Saturday, July 31, 2010

Louis Leblanc Signing Adds to NCAA's Problems

Earlier this week, two Minnesota Gophers left school early to play hockey for money.

Now, the NCAA has taken another mid-summer hit, as Harvard sophomore Louis Leblanc has decided to bolt from college for pro hockey.

Leblanc signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Montreal Canadiens Friday. The contract means Leblanc is no longer eligible for hockey, and it sounds like he will play for the Montreal Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

There have been a lot of college players who have left school since June 1. As I wrote when Ryan McDonagh of Wisconsin decided to turn pro in June, this is an issue for the NCAA, whether they want to admit it or not.

Yes, coaches are typically prepared for these departures. They recruit players for commitments years in advance, and they are often able to bring players in a year earlier than planned of developments merit such a move.

In the case of Leblanc, it seems highly unlikely that Harvard coach Ted Donato can reach into the future to fill this void. After all, it's Harvard. Players don't get athletic scholarships there, and they don't sign letters of intent as a result. They also don't get highly-touted players like Leblanc very often anymore, so even if they can fill his roster spot, they can't make up for the loss of a talented player this late in the offseason.

It's an argument for what I now believe college hockey needs: a firm deadline after which players can no longer leave early to turn pro. I also think I have a floating date that will be agreeable to all parties.

Yes, I said "a floating date," implying that it's not a hard, line-in-the-sand sort of thing.

My proposal -- for now -- is to impose a rule giving pro teams 60 days from the end of a team's season to sign players with remaining eligibility.

For example, UMD's season ended March 21, when they weren't selected for the NCAA Tournament, an even they were eligible for because they finished the season with a winning record. Any of the teams in Division I who end their season over .500 and don't qualify for the NCAAs will have their 60-day window begin on this day.

Teams finishing under .500 begin their 60-day clock on the day they play their last game.

The 16 teams in the NCAAs will start their clock on the day they lose and are eliminated, or on the day they win the national championship.

This means the window will close on a different day for many teams. It means the Frozen Four teams will have to sweat out early departures until early June.

It's probably not a perfect idea, but it's better than the system we have in place now. It's unlike what you see in any other sport.

In football, players have until a specified date to declare their eligibility for the NFL Draft. They don't get to leave early after that date unless there are extenuating circumstances (academically ineligible, kicked out of school, etc.). In the NBA, there is a similar date, and players can actually return to school before the NBA Draft if they don't hire an agent. In baseball, drafted players can't wait forever to sign with their team.

They shouldn't be able to in hockey, either.

The NCAA needs to fight for a drop-dead date on early signings. It would help the sanity of their head coaches, and it would pressure NHL teams to make up their minds about the future of their prospects.

Of course, this could hurt the NCAA in the end, too, because there is no such drop-dead date in major juniors, and teams could simply push their college prospects to go major junior so they have more control over them deeper into the summer and fall.

So maybe this drop-dead date isn't such a good idea after all.

Ugh. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

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