatives were seeking, with the arbitrator settling in the middle.

“It’s a business,’’ Weber said of Nashville’s number. “They’re trying to get the best deal they can. Both sides are presenting their case. Nothing personal.’’

The award, however, is hardly business as normal for the fiscally conservative Predators. This offseason, they said goodbye to Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont, Marcel Goc, Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi, and Shane O’Brien to clean out the bank account for Weber and future unrestricted free agents Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne.

Now, if Nashville hopes to re-sign Weber, it will most likely cost more than $7.5 million per season. Suter could double his $3.5 million annual hit. Same with Rinne ($3.4 million). That’s a big nut to invest in three players, albeit studs at their positions.

Nashville is a well-respected organization. It’s led by Poile, assistant GM Paul Fenton, and coach Barry Trotz. Director of amateur scouting Jeff Kealty, a Framingham native, leads one of the best birddog teams in the business.

But the Predators aren’t the Flyers. They can’t spend to the cap. When you have three players among the best at their jobs, it’s a challenge to pay them accordingly and fill in with foot soldiers who can help push for a Cup.

“I really like the position we’re in,’’ Poile said gamely. “We’re well aware that we probably need a couple forwards to take us to the level to truly compete for the Stanley Cup.

“Having said that, and not be talking out of both sides of my mouth, I’m a big believer in the group of forwards we have. We have young guys who have yet to achieve the potential and blossom into what they can.’’

Savard’s future remains fuzzy The prospect of Marc Savard playing in 2011-12 appears dim. Savard is still experiencing headaches, more than six months after his latest concussion. If, as expected, Savard sits out next season, he will have appeared in only 66 games during a three-year span. Considering how much time he’ll have missed, the uncertainty of if and when his symptoms will fade, and the decreasing chance a doctor will clear him for action, Savard might not play again. However, Savard is not likely to retire officially. Savard is signed through 2016-17, and is still due $21.05 million - a sum he would not collect if he announces his retirement. “If Savvy retires, he would not be entitled to the benefits of the contract,’’ GM Peter Chiarelli wrote in an e-mail. The more probable scenario would be for Savard to fail his preseason physical and be placed on long-term injured reserve each year. Savard would collect his salary via insurance, much like Alex Zhamnov drew his salary after the former Bruin broke his ankle in 2006. The Bruins would then be able to exceed the cap by Savard’s $4.007 annual number.

Experiment lab On Aug. 17 and 18, the NHL will hold its Research, Development, and Orientation Camp at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke, Ontario. Last year, under the watch of Brendan Shanahan, the camp debuted at the Maple Leafs’ practice facility. Primarily, the camp serves as a test lab to try new ideas - touch-up icing, expanding the area behind the nets, having faceoffs in the middle of the ice. The camp will double as a showcase for the top draft-eligible youngsters in 2012. Scouts and general managers will be paying close attention to 17-year-old Nail Yakupov, a dynamic Russian forward who had 49 goals and 52 assists in 65 games for Sarnia last season, leading all OHL rookies in scoring.

Strome’s next home? Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton and the Niagara IceDogs battled through two rounds of the OHL playoffs before losing in the semifinals to Mississauga. If, as expected, the Bruins return Hamilton to juniors in 2011-12, the ninth overall selection in this year’s draft should anchor Niagara’s back end. The more pressing question, however, is whether Ryan Strome joins Hamilton in Niagara this fall. Strome, the team’s best forward (33-73-106 last season), was picked fifth overall by the Islanders. Given how the Islanders are embracing youth, Strome could make the big club. If Strome returns, the IceDogs should be among the OHL’s elite. “As long as the NHL doesn’t screw around and gives me my guys back, we should have a great year,’’ Niagara coach and GM Marty Williamson said with a laugh. “Yes, it’s a development league. That’s what we’re here for. But if Ryan and Dougie come back, it should be a pretty special year.’’

Loose pucks The Canucks were hoping that rest and rehabilitation would allow Ryan Kesler to be ready for training camp. But after Kesler failed to progress on that route, Vancouver’s No. 2 center and best all-around player underwent surgery July 25 to repair a torn labrum in his hip. It’s a similar procedure to what Tim Thomas required after the 2009-10 season. However, Thomas had his repairs done shortly after the Bruins lost to the Flyers. Kesler went more than a month between Game 7 and his operation. Consequently, Kesler will most likely miss the start of the 2011-12 season. Kesler originally suffered the injury in the Western Conference final against San Jose. No telling what the outcome of the Cup Final might have been had Kesler’s wheels been right . . . Brent Burns has yet to play a game for his new employer. But Burns, traded from Minnesota to San Jose along with a second-round draft pick for Devin Setoguchi, Boston University forward Charlie Coyle, and a first-round selection, signed a five-year, $28.5 million extension with the Sharks on Monday. Part of the reason Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have put up arcade-like numbers is the presence of Dan Boyle. The smooth-moving defenseman gets pucks on their tape in a hurry, which gives Thornton and Marleau the time and space they need to do their stuff. Burns, also one of the better puck-moving defensemen, will make the forwards even deadlier. That’s why the Sharks could afford to move Setoguchi, then flip Dany Heatley to the Wild for Martin Havlat . . . Former NHLer Mike Van Ryn, who served as Williamson’s assistant in Niagara last year, accepted an assistant’s job with Houston, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate. Van Ryn and former Northeastern assistant Sebastien Laplante will work under first-year coach John Torchetti. Van Ryn was crucial to Hamilton’s development last year. “He’s a guy that had what our young guys aspire to have - a pro career,’’ Williamson said. “I thought Mike had a good wealth of knowledge. His main message to Dougie [Hamilton] was that he doesn’t have to do everything on one shift. Early in the year, he rushed everything and pushed the game instead of letting it come to him.’’ Van Ryn will forever be known as the unfortunate target of Milan Lucic’s glass-smashing wallop . . . Local scouts will have their eyes on three New Englanders who should be high-round picks in the 2012 draft: Robbie Baillargeon (Enfield, Conn.), Cam Darcy (South Boston), and Jon Gillies (Portland, Maine). Baillargeon will attend BU in 2013, while Darcy and Gillies have committed to Northeastern in 2012 . . . Lou Lamoriello goes through coaches faster than summer turns to winter in Edmonton. But the New Jersey GM might have hit on a keeper with Peter DeBoer. During his previous stop in Sunrise, DeBoer kept the Panthers from bottoming out in the Eastern Conference despite zero high-end talent. DeBoer did so by promoting a defense-first game that flew in the face of GM Dale Tallon’s preferred up-tempo attack. It was a near-guarantee that Bruins-Panthers games would be among the more vanilla games on the calendar. So when the Bruins play the Devils this season, sleep experts should be swarming toward TD Garden and the Prudential Center.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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