by PuckStopsHere on 02/07/09 at 04:42 AM ET
A while ago I wrote a post about the lack of top scorers in the NHL who are born in USA. I noted that given the percentage of American players in the league, there should be far more top scorers than currently exist. Given that American players make up 21.8% of the league, one would expect ten American scorers in the top 46 scorers league wide (this is the point where 10/46 = 21.8%). That is not what is seen, when I wrote the piece, it took 85 players before there were 10 Americans. That is well below expectation.
Tom Benjamin offers up a theory for why this is true. The problem comes from the way NCAA hockey is run. Most American players tend to be developed by the NCAA before they come to the NHL. As the quality of US high school (and USHL junior) hockey has increased, the NCAA has decided to preferentially give out scholarships to Americans. This has reduced the NCAA talent pool.
In the past many Canadian players would come to play in the NCAA (some include Paul Kariya, Rod Brind’Amour and Rob Blake for example). Today this doesn’t happen and it reduces the NCAA talent pool. Canadian players usually play in the Canadian major junior system. If a Canadian does chose to play in the NCAA, he is usually forced to play a year or two in a tier II junior league in the US (while being redshirted by his college) before he gets a chance to play in the NCAA. This limits his chances of being a serious NHL prospect. There are roughly as many CHL teams as there are NCAA Division I schools. The CHL is a higher quality system, so it produces the best players. The NCAA does give players a chance to develop so it also produces players, but there tend to be more marginal players, since they were not developed against as high a level of competition.
The NCAA has also seen a decrease in players who leave college early. Paul Kariya played for a year and a half before leaving for the Canadian National Team, the Olympics and eventually the NHL. Rod Brind’Amour played one season. Doug Weight played two. This had the NCAA producing players who were NHL ready at age 19 and 20. Today, when a player stays and completes his degree (a good move in most cases - but a poor move for his NHL prospects) he is 23 or 24 and significantly older than most NHL rookies and his development has been slowed by playing against weaker competition.
I think this is a reasonable theory that seems quite logical. I do not think that there is only one cause for this situation and I will present another.
In the USA (more so than most hockey playing nations) there are a lot of sports played. Many of these sports (football, baseball, basketball) receive more publicity than hockey. This keeps most young American players playing many sports and has them commit to hockey as their primary sport at a much later age (often the high school level) than would happen in other countries. This reduces the chances of producing a truly elite American player.
There was an event that pushed hockey to the forefront of American culture for a while. The 1980 US Olympic gold medal was this event. It got the entire nation interested in hockey and this helped convince some players in a generation to commit to the game. This generation included such stars as Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano and Doug Weight. That is a larger group of elite talent in American players than exists in the NHL today. Of those players, Modano and Roenick came to the NHL via the CHL system, while Leetch, Chelios and Weight played in the NCAA. Today, there are less American players choosing a route outside the NCAA. I think this comes from committing to hockey at a later age. A player is more likely to want to use his hockey as a ticket to an education because they are realistically less likely to have an NHL career. This is probably a good thing for the overall employment of these individuals, but it sends a larger group of players into a weaker development system and that hurts the NHL talent pool and the USA Hockey talent pool.
It is clear that there is a lack of American top scorers in the NHL. For the most part that lack extends to other positions. Brian Rafalski is probably the only all star calibre defenceman in the league. In goal there is Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller. These are not long lists for a nation producing over 20% of the NHL’s players. The problem appears to be the NCAA system which has weakened its talent pool by preferentially choosing Americans (effectively removing all others). The NCAA system is not designed to be an NHL minor league. It tends to produce older players than most NHL prospects and these players have been playing against weaker competition, thus stunting their development. The problem also seems to be the lack of hockey in US popular culture. This tends to raise the age where a player serious commits to hockey as his number one sport. This reduces his development as a child and makes him more likely to enter the NCAA system instead of the better development systems. The question is will anything change? Is there pressure from USA Hockey or anywhere else to push changes?
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