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The Penguins are finding success by tapping into the NCAA hockey market more than any other team

In recent years, the Penguins overhauled their roster from a very mediocre one to a lineup that won back-to-back Stanley Cups -- and did so with the help of a lot of NCAA college hockey players.

Pittsburgh Penguins Victory Parade And Rally Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

In order to find sustained success in the National Hockey League these days, it takes a combination of numerous things. You need superstar talent at some level. You need great goaltending. You need depth role players. You need good coaching. You need young players who can step into your lineup and succeed while they’re affordable in a league with a hard salary cap. It can be a fine line to tiptoe with these young players. They need to be ready to produce before they are due for big contracts, but they also need to be seasoned enough from their amateur years to not require years and years of development. That’s where the NCAA comes into play, and where the Penguins have found success in recent years.

The 2016-17 Penguins

This Penguins team that just won the Stanley Cup was filled with NCAA hockey players.

Say what you will about Ray Shero’s draft picks (especially the 1st rounders) and how a lot of them panned out, but four picks between 2010 and 2013 being on the 2017 Cup team seems like a good development.

“The Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup was a lot of fun for college hockey fans to watch, especially since there was always a former college player on the ice, and often several of them. The Penguins’ success also shows that all types of NCAA alum, from first round picks to undrafted players, are getting to the NHL and thriving once they arrive.” - Mike Snee, Executive Director of College Hockey, Inc.

One amazing stat to look at — where the Penguins goals came from by players who took the amateur route to the NHL:

2017 Stanley Cup Final

  • 14 goals – NCAA players
  • 4 goals– European league players
  • 1 goals – CHL players

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

  • 50 goals – NCAA players
  • 18 – European league players
  • 9 – CHL players

In fact, both the 2015-16 Penguins and the 2016-17 Penguins ranked among the Top 3 teams in NHL history in terms of percentage of influence on the roster from NCAA players.

College Hockey, Inc.

A nice write-up on College Hockey covered the impact and spread that this Penguins team had in terms of NCAA players.

Fifteen former NCAA players dressed for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, the most for one team in history.

Sunday night those alumni hoisted the Cup, having led the Penguins to back-to-back championships with a six-game series win against the Nashville Predators.

A year ago Pittsburgh had 13 NCAA alums on its championship team, which tied the most all-time with the 1995 New Jersey Devils. This year’s group set a new standard thanks to the addition of rookies like Jake Guentzel, Carter Rowney and Josh Archibald as well as the acquisition of veteran Ron Hainsey.

NCAA alumni contributed not just in numbers but in impact as well. Fourteen of the 19 goals the Penguins scored in the Stanley Cup Final came off the sticks of former college stars.

The 15 players who appeared in the Cup Final represented 13 schools. Twelve of the 15 played three or four years of college hockey.

Pittsburgh featured 19 NCAA alumni during the regular season and 16 in the playoffs (the 15 who appeared in the Cup Final series plus Chad Ruhwedel). Both of those figures led all NHL teams this season.

The Penguins organization as a whole seems committed to the NCAA route, both on the ice and off of it. Their front office is chock full of NCAA alums.

  • Assistant General Manager Bill Guerin Boston College (1989-91)
  • VP of Hockey Operations Jason Karmanos Harvard (1992-96)
  • Head Coach Mike Sullivan Boston University (1986-90)
  • Assistant Coach Jacques Martin St. Lawrence (1972-75)
  • Goaltending Development Coach Mike Buckley Massachusetts (1996-2000)
  • Director, Amateur Scouting Randy Sexton St. Lawrence (1978-82)
  • Pro Scout Al Santilli Curry (1988-92)
  • Amateur Scout Jay Heinbuck Northeastern (1982-86)
  • Amateur Scout Warren Young Michigan Tech (1975-79)
  • AHL Head Coach Clark Donatelli Boston University (1984-87)
  • AHL Assistant Coach J.D. Forrest Boston College (2000-04)

Discussing the College Path to the NHL

Is it easier for college hockey players and the level of competition that they face in their respective league to adapt to the competition of the NHL?

College Hockey, Inc.

This argument probably doesn't apply to your superstar players. Of course Tyler Seguin was always going to dominate the OHL, and of course Jack Eichel was always doing to dominate while he was at Boston University. Players who are stars are going to be dominant players regardless of where they play. Is an argument to made there for your middle-six type forwards, your middle-pairing type defensemen?

For me, the angle to consider is that you see situations where overage CHL players dominate their league and then struggle when they get to the NHL where competition is much stiffer. Hello, Lawson Crouse.

College Hockey, Inc.

A thought from an education standpoint

Are players who go to play junior hockey in the CHL getting a similar education to those who play hockey in the NCAA? Think about Bryan Rust and Ian Cole at Notre Dame. Ian Cole, specifically, even went back to finish his degree in 2013 after leaving after his junior year for the NHL.

In the CHL, players are enrolled at high schools (mandatory), but whether there are any consequences for poor grades is generally left up to the team and/or the parents. This isn’t a blanket negative, as some teams have been known to carry high-scoring students on their team. College-aged players take classes at local universities and teams can and will set up tutors for them, which can be needed at times. Looking at you, Taylor Hall. Yes, that includes boating exams. You can even see the writing on the wall for there being language-barrier issues for English-speaking players who go to play in the QMJHL. This doesn’t mean that all players may have problems, but it’s something to think about.

Again, the point of this isn’t to say that NCAA hockey players are brilliant and that junior hockey players are stupid. That’s not the point in the slightest. Does it make you wonder though, if as college hockey players are getting a well-rounded education, does that impact them on the ice? Much as it is discussed regarding the analytics community and NHL teams hiring consultants for analytics, it’s not always about the numbers. It’s about critical thinking and how that thinking can be used in a different setting. Can you say the same about hockey players? Is it easier to coach those kind of players?

Even look at Craig Adams, Harvard graduate, and his post-NHL career. He went from NHL player (can we ignore the part where he got beat up in practice by Evgeni Malkin?) to being a financial adviser. Can't imagine that would be a common path for an NHL player who didn’t play in the NCAA and attend college.

Stay in school, kids.