"(It feels) terrible right now. Three years in a row. The juniors and seniors have gone through it together."
>>Islanders 2007 pick and UNH defenseman Blake Kessel, right after falling short of the Frozen Four
According to multiple reports coming out of the northeast, Kessel The Younger has been mulling whether or not to turn pro now, after his junior year. I trust that means there is interest from the Isles, else it wouldn't be an open question. Last week his Wildcats coach Dick Umile said, "We don’t know (what he’s going to decide)," and also, "I don’t think he’s looking to run out the door."
It can't be an easy decision. So what do you suppose goes through an NCAA student athlete's head in this situation -- especially after seeing 2008 blueline draftees Aaron Ness (a junior) and Matt Donovan (a sophomore) make the jump this spring -- not to mention Kessel's own New Hampshire teammate, undrafted senior Matt Campanale, play for Bridgeport and now join the Isles for tonight's game on an emergency ATO?
I can think of a few things.
The Prospect Peers
While the NCAA is a nice spot both to develop as a player and to get a degree (plus: Women. Lovely, friendly, educated women.), you can't help see the various ticking clocks a player faces: Of course there's the biological and earnings clock -- though at this young age, every young man thinks his body will last forever. There's the draft rights clock -- when you're a franchise's draft investment, there is some inherent organizational desire to sign you while you still have unknown potential.
But if you've made it four years of college without landing with your drafting team...what if they suddenly decide you're no longer worth the multi-year commitment? Or what if you've fallen "behind" your peers? It's not a huge concern -- if you're good, you should find a way to make it -- but it has to lurk as a worry. The best players will be found by NHL teams one way or another. But the pool of average NHLers and depth players is filled by guys who got the right chance at the right time.
And then there's the matter of the peers mentioned before -- Ness and Donovan, drafted a year later (but as higher picks) are already playing pro. They've played big minutes for Bridgeport. They've broken the ice in the pros and will already be a figurative step ahead in the pro game. UNH teammate Campanale will get in an NHL game tonight, with the team that drafted Kessel. If you're Kessel, do you want to wait another year? Even if you see yourself as better than one or all three of those, as with "average joe" working life there is a certain head start just in showing up to work. Is there any perceived pressure to keep up with your NCAA peers who, ultimately, you'll be fighting for the same jobs?
This isn't advocacy for either decision -- if anything, I frequently argue that college can and should be some of the best years of a young man's life. (Of course I say that being oblivious to what life as a pro hockey player is like.) But that's reasonable speculation on some of the things that go through a player's head, without getting into family and educational considerations that are unique to each player. (A degree is also huge, although after three years of college finishing up in Sports Studies via distance learning or summer courses shouldn't be a big road block.)
Giving it One More Go
Then there's that quote mentioned at the top. That's both post-game anguish and appreciation for the struggle trying to get UNH to the next step. With some seniors graduating, is it a peak, or can the returning talent -- with Kessel as anchor -- bring that team to a Frozen Four? It's that decision every drafted collegiate faces when his team doesn't make it all the way.
The Organizational Blueline Depth Chart
Here are the Islanders and prospect defensemen signed to pro deals for next year:
Calvin de Haan
That's 11 men. There's room for another college addition there. But now add:
Jack Hillen (RFA, very likely to be retained)
Ty Wishart (RFA, near-certain to be retained)
Mark Wotton (may want to do one more year at Bridgeport, is usually quiet on it until postseason)
Bruno Gervais (RFA, a veteran, you never know)
Radek Martinek (UFA, but also a veteran)
That's potentially five more and more reasonably at least two more to bring the likely total up to 13+. Now things are starting to fill out both in the NHL and AHL levels -- and that's before bringing in outside free agents.
However, injuries, injuries, injuries: The Sound Tigers have used 60 players this year, and the Islanders have used 12 defensemen alone. I wouldn't expect quite that injury carnage next year, but it does point to there always being shifts and openings on the back line. Streit, Eaton and Mottau are coming off major injuries, and MacDonald's hip injury is even later. Meanwhile, even if a crowd on the backline creates a tough battle for minutes, well, going through the ECHL did not do MacDonald any harm.
What if He Waits?
On the other hand, some of those contracts are going to expire -- and in theory another year will add another year of preparation for Kessel, and maybe even reduce the time he has to spend riding the bus in the AHL.
Here are Islanders defenseen signed for 2012-13:
Wishart (if he's qualified, he likely is around for more than one year)
That's just seven or eight. In theory that's better than trying to carve out a place among 12-14. In theory. The other side of that coin is you don't know who will come available a year from now, and what kind of players will emerge to win lasting jobs and become part of the core. (Or: TEH CORE!!1 as it's known by some here.)
In either case, getting to the NHL is usually a long (and hardly certain) road for a late-blooming 6th-round pick, whether it entails a fourth year of college or a jump to the minor pro life. That's a lot to consider for a guy who turns 22 next week.