When the NHL announced its rosters for the 2017 All-Star Game, nine former NCAA student-athletes were picked for the league’s midseason showcase. There were some of the usual suspects among the former college stars like Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Ryan Suter and Justin Faulk.
Wait, Justin Faulk? While he may not have the name recognition nationally like the other players in that group, the 24-year-old defenseman is set to represent the Carolina Hurricanes during All-Star weekend for the fourth time in the last six seasons. He first went to the All-Star Game as one of the YoungStars that competed in the Skills Competition, but for each of the last three years, Faulk has been his team’s representative in the big game.
After playing a key role on Minnesota Duluth’s national championship team as a freshman in 2010-11, Faulk made the jump to the NHL and hasn’t really looked back. He has participated in the All-Star Weekend in each of the four years the event has been held during his six-year career career. There were no all-star games during 2013 and 2014 due to a lockout and the Sochi Olympics, respectively. Faulk stayed busy during the Olympic year as a member of Team USA’s blue line.
The former Bulldog currently leads Carolina’s defensemen with 20 points in 37 games this season and has become one of the team’s primary leaders as an alternate captain. Faulk’s All-Star nod should also shine a light on one of the most unique defensive corps in the entire league.For many of its games this season and last, Carolina has leaned heavily on an all-American group, so dubbed the “Red, White and Blue Line.” All six of Carolina’s most frequently used defensemen are American-born players, each of whom also played in the NCAA Division I ranks.
The grizzled veteran of the group is 35-year-old Ron Hainsey, who played two years at UMass-Lowell before embarking on his NHL career. The Bolton, Conn., native is closing in on 900 career games at the top level.
Beyond Hainsey, however, Carolina is leaning heavily on younger, less-experienced defensemen who they’ll be counting on for years to come, while already getting great results.
Noah Hanifin, whom the Hurricanes selected fifth overall out of Boston College in 2015, has big expectations placed on him. Former Colorado College star Jaccob Slavin has been a pleasant surprise, going from fourth-round pick in 2012 to an invaluable, well-rounded top-pairing defenseman. Meanwhile, former third-round pick and New Hampshire standout Brett Pesce has played his way into a top-four role himself.
Rounding out the Red, White and Blue Line this year is former Western Michigan rearguard Matt Tennyson, who has been earning a bigger role with the Hurricanes after three years with the San Jose Sharks organization.
Carolina is currently hovering right outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, looking like they may be a bit ahead of schedule following some rebuilding years. If the team can make the jump to regular playoff contender in the next year or two, those young blueliners are going to have a lot to do with it.
News and notes from around the NHL
Here’s a quick look at how some other former NCAA standouts are faring in the NHL.
In addition to Faulk, Toews (North Dakota), Keith (Michigan State) and Suter (Wisconsin), Kyle Okposo (Minnesota), Johnny Gaudreau (Boston College), Ryan Kesler (Ohio State), Joe Pavelski (Wisconsin) and Ryan McDonagh (Wisconsin) will be the former collegians skating among the NHL All-Stars on Jan. 29 in Los Angeles. Will any of these NCAA alumni be able to follow in the very large footsteps of Michigan Tech’s John Scott and be named All-Star Game MVP?
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been the biggest surprise of the NHL season to date. Currently owning the best record in the NHL with 30 wins in just 43 games, the Blue Jackets have been getting a lot of help from a pair of former college standouts.
Cam Atkinson, who was a two-time 30-goal scorer at Boston College, is currently tied for third in the NHL with 21 goals so far this year. He is on pace to shatter his NHL career high of 27 goals set last season and is also tied for eighth in the league with 43 points.
While Atkinson has been a key offensive contributor, Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has been everything the team thought he would be when selecting him eighth overall in 2015, and then some. Now getting heavy buzz as a rookie of the year candidate, Werenski has 26 points to lead all first-year blueliners. The folks deep in Buckeye country are loving this former Wolverine.
This season has been full of milestones for the Blue Jackets, like setting their franchise record and falling just shy of tying the NHL’s all-time mark with 16 consecutive wins between Nov. 29 and Jan. 3. Additionally, the team helped head coach John Tortorella, a University of Maine product, become the first American-born head coach to reach 500 victories in the NHL back on Dec. 18. And they just keep winning. Tortorella is already at 510 career wins since hitting that big milestone.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same organization that finished dead last in its division last season.
If you thought Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel was going to rest on his laurels as a Stanley Cup champion, well, you thought wrong. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher is not far off a career pace in his 11th NHL season, having put up 42 points in 43 games so far. Usually known more as a sniper, 29 of Kessel’s 42 points are off of assists. If he keeps up this pace, he should set a new career high in that category.