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Could NCAA uncertainty lead to players jumping to AHL early?

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It’s a crazy world.

HIGH SCHOOL HOCKEY: JAN 04: White Bear Lake at Edina Photo by Josh Holmberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is a lot of uncertainty not just in sports, but with the world as a whole. We still don’t know what sports are going to look like over the next year at all levels from youth sports on up to the professional level. Over the last week, the Ivy League announced that they would not play any fall sports and would not consider starting up any sports until at least January which would affect hockey as well. That decision was followed by the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcing they would only play within conference for fall sports.

With the delays, or possibility of cancellation, of seasons at the NCAA level, it got me wondering what players might decide to do. There’s already been speculation that with the unknowns and possibly delayed start to the AHL season, that some veterans may decide to go to Europe or Russia to play professional hockey instead. So could NCAA players make the same kind of decision to leave school and play in the AHL? Players will have to weigh this option against the possibility of missing a year of development if NCAA hockey ends up canceled while professional hockey continues.

If there’s any kind of mass exodus from NCAA hockey, there could be a bidding war on some of the better players that went undrafted. But for the Lightning, they have drafted a number of NCAA players over the past three drafts (and going back further) that they could pull from. Another consideration that those players will have to consider is how ready they are for professional hockey and if they might end up in the ECHL instead of the AHL.

With this thinking, let’s take a look at those NCAA players the Lightning own the rights to and where they currently stand.

Kristian Oldham, Goaltender, 2015 6th round pick

Oldham is not much of a prospect at this point and his professional outlook is not very good. He spent another year in the USHL after being drafted before going to NCAA. He has not been able to break out beyond a back up role and has not performed all that well when he’s gotten into games. He started at the University of Nebraska-Omaha for two years, sat out a year and transferred to Clarkson University. He only appeared in one game for Clarkson in 2019-20 and it is the only game action he’s had in two years.

Nicklaus Perbix, Defenseman, 2017 6th round pick

Perbix is a player I’ve thought well of since he was drafted. He was an overage senior in high school, but had size, a right handed shot, and hockey IQ on his side. He posted 29 points in 56 games for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL following his draft year. Over the past two seasons with St. Cloud State University he has posted 35 points in 73 games from the blue line.

Right-handed defensemen are always in demand and Perbix just turned 22. He still needs some polishing, but he’s a player that wouldn’t surprise me if he was ready to jump into the AHL now. His NHL upside is as a steady third pairing defenseman.

Cole Guttman, Forward, 2017 6th round pick

Guttman is a tiny forward, listed at 5’9” and 168 pounds. To play professional hockey, he needs to add a little more weight to his frame. Despite his small stature, he’s put up 14 goals in each of the past two seasons with the University of Denver and has 54 points over 76 games. I have doubts about how well he’d transition to the pro game right now considering his small size. However, he has the hands and hockey IQ to potentially succeed despite his stature.

Sammy Walker, Forward, 2017 7th round pick

Walker picked up a lot of Twitter attention after a couple of development camps for his hands, speed, and shot in the 3-v-3 tournaments. I don’t put as much stock into those tournaments as a lot of fans do and took a more patient approach to getting hyped about him. He has backed it up though with his performance the past two seasons for the University of Minnesota. Walker was also a very small forward when he was drafted, but he’s grown up a bit since then and is now listed at 6’0” and 170 pounds.

One big point to make with Walker is that he was named the captain for Minnesota as a sophomore. We’re talking about a big time NCAA program with a lot of talent and Walker wore the C in his second year. He has scored 21 goals and 56 points over 74 games in his NCAA career and led the Golden Gophers in scoring in 2019-20.

Alexander Green, Defenseman, 2018 4th round pick

Green was drafted after a freshman season for Cornell University with 10 points in 29 games. Over the past two seasons, he has put up 20 points in 49 games for Cornell. At 6’2” and 193 pounds, Green has a good combination of height and weight. He’s also a right shot defenseman that just turned 22. Cornell is a part of the Ivy League, so more so than the other players in this list, Green could be really impacted.

Green may have a bit different priorities than professional hockey, such as finishing his degree at a prestigious school before going pro. According to Cornell Hockey’s web site, Green is enrolled in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Magnus Chrona, Goaltender, 2018 5th round pick

Chrona’s time with the Lightning started with a delay of the NHL Entry Draft to confirm that he was on the list of eligible players to be drafted. He was a relatively unknown goaltender out of Sweden that had caught the Lightning’s eye without having played in Sweden’s top junior level of SuperElit.

After being drafted, he spent another season in Sweden playing in the SuperElit league for 26 games with a 4.00 GAA and .889 save percentage on a very bad Skelleftea AIK J20 team. Following the season, he decided to come to North America to play NCAA hockey for the University of Denver with fellow Lightning prospect Cole Guttman. He started off hot and finished up a great freshman campaign with a 2.15 GAA and .920 save percentage over 27 games.

Chrona was one of the youngest players in his draft class and will turn 20 years old in August. I think he could use another year in NCAA hockey, but it also would not be a surprise if he was ready to go professional with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this season, especially if it’s looking like the NCAA season could be limited.

Cole Koepke, Forward, 2018 6th round pick

Koepke was selected as an overage pick and just turned 22 in May. At 6’1” and 196 pounds, he’s got good size on the wing. As a freshman for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he contributed seven goals and 19 points in 42 games. Last season as a sophomore, he took a big step forward offensively putting up 16 goals and 33 points in 34 games. Something to also note with Koepke is that he doesn’t take many penalties with just 30 PIMs over 76 games played in NCAA hockey.

Koepke is old enough, has the size and the production, that he could go professional now if he wants to. He’s slated to wear an A as an Alternate Captain for Denver as a junior if he decides to stay.

Ty Taylor, Goaltender, 2018 7th round pick

Taylor has spent the past two seasons as the back up goaltender for the University of New Hampshire. He’s only played in 16 games at the NCAA level after spending two seasons in the BCHL in Canada. I don’t think Taylor is ready for professional hockey and needs to find some starting goaltender time in NCAA before considering making the jump.

Conclusion

While I think it’s within the realm of possibility that a couple players decide to make the jump now, I don’t expect a mass exodus from the NCAA ranks. I do think it’s still an idea worth examining and worth consideration for some of the players that already have a couple years experience in NCAA hockey. For others, it’s just too soon for them to make the move, even if they’re looking at the possibility of playing a shortened season, or even no season, in 2020-21.