College Hockey Facing Unprecedented Player Movement
As of Thursday morning, there were more than 255 players in the NCAA transfer portal. That’s almost 15 percent of all college hockey players.
How on earth did we get here? In a short period of time, the transfer portal has turned into college hockey’s version of free agency.
In large part, the explosion in portal entries this season has to do with COVID, and the NCAA allowing players to play a fifth season. Combine that extra year of eligibility with traditional graduate transfers and a potential one-time transfer waiver, that would allow players to change schools without having to sit out a year — which some expect to pass as early as this spring — and it’s a perfect storm.
“There is going to be a vicious domino effect at every level that feeds into college hockey,” Arizona State head coach Greg Powers said. “I don’t think people understand the tidal wave that’s going to happen. I expect, based on information that I’m privy to and can catch up on, that they are, at the very worst, going to allow a waiver for a one-time transfer for this year. And I don’t know if that’s going to go into permanent legislation or not, but this year, we expect there to be a waiver, which means anyone on any team can transfer anywhere they want.”
Programs are allowed 18 scholarships per season. But, teams are being allowed to go over the scholarship limit if they are retaining their own seniors for their fifth year of eligibility. If teams add a fifth-year player out of the transfer portal, any scholarship money given to that player would have to count towards the program’s 18-scholarship maximum.
So why are there so many fifth-year players in the portal?
Some players are looking for roles on more well-established programs in order to boost their NHL stock. Some players are just looking for a place to play.
While programs have the ability to retain seniors for the fifth year and not have to worry about their scholarships counting towards the program’s limit, they don’t have to keep those players. Moreover, not every school administration is going to be willing to take on the financial burden of retaining those players.
In fact, I’ve spoken to several coaches who said their departments have already informed them they will not fund a penny more than 18 scholarships.
The richer schools might not have an issue funding extra scholarships, but the smaller schools — the ones whose budgets have been decimated by COVID testing — just aren’t going to be willing to put up the funding.
The NCAA also created an uneven playing field for the next four seasons. It will balance out over the four-year cycle, but it will never be completely even across the board until the fifth-year player has aged out of college hockey.
Bowling Green, for example, had 10 seniors this season. Merrimack had three.
If both athletic departments were willing to fully fund fifth-year scholarships, then Bowling Green would take the ice with as many as 28 scholarships and Merrimack would take the ice with 21.
“You add a fifth year of eligibility for everyone that was playing this year, and then you add one-time transfers, and you add all these kids that played four years and are graduating that could be grad transfers even if they don’t pass the one-time transfer rule, which they’re going to, and it’s going to be crazy,” Powers said. “It’s going to be felt at every level with programs not being able to bring in as many freshmen as anticipated. There’s going to be programs that maybe want to bring in their freshmen and don’t want their seniors back, and then those seniors are going to go look for places to play.”
There are seniors in the portal who have been squeezed out due to money. There are also seniors who have been squeezed out because programs are feeling pressure to bring in their recruits. Coaches are trying to balance whether one year with a fifth-year senior is worth more than four potential years with a new recruit. Because pushing a recruit off to keep a fifth-year player could cost a program that recruit.
And remember, the fifth year of eligibility doesn’t just apply to this year’s seniors. It applies to every player who played this season, so the ripple effects will be felt for the next four offseasons.
By adding that extra season to four classes of players, the NCAA deepened the player pool for a select period of time. It has resulted in junior players who are exhausting their junior hockey eligibility, finding limited spots at the college level.
“In this current climate, imagine being a 20-year old playing junior hockey this year, trying to secure a college scholarship,” said Ben Robinson, owner of Blue Line Sports Management in Denver. “It’s hyper-competitive. COVID has made an unprecedented impact.”
Robinson used an example. He said that he has a 20-year-old client who was in the BCHL this season. Once the province shut down that league earlier in the season due to COVID, the player was able to get moved to a team in the NAHL.
“In a normal year, he would likely have a commitment,” Robinson said. “This year, it is tough sledding.”
Those junior players end up being the forgotten victims of the fifth year. Not only will they not receive it, but a good chunk of those players might never play college hockey because the NCAA widened the player pool by an entire year’s worth of players.
“I’m ready for every situation that’s going to be thrown our way. I have models and depth charts built for literally just about any situation that we’re going to face,” Powers said. “We have a really, really good idea of what our roster is going to look like next year and we have room to add players. We have scholarships to add players, so we’re in a great spot.”