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From the NCAA to the NHL: Three defensemen to make the leap

Will we see Cale Makar in an Avalanche uniform before the end of the season?

Richard T. Gagnon

The ‘leap year’ is a phrase I’ve coined as the year where NCAA players make the jump to the NHL in the same season. It normally isn’t a choice most NHL teams and collegiate athletes decide on, although it has become increasingly popular in the last two seasons with higher-drafted players. We’re seeing less of collegiate athletes wait until free agency to choose a team to play for (like Jimmy Vesey), and more of players joining their NHL teams immediately.

So when Bob McKenzie reported in mid-February that the Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators were looking to have two defensive prospects turn pro mid-season, I decided to look into whether or not it is the best move for those players’ developments.

Past Leapers

Here are seven players who made the jump from the NCAA to the NHL in the last two seasons:

Stats in NHL Leap Year

Player Team Position Age Season GP G A PTS
Player Team Position Age Season GP G A PTS
Brock Boeser Vancouver Canucks RW 20.2 2017-R 9 4 1 5
Clayton Keller Arizona Coyotes C/LW 18.3 2017-R 3 0 2 2
Colin White Ottawa Senators C/RW 20.4 2017-R 2 0 0 0
2017-P 1 0 0 0
Charlie McAvoy* Boston Bruins RD 19.7 2017-P 6 0 3 3
Henrik Borgstrom Florida Panthers C 20.4 2018-R 4 1 0 1
Casey Mittelstadt Buffalo Sabres C 19.7 2018-R 6 1 4 5
Adam Gaudette Vancouver Canucks C 21.6 2018-R 5 0 0 0
Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks LD 19.6 2019-R 5 0 3 3
Dante Fabbro Nashville Predators RD 20.10 2019-R 4 1 0 1
2019-P 6 0 1 1
Cale Makar* Colorado Avalanche RD 20.6 2019-P 10 1 5 6
*denotes playoffs only

The way I wrote the ages was “year.months”, so McAvoy was 19 years and 7 months when he made the leap, whereas Gaudette was 21 years and 6 months.

Now, here are the stats for those players in their final NCAA seasons:

NCAA Stats in NHL Leap Year

Player Team Season GP G A P
Player Team Season GP G A P
Brock Boeser University of North Dakota 2016-17 32 16 18 34
Clayton Keller Boston University 2016-17 31 21 24 45
Colin White Boston College 2016-17 35 16 17 33
Charlie McAvoy Boston University 2016-17 38 5 21 26
Henrik Borgstrom University of Denver 2017-18 40 23 29 52
Casey Mittelstadt University of Minnesota 2017-18 34 11 19 30
Adam Gaudette* Northeastern University 2017-18 38 30 30 60
*Hobey Baker winner

The first note is that typically defensemen don’t make that mid-season jump. McAvoy was the exception, and he only had 26 points in his leap year. However, it was also surprising to see that the players who had exceptionally high-scoring final college seasons didn’t immediately make an impact in the NHL. Besides Boeser and Mittelstadt, everyone else’s first games in the NHL were underwhelming.

The McAvoy Model

McAvoy’s case is interesting. All of the other players who have leapt from the NCAA to the NHL mid-season in the last two years have been forwards. Some forwards have blossomed, but others have fallen silent after great collegiate years.

McAvoy’s BU team made it all the way to the NCAA Regional finals before being eliminated by Minnesota-Duluth on March 25th. With his team being eliminated so close to the playoffs, there was debate as to whether or not the Bruins should bring him up.

Aside from position, what separates McAvoy from the rest is that he was the only player to jump straight from NCAA hockey to NHL playoff hockey. He played all six games for the Bruins in the first round, as they lost to Ottawa. And he didn’t shrink from the challenge, either — he put up three assists in those six games.

