There’s been a trend that’s gotten stronger and stronger with each passing hockey season: The NCAA continues to produce more and more NHL products.
Four of the top five picks from this year’s NHL Entry Draft will play college hockey in the fall. A year-by-year look at each draft will find a solid batch of NCAA players being selected, which has made for a college game that also gets better and better.
All of this begs a simple question: Who are the 10 best former college hockey players in the NHL right now?
In evaluating this, we’re looking at the best former NCAA players currently. It doesn’t matter what their past success is.
I repeat: Past success does not matter. Apologies in advance for leaving Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski and Duncan Keith off the list.
1.) Cale Makar, UMass 2017-2019
In terms of most exciting NHL players to watch, after Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar might just be next in line. His explosiveness, skill and speed are electrifying to watch and make him one of the most all-around effective players in the league.
The tone for Makar’s highlight-reel career was set in his second year at UMass.
After the fourth overall pick in 2017 decided to stay in the NCAA for his sophomore season, the Calgary, Alberta, native put up 16 goals and 49 points in 40 games during the 2018-19 campaign, leading the Minutemen to a national championship appearance and revitalizing a program that had notoriously been a doormat in Hockey East. His performance that year earned him the 2019 Hobey Baker Award.
Makar won the Calder trophy in his first NHL season, putting up 50 points in 57 games. Last season saw the UMass product put up 44 points in 44 games and finish second in the Norris Trophy race for best defenseman in the NHL. Had Makar not missed time due to injury, he just might’ve won the Norris in his second season.
Nevertheless, if there’s a must-watch former NCAA player, it’s Makar.
2.) Adam Fox, Harvard 2016-2019
Here’s the player who beat out Makar for the Norris Trophy last season, and rightfully so.
In just his second NHL season, the Harvard product put up 47 points in 55 games with the New York Rangers to win the Norris Trophy. His case was made for the award with his elite play in the offensive and defensive zones. He produced at a high level on the power play and played big minutes against the toughest competition the opposition could put forth.
After being drafted 66th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames, Fox logged three impressive years at Harvard. His most impressive came in his third and final campaign in 2018-19. The Jericho, New York, native posted 48 points in 33 games on his way to winning the Walter Brown Award, ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Fox’s NHL trajectory will be an interesting one to watch. A Norris Trophy in season No. 2 and he hasn’t even come close to hitting his ceiling. Imagine what he’ll be like at his best.
3.) Charlie McAvoy, Boston University 2015-17
Three right-shot defensemen to start this list and it could easily be argued they’re the top three right-shot defensemen in the NHL.
Charlie McAvoy doesn’t carry the power play prowess of Fox or the flash of Makar, but he does have one, big advantage — he’s probably the best 5v5 defenseman in the NHL. It’s hard to find an NHL d-man more capable of tough minutes against the toughest opponents. His ability to shut the other team down at one end and then produce scoring chances at the other is unmatched. The Boston Bruins are pleased they used the 14th selection on him in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
DRIVE TO REPEAT: UMass head coach Greg Carvel on defending national championship
McAvoy spent two seasons at Boston University where he put up point totals of 25 and 26 in his freshman and sophomore years. In 2015-16, his freshman season, he was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. The following season saw him become a Hockey East First Team All-Star.
In terms of the Norris, he finished fifth for the award this past season.
Like Fox (23) and Makar (22), McAvoy at age 23 hasn’t come close to hitting his ceiling. That’s good news for onlookers. It spells trouble for opponents.
4.) Connor Hellebuyck, UMass Lowell 2012-2014
Alright, that’s enough with the elite, right-shot defensemen. Let’s move on to one of the best goalies in the NHL.
In six seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, Connor Hellebuyck has secured the starting job and impressed. His best season came in 2019-20 when he posted a record of 31-21-5, a .922 save percentage and 2.57 goals against average en route to his first Vezina trophy