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C & C Debate Factory: Should young hockey players go the CHL or NCAA route?

What way is the best way for young players to get ready to make the NHL?

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

FFH Editor Emeritus Carl Putnam debates with FFH writer Richard Morin, a special guest to C&C, about prospect routes in this edition of the C&C Debate Factory.

Hockey prospects have a number of choices when determining a path to develop their hockey skills as a young adult. The two major ones in North America are the Canadian Major Junior Leagues better known as the CHL and NCAA Division 1 men's hockey. Which path do you think is the best one for prospects with NHL potential?

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Experience vs. Development

Richard: As much as I would love it to be the other way around, the CHL is the best way for upper echelon prospects to hone their skills and showcase their games to talent evaluators. The foremost reason is length of season. In 2014-15, teams in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) played 68 games, whereas teams in the NCAA played around 21 regular season games.

This is a huge disparity that leaves college hockey behind the CHL in terms of development. Most teams in the NCAA only play on Fridays and Saturdays, whereas CHL teams are constantly traveling and playing games as if they were professionals. This allows top prospects to gain similar experience to what they will experience once joining the professional ranks. I would say this is the biggest factor which sets the two apart.

Carl: I think you are mistaking games for development. If you speak with most coaches they would tell you more development happens in practice, both team and individual, than in games. Players who go the NCAA route get about two team practices for every one game they play (around 40 games).

In addition, with reduced travel, kids in college are more likely to be able to get in off-ice training which is always important. For example, how many quality strength and conditioning sessions do you think the average CHL team gets in on the road? The college route also fosters other development which helps players on/off the ice such as critical thinking to independent living skills which the CHL route doesn't.

Accessibility and Benefits

Richard: Those are great points that I think many people overlook. I still think the CHL route is the best way to go if a top prospect wants to get as NHL-ready as possible. As an American, I absolutely love and respect NCAA hockey for what it is, but it simply isn't on par with leagues like the OHL or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) just yet.

Perhaps the addition of Arizona State University to the fold will help college hockey grow toward a more coast-to-coast league; I believe that is one way for the NCAA to overtake the CHL. But as for the present, I think we have to weigh the two based on their demographics. If you're a Canadian hockey prospect, what kind of pull is there to choose the NCAA over the CHL?

Now, the same goes with European players, who are more objective toward the two leagues, but most still elect to go CHL. Obviously some choose the NCAA route, but generally speaking most players in the NCAA are American and most in the CHL are Canadian or European.

Just quickly browsing through OHL (maybe 2 per team) and NCAA rosters (less than 1 per team) will show an advantage, however slim, in European players over the NCAA. The CHL is simply pulling too great a pool of prospects for the NCAA to compete with at the moment. And while there is a case to be made for the NCAA's development being just as good or better, the numbers speak for themselves.

But how much more of a complete personal development would you get from going to college over playing travel hockey for a year or two? Quite a bit, and therein does the NCAA have a case. But strictly in terms of competition, the CHL is a level ahead.

Carl: I think your quality of CHL competition and it being the clearly better road arguments are valid if this was 1975, not 2015. In recent years, the NCAA has closed the gap significantly. Around 30% of the players in the NHL now come via the NCAA route.

If players weren't getting the competition they need to reach the NHL the numbers wouldn't have changed so dramatically. High profile players like Jonathan Toews and Phil Kessel wouldn't have gone the NCAA route if they thought it would hurt their development. Playing college hockey certainly doesn't seem to be hurting the 2015 draft prospects of potential top 10 picks like Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin, and Zach Werenski.

I think the other issue which goes along with the personal development component is the value of the education NCAA athletes receive. Higher education is extremely important in the 21st century workplace. Even players who have long pro hockey careers are eventually going to need to find work off the ice.

