For NHL prospects, it's a long road.
[Passive Voice UPDATE, March 16: Newsday's Katie Strang reports: "It is believed that the deal has been agreed to in principle, but not yet made official."]
It's a rite of March, these murmurs about which NCAA hockey players will leave to sign pro contracts. We're not innocent here, what with Monday's review of the status of Islanders properties currently in college. One such prospect whose potential departure is a fan topic for the third year in a row is 2008 pick Aaron Ness, the Minnesota junior who Internet buzz among Gopher followers Monday afternoon suggested was ready to leave.
Of course, we've been here before. It's spring, after all.
For college players, the whole NCAA facade of sacred amateur status complicates this flirtation each year. I'm not so much interested in if the rumors come to fruition -- if Ness leaves, we'll find out soon enough, and none of our lives will be worse for the delay between first hint and confirmation. But I am interested in this angle: It takes two to tango. If Ness wants to leave college, are the Islanders (including their affiliates) ready for him? And would it really be the right time for the undersized but crafty defenseman?I can't remember if Chris Botta's report at Islanders Point Blank last spring kicked off that year's scuttlebutt or not, but the premise from his sources was, in my opinion, telling (emphasis mine):
Multiple sources tell Point Blank that Ness, who just concluded his sophomore season with the Gophers, is ready to turn pro – if the Islanders want him. A league source said the Islanders have not given up on Ness and hope to strike a low-risk Entry Level contract agreement so the 5-10 defenseman can play in the minor leagues.
The rest of that post hits on why I think Ness, despite a small stature that would make you think he needs to take the slow road to the pros, has been a topic every spring: There is a contingent of Gopher and NCAA/pro hockey observers who don't think Don Lucia's program is doing the job. It's four disappointing seasons and counting now for the Gophers, but when discussing Islanders prospects there is the added history of the brief war of words between Lucia and Islanders GM Garth Snow around Kyle Okposo's midseason departure.
The Challenges for Small Defensemen
But Ness is not Okposo. The Islanders clearly thought the big-framed forward Okposo could make an impact right away -- and he did, getting a productive stint with Bridgeport before being recalled for a nine-game NHL finish that slid his ELC one year forward.
Ness, according to most observers, has not delivered what many anticipated after his standout high school career. He has improved his strength, but still has a ways to go there. (Something for an offseason training under Islanders tutelage, perhaps?) It's really quite hard to separate "the program" from "the player" though, to divine whether a kid needs that next step away from college.
On that note, last year Lucia had this to say to the College Hockey News about when he counsels players not to leave early:
My point is, one of the great things about college is the age the kids are and what do they need. They need maturity in the weight room. And I think our schedule for that age is better [than the AHL] for them. If you're playing four games in five nights, you can't get in the weight room, you can't build your body.
I just want a kid, when he leaves, he's on the cusp (of the NHL). Not many kids are going to go directly — there will be a few — but be on the cusp. Maybe play 40/40. But I've seen a lot of kids leave here that go to the AHL and never make it.
An NCAA coach would say that, wouldn't he? But it's a fair point. Here was SBN's Western College Hockey Blog last year on the prospect of Ness leaving in 2010:
It's not like Ness doesn't understand how to play the game. He's one of the smartest players I've seen come up through the ranks. But he's reached a point where everybody plays the game pretty well and his disadvantages in size and strength are making him fall behind.
In terms of pro potential, I hear conflicting reports from people who watch the Gophers closely -- although most seem to agree Ness has progressed since last year. One of my closest friends is a Gopher fanatic, and I can tell you it's an intense fan base with high expectations.
Betting on Small Defensemen
The Islanders do have a bit of a reputation for drafting small yet skilled defensemen over the last half-decade, but that doesn't mean they've kept them all. Fellow 2008 pick (6th round, 156 overall) Jared Spurgeon -- all 5'9", 185 lbs. of him -- had a very successful junior career with Spokane yet the Isles let his rights lapse last summer. It took a few tryouts with the Wild before he found a home, but he's earned enough promotions this year to get in 40 games (2 goals, 7 assists, +3) in the NHL.
Is Ness, listed at 5'10" 177 lbs., a better bet than Spurgeon? Ness was a higher pick (2nd round, 40th overall), so they may have more invested there. And it is a year later than a decision was due on Spurgeon, who is just six months older. Even critics of his game, and of his stat sheet, will concede his puckhandling skills. Whether he can apply that with vision while handling the bodies of the pro game is for the Isles to decide.
And that brings me back to the two-to-tango cliche: The Islanders have his rights for one more year, so they don't need to decide now. If he wants to leave but they aren't ready for him, they don't have to bring him in; Ness doesn't have a ton of leverage there. Meanwhile, if he signed this calendar year, his age 21 year, an ELC would be three years according to Article 9 of the CBA. That's no minor consideration if you're no longer high on a prospect. However, if you do still like him and don't think his NCAA club is helping him become a pro...well there's a deal to be made.
This side of it may be moot within hours of this posting, or it may linger on for another year. Point is, there are a lot of variables with a college kid leaving early.
If you're interested, here is the first indication from Monday (by Tuesday morning, there may be more, who knows). Take it for what you will via @hammyhockey:
"To those emailing, yes... Ness is leaving. Heard from 3 good sources now."
That Gopher tipster goes on to discuss several things, including unhappiness with his coaching.
More is written about Ness and what a potential departure could mean here at Gopher Puck Live, where fans weigh in via comments.
Personally, I'm an advocate of getting your degree -- to say nothing of the once-in-a-lifetime experience college provides. That said, once you've completed three years, finishing your degree from afar or via summer courses is usually more doable. It's a balancing act with your athletic developmental needs; if Ness is bent on turning pro and the Isles agree, good luck to him. Regardless, whether we hear something soon or we go through the drama's chapter 4 next year, I'd be shocked to see him in the NHL any time soon.