Denver forward Jason Zucker is one of many WCHA stars expected to leave school early for the NHL at the end of the season.
WCHA's Brightest Stars Contemplate Their Futures
There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and early departures from the WCHA.
While every league competing at the D1 level is bound to lose players to the NHL on an annual basis, no league is consistently ravaged like the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The past two seasons have been particularly harsh for the league. Of the 25 D1 players to leave college hockey early last summer, 10 (40%) came out of the WCHA. Two seasons ago, 12 of the 39 (30.77%) players that left college hockey early came out of the league.
The University of Wisconsin has taken arguably the biggest hit. The Badgers have lost seven players over the past two seasons. That's more than double any other team in the league with the exception of Denver who has lost four of their own.
Early departures have undoubtedly been a large reason for the parity we're seeing in the sport right now. There's no question it's a major factor as to why only three teams from the WCHA would be in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.
This summer you can expect to see more big names packing up shop and signing NHL contracts before their eligibility expires. There are multiple players that will have opportunities to sign deals.
This week I spoke with a number of media members from around the league to gauge who they think might leave. Keeping in mind that there is always a surprise or two that no one can plan for, the following are my predictions on which WCHA players will leave.
Colorado College: Jaden Schwartz (Update: Signed), Rylan Schwartz
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Jaden Schwartz is on this list. Schwartz is in my opinion the most talented forward in the WCHA and he's just a sophomore. The St. Louis Blues used the 14th overall pick on him in the 2010 draft and it's time to move on to the next level.
Jaden's brother Rylan is also likely to go. Rylan is a free agent and will have an opportunity to sign with pretty much any team he wants. The popular opinion seems to be that Rylan will join his brother and sign with St. Louis.
Denver: Jason Zucker, Drew Shore, Beau Bennett (Update: All Signed)
One of the bigger surprises of the 2010 draft was Jason Zucker falling all the way to the 59th overall pick. The Wild scooped him up and are looking very smart for doing so. Zucker is the #6 prospect in the Wild system and is an elite talent that could very well see time with a Minnesota club that is lacking top 6 forwards.
Drew Shore is an interesting case because the talent is there for Shore to move on to the next level. Florida selected Shore with the 44th pick in the 2009 draft. Hockey's Future ranks Shore as the Panthers 7th best prospect. All things considered on an average year, it would probably be a no-brainer for Shore to move on.
The wrench in the equasion here is that Shore currently has one brother on the DU roster (Nick), and will have another brother (Quentin) join the program next season. Gut feeling says Shore still moves on.
The Beau Bennett pick may surprise some because he hasn't dominated he headlines like some of his teammates, but he's a phenomenal hockey player. Bennett has been hurt most of the season but has managed to record 13 points in 10 games for the Pioneers this year. Pittsburgh took Bennett 20th overall in the 2010 draft. Bennett is considered the top prospect in the Pittsburgh system and they will likely make Bennett a sizable offer to get in the Penguins system.
University of Minnesota: Nick Bjugstad (Update: Coming back)
Bjugstad has just as much upside as any player currently in the WCHA. The 6'5 beast is a physically dominating force that needs to move on to play against players of his caliber. Florida selected Bjugstad one pick before Beau Bennett (#19) in the 2010 draft. He's considered the #5 prospect in the Panthers system and is widely considered a lock to sign.
University of Minnesota Duluth: J.T. Brown (Update: Signed)
One of the worst kept secrets this season has been J.T. Brown turning pro at the end of the season. The sophomore winger leads the Bulldogs in goals and has been a force this season. The biggest reason for Brown leaving is that he's un-drafted so he'll be able to sell his services to the highest bidder. Enjoy him while you can Bulldog fans.
University of North Dakota: Danny Kristo (Update: Coming back)
North Dakota has a number of players that could go, but Kristo is the only lock in my opinion. Montreal took Kristo with the 56th pick in the 2008 draft. The biggest advantage for Kristo is that he can take advantage of the free agent loophole. If he chooses, he could spurn Montreal and sign with any team he pleases. Although as Montreal's #2 prospect, you can bet that the Canadiens will throw the bank at Kristo.
University of Wisconsin: Justin Schultz (Update: Signed)
Probably the most obvious one of the group so far. Schultz is the best player in college hockey and will likely spend time in the NHL before the end of this season is over. I chronicled Schultz's options the other day, and it's likely that Anaheim will sign him after the Badgers season is over and insert him into the lineup immediately.
Bemidji State-Radoslav Illo (Anaheim, #136 overall).
Colorado College-Mike Boivin (Free Agent).
Denver-Joey LaLeggia (Draft Eligible), David Makowski (Free Agent).
Minnesota-Erik Haula (Minnesota, #182 overall), Zach Budish (Nashville, #41 overall), Mark Alt (Carolina, #53 overall).
North Dakota-Brock Nelson (New York Islanders, #30th overall) UPDATE-SIGNED, Corban Knight (Florida, #135 overall), Andrew MacWilliam (Toronto, #188 overall), Derek Forbort (L.A., #15 overall), Rocco Grimaldi (Florida, #33rd overall).
Nebraska Omaha-Terry Broadhurst (Free Agent) UPDATE-SIGNED, Andrej Sustr (Free Agent).
St. Cloud State-Ben Hanowski (Pittsburgh, #63 overall), David Eddy (Free Agent) UPDATE-SIGNED, Nick Jensen (Detroit, #150 overall), Mike Lee (Phoenix, #91 overall) UPDATE-SIGNED.
Wisconsin-John Ramage (Calgary, #103 overall), Mark Zengerle (Free Agent).
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