Three Candidates for 2019

2018-19 NCAA Stats

Player Team Position Approx. Age GP G A P
Player Team Position Approx. Age GP G A P
Quinn Hughes Univ. of Michigan LD 19.6 32 5 28 33
Dante Fabbro Boston University RD 20.10 34 7 23 30
Cale Makar UMass-Amherst RD 20.6 34 13 29 42

Quinn Hughes

It was reported by Bob McKenzie in mid-February that the Vancouver Canucks were likely going to call up Quinn Hughes once his season ended with the Michigan Wolverines. Well, Michigan was eliminated from the Big Ten playoffs on Saturday, and the Canucks wasted no time in making the announcement yesterday evening:

Getting Hughes with 13 games left in the season likely means he plays the maximum nine games without burning a year of his ELC. However, Hughes was injured in Michigan’s second last playoff game after blocking a shot with his foot. It was reported to be just a bruise, and Hughes played the next day, but it may affect how soon he gets into the Canucks lineup. As for potential mentors on the Canucks, Erik Gudbranson was originally delegated for that role, but he was then dealt at the trade deadline. Chris Tanev and Alex Edler are his next logical partners, and we’ll see what kind of impact he can have at the NHL level. The Canucks are off until Wednesday, which gives Hughes plenty of time to get acquainted with his new team.

Dante Fabbro

Fabbro was the other player Bob mentioned as turning pro at the end of his NCAA season. However, Fabbro’s situation in Nashville is a little different than Hughes’ in Vancouver. For one, the Predators are a for-sure playoff team. It is also worth noting that Fabbro also played for Canada at the Spengler Cup over the holidays, and had a goal and three points. For a young defenseman to flourish at a senior men’s tournament speaks volumes about his readiness to play pro-hockey.

Also, there are a plethora mentors on the blueline in Nashville (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, etc.) that could really do wonders for his transition. Having Fabbro play depth, third-pair minutes behind players like that allows for more sheltered zone starts, and easier responsibilities. Nashville has the luxury of blueline depth and a longer spring season, to the point where, in this case, it makes sense if they were to burn a year of Fabbro’s ELC.

Cale Makar

That brings us to the pride of the Avalanche prospect pool. If there is anyone who has outgrown college hockey, it’s Makar. He is undoubtedly NHL ready. With 13 goals and 42 points this season, Makar has played at another level with UMass all season, setting new records and having one of the best seasons by a defensemen in conference history.

The biggest question at the moment is whether UMass will play longer than the Avalanche this season. The soonest the Avs could get Makar is about a week from today, if they’re shockingly eliminated in the first round of the playoffs this coming weekend. The NCAA Frozen Four will take place from April 11th to 13th, five days after the Avs’ last game of the regular season. With the way the Minutemen have been playing, there is a good chance that we won’t ever have to have the discussion of calling Makar up to the Avalanche this season.

But that’s a long way’s away, and anything can happen in the playoffs. In the event that UMass is eliminated from the before the end of Colorado’s season, the Avalanche run the same risk the Canucks do with Hughes. However, I’m not as worried about Makar struggling and potentially harming his development. He dominated the NCAA all season long — and his NHL debut isn’t far away.

So... Should They Leap?

Defensemen typically take longer time to make the NHL than forwards do. That’s likely the reason we haven’t seen as many defensemen with a ‘leap year’. The Avalanche didn’t have the option to have defenseman and 2017 Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher make the jump to the NHL, since Butcher was busy leading his Denver team to a national championship and opted to sign with New Jersey instead.

Vancouver has already decided on calling up and signing Hughes. Nashville hasn’t been quite as public about Fabbro, but it seems like he’ll follow soon.

It’s more than likely that the Avalanche will run into the same situation with Makar. But if his post-season ends prematurely, there’s no reason against having him turn pro (unless, of course, he doesn’t want to). The expectation is that Makar, just like Hughes and Fabbro, will sign his ELC as soon as his season ends with UMass. If the Avs manage to make the playoffs, there’s a good chance he could take the McAvoy route — and make an immediate impact.

All statistics from Elite Prospects.

Note: the original article mis-stated that Will Butcher had been with New Jersey prior to the 2017 season. That mistake has since been corrected.