The decision by Chicago Steel defenseman John Moore to sign with Columbus and head to major junior was not a surprise. Moore had been rumored to be firmly on the fence regarding college hockey for some time, and all it took was the influence of people on the outside to tip him one way or the other.
Obviously, those who spoke to him about the benefits of major junior were more convincing than those who spoke about college hockey.
John Moore should not be hated over this decision. He did what he feels is best for him. As an American-born hockey player, I hope he does really well in the OHL, because I think every American who becomes a professional hockey star is a win for the country. I'm hardly a xenophobe, but I do feel we need as many Americans to develop into stars as we can get. It will only help grow hockey as more than just a regional niche sport.
What his decision has done, in some circles, is re-ignite the debate over college versus major junior hockey as a path for NHL development.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts.
For starters, there is no question that Canadian major junior hockey produces more star-caliber players for the NHL than the college game does. The proof can be seen just by looking at a list of top NHL players.
However, the overall percentage of NHL players with NCAA ties has been on the increase, and it will continue to be that way if current trends hold.
There are benefits to both. Major junior might be considered a higher level of play overall, but high-end skill players are starting to find more success in the college game. Just ask guys like Colin Wilson or James vanRiemsdyk. The two -- who should both have a shot at making the NHL this season -- combine with guys like Jonathan Toews to help dispel the notion that you have to be over 20 before you can succeed in college hockey.
In fact, that is a primary benefit for an 18-year-old who wants to play college hockey. While the CHL leagues (OHL, WHL, and QMJHL) may look to provide a higher level of play, college hockey gives a kid the chance to prove himself against older players, many of whom have something to prove in their hopes of playing professionally.
Jordan Schroeder of Minnesota, for example, routinely dealt with 23- and 24-year old centers in the WCHA last season. While it might seem unfair for a kid to be out there against players who can actually be seven years older than him, it's not a bad developmental ground. Schroeder routinely showed last year that he belonged on the same ice as these older and more experienced players, and it helped cement his status as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft.
The NCAAs also provide a second chance for kids who might be late bloomers. Last year, guys like Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy of Boston University, Denver's Tyler Bozak, and Notre Dame's Christian Hanson were highly-sought free agents after playing stellar hockey in college and overcoming inadequacies that kept them from being drafted when they were younger.
Had any of these players tried to go major junior when they were 18, the opportunity to earn a lucrative NHL contract may have been lost forever. Instead, they went to college, got quality educations, and now have a chance to play pro hockey because they didn't give up on their dreams.
For an elite 16-year-old, there still aren't a lot of options in North America better than the CHL. An American teenager now has a good program in Ann Arbor, but the NTDP hasn't produced the way some expected it to when the program was put together. For that reason, these prospects still seriously consider the CHL as a method to more quickly get noticed by scouts.
The reality continues, though, that there is no clear-cut path to NHL superstardom for a hot young prospect. There are kids who will benefit greatly from playing major junior hockey in Canada, as there is still more prestige and notoriety to be had there than anywhere else. Others would do well to take the American college route, both because it offers a chance to play against older kids and because it's an improving on-ice product that will test a young player's skills and allow them to develop into the kind of player who can make it in the AHL and eventually the NHL.
There should be no blanket rules or statements made about what is best for all players, because everyone is different.
The debate will continue indefinitely, because there is no way that one can eradicate the other from the planet. Those who blindly advocate for one or the other (biases aside, obviously) are only hurting the system as a whole.
I'll admit my pro-college biases, argue to the death that the NCAA route has worked well for many, many NHL players, but freely admit that a kid like John Moore is absolutely doing the right thing for him. And for John Moore, looking out for John Moore should always be of the highest priority.