While the CHL technically has an education program, it's mainly a hollow shell. Most of their former players don't use the program because the qualifications are clearly designed to limit their participation. The leagues have funky years of service rules, pay tuition costs in a manner which is unlikely to be near the actual costs, and most importantly force players to use the money within 18 months of leaving major junior hockey. Getting hard numbers who how many CHL alums are getting college degrees is extremely hard. The rumored number is somewhere around 20%.

On the other hand, NCAA hockey programs are graduating over 90% of their players according to the latest graduation success rate (GSR) numbers. NCAA men's hockey had the best GSR and APR rates in terms of male D1 sports in terms of graduation rate.  In addition, by attending college players are expanding their potential network of contacts for later when they are looking for employment.

Canada vs. America

Richard: I love that last point you made with sky-high graduation rates, and it's a huge way for the NCAA to sell their program to prospective targets. Like I said, I love college hockey and watching it grow has been a huge treat. As you point out, the numbers have grown drastically in terms of demographics in the NHL, and as we both have said the value of getting a complete education at the same time is incomparable.

Going off of that, what's the problem here? Well, top American players (i.e. Kessel, Eichel, Zach Parise, Jonathan Quick) will choose the college route, while most top Canadian prospects (i.e. Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon) will side with the CHL. Obviously there have been anomalies like Patrick Kane playing up North and Toews playing for North Dakota, but for the most part there is a line and a pattern.

And as long as Canadian hockey is a powerful as it is, the NCAA will never be able to answer in terms of competition. While recognizing that college hockey is producing more and more NHL players each season (which is fantastic) I don't believe they will be on the same level until more schools start participating (i.e. more major conferences like the Pac-12 or ACC).

NCAA Division I is too small and plays too short a season to be compared with leagues like the OHL and the QMJHL. Over there, it's like a mini NHL, and while perhaps that's not the best thing for a 17-year-old to do in terms of body and mind, it will damn sure get him ready for professional hockey.

You really can't go wrong with either. But the CHL is better for upper echelon players to show scouts their skills and get in the rhythm of professional hockey.

Carl: I think hitting on the American/Canadian divide is important. If American hockey continues to grow I see the overall numbers continuing to grow for NHLers coming from the NCAA. Your point about the need for expanding the number of college programs is also important. The likelihood of more players going the NCAA route with more scholarship opportunities out there makes sense.

However, with far fewer programs than other sports NCAA has grown incredibly as a feeder of pro hockey in the last 35 years. If you told me in 1982 (the year I first got into hockey) that 30% of the NHL's players would have come from colleges I would have asked what alternate reality you thought we were in. The NHL has become a much more diverse league in terms of the experiences it's players have had prior to entering the league including the bigger percentage of European players.

I certainly will concede the CHL is more like the pro game schedule/travel wise and makes sense for plenty of players, especially guys like Crosby or McDavid who are head and shoulders above their peers as young teens. My thing is those guys are few and far between. I think for almost everyone else, the NCAA route is a viable first option, especially if you look at the ability to balance present and future together.

I think we'd both agree the best decision is not a blanket one. Each individual's situation is different. Look at someone like Auston Matthews who may be going in the opposite direction as some Europeans have in recent years. A number of European players have come to North America to play primarily in the CHL.

Now there is talk of Matthews going to play pro hockey in the Swiss league. Though I think this may have more do to with the NHL-CHL agreement than anything else. Matthews is also said to be looking at the CHL and as many as five NCAA schools. The fact college recruiters can get in the door and speak with the top age group prospect says more than I probably have during this entire conversation.

Richard: Again, you really drive it home with your last point. There is certainly something to be said about Matthews having not made a decision yet between NCAA and the CHL. That is telling of the NCAA's rise over the last 35 years, as you have so eloquently explained. Watching the growth of college hockey over the next decade will be extremely interesting.

Carl: Thanks. I'm also excited to see what happens over the next decade, in terms of not just college hockey, but also how things evolve in the CHL (unionization?) and other potential development paths around the world.

Richard: I definitely agree. The trajectories of both leagues will surely be captivating in the coming years.

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So, what do you think? Which route is best for players looking to make it to the NHL?