Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Déjà vu sans Goaltender

Fool me once but you won’t fool me twice. Well John, you fooled us twice. The recent de-commitment of incoming freshmen goalie, John Gibson, reminds Michigan fans that an eighteen-year-olds-mind can change in a flash. This is the second straight year Michigan hockey has lost a high profile goalie prospect to the Ontario Hockey League after Jack Campbell went to Windsor last year. Gibson’s de-commitment is even worse because it comes about a month before school starts. When Campbell left to sign elsewhere, it at least left Michigan almost a full season to recruit a new player. Now the coaching staff must scramble if they want to replace Gibson. Most likely Red Berenson will seek a third string goalie (maybe Patrick Summers or someone from the United States Hockey Leagues) then recruit a top prospect for next season. For the time being, Michigan’s NCAA tournament hopes hinge on Hunwick’s health. If that fails, we should hope Adam Janecyk is the second coming of Shawn.

One might (reasonably) ask what is to stop this happening for a third year in a row next year. The reason why is playing time. With Shawn Hunwick graduating at the end of the season, the starting job will be open to any top prospect who wants it. But wouldn’t Gibson get those minutes if he came? Yes, but not until next season. That, and several reasons are why Gibson signed with the Kitchener Rangers. Gibson would have had to fight for playing time with a fifth year senior this year. Kitchener offer more playing time with a better chance of becoming the starter this year. Since being draft by Anaheim in the 2nd round this year’s draft, the NHL dream probably feels closer now. Anaheim probably talked to him about how the OHL has many things to prepare him for the major league: the story of more games, a more NHL-like style of play, more focus on hockey and less on academics, and lastly, he can sign with the Ducks and still play for his junior team, something he couldn’t do in the NCAA.

Gibson should have known all these facts before his commitment to a college program. He knew what Michigan had to offer and what the OHL was all about. He knew he was going to be a high draft choice too. Yes, the USA development program prevents players from signing with an OHL team while they are on the team but his season was over in May. Granted May isn’t much more time to find a replacement but it is better than now. If Gibson thought he wanted to do juniors, he should have de-committed like Campbell back in November before signing day. It is more disheartening that Gibson signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan; a promise to close his recruiting to other colleges and indirectly OHL teams. In the past two weeks 5 players including Gibson have chosen to join OHL teams over their respective college commitments. The alarming part is not the defects; there are a handful of players every year, but the number of top prospects in a short period. It is well over a month past the draft where most de-commitments occur. A player is taken higher than expected, feels the need to fast track to the NHL then jumps to juniors. In all five cases, these players were drafted in their expected range.

The frustrating part: how to stop these poachers. Answer: there really isn't a way yet. The NCAA considers the Canadian junior leagues professional leagues. Athletes playing a second in a OHL game are automatically ineligible to play in the NCAA, but Athletes can leave anytime from the NCAA to join the junior ranks. Once a college loses the recruit, he is lost. Michigan can just sell their school in the best possible way and recruit honest and respectful players. One area college hockey can work on is NHL executives. There is this growing impression that if you are a highly drafted American prospect, you have to play juniors to develop quicker. NHL general managers are encouraging these de-commitments late in the off season. Canadian juniors do not fast track one to the NHL. It just gives an earlier time for NHL teams to sign the player for cheaper, and it gives the young star a nice signing bonus. Very few players, even first rounders make it to the NHL at 18 or 19 years. They are usually signed at age 20 and spend a couple of years in the minor league. Many players are 22 or 23 by the time they are in the NHL full time. An age where college players have or are about to graduate. If you google Josh Unice or Brandon Maxwell, you will find two former American goalies who committed to colleges then backed out to sign with Kitchener. They are no closer to the NHL than John Gibson is. On the other hand, John Gibson is no closer to a world class education than Unice and Maxwell.

by John Zaccardelli


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