Back in November, the commissioners of college hockey’s conferences hired Paul Kelly to head up a corporation devoted to promoting their game through the media as well as among prospective collegiate players throughout North America.
If you’re wondering why the bosses felt it was necessary to start such a PR machine and getting the ex-head of the NHL Players Association to run it, you need to look no further than Minnesota State University and its now-former player Tyler Pitlick as an example.
On Saturday, Pitlick became the Mavericks’ highest NHL draft pick, as the Edmonton Oilers selected him with the first pick in the second round, No. 31 overall (MSU’s previous high was Tim Jackman at No. 38).
Pitlick had a promising freshman year in Mankato last season, scoring 11 goals and assisting on eight others. The 18-year-old’s stock rose throughout the season to the point where many, including the Oilers’ brass, thought he’d be a first-round pick. Pitlick appeared poised to have a breakout sophomore season, perhaps something akin to what Grant Stevenson did between his rookie year (16 points) and his second season (63 points).
That’s not going to happen, of course, as Pitlick has opted to leave MSU and play in the Western Hockey League with the Medicine Hat Tigers next season.
The WHL is one of three Major Junior leagues for elite players age 20 and under. Most of the teams are located in Canada, and they play 72 games in a season (college teams play 36 regular-season games). The NCAA considers Major Junior players to be professionals because they receive compensation. Junior A players, such as those in the United States Hockey League, on the other hand, retain their amateur status and often use that level as a stepping stone to the college game.
But there’s a bit of a rivalry between Major Junior and college hockey – certainly a lot of debate as to which level best prepares players for the pros and still plenty of anti-college bias circulating around the NHL. That’s a big reason why Kelly was hired.
Some of those talking points have come out during the drafting of Pitlick.
On a video on the Oilers website, general manager Steve Tambellini said he appreciates Pitlick’s move.
“I like the fact that he knew he needed to get to that next step with the extra level of competition,” he said.
The Edmonton Journal editorialized that Pitlick’s decision to go from college to the WHL is “a good career move.”
In a pre-draft blog, Pierre McGuire, an analyst for NBC and a contributor to Sports Illustrated wrote, “He plays university hockey but has the potential to play for the Medicine Hat Tigers.”
It was if going from “university hockey” to the NHL is some improbable leap. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe McGuire was “inside the glass” when a former college star, North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as he captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup championship a couple of weeks ago.
While the first eight picks in this year’s draft came out of the Major Junior ranks, the college game is certainly no roadblock to the NHL.
Five Western Collegiate Hockey Association recruits were drafted in the first round on Friday night. Another 23 (including Pitlick) players affiliated with the WCHA were taken in the next six rounds on Saturday. In all, more than 60 past, present and future college players were drafted over the weekend.
Ironically, when Oilers chief scout Stu MacGregor was asked to compare Pitlick to a current NHLer, he chose none other than another Minnesota State star, David Backes.
Backes did not play major junior, instead spending three years with the Mavericks before signing with the St. Louis Blues, the team that drafted in him the second round in 2003.
But even Pitlick commented on the move from Mankato to Medicine Hat during his post-draft press conference, saying, “I felt I didn’t show as much offense as I had in the past last year. I think next year, being at Medicine Hat, I’ll have some help to show a little more offense.”
Word is that one of Pitlick’s main reasons for moving on was that he didn’t particularly like the college part of college hockey. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone, and ultimately, every player has to do what he thinks is best for his future in the sport.
But playing another year with the Mavericks certainly wouldn’t have hurt him – no matter what some folks think of the college game.
Paul Kelly has his work cut out for him.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at www.mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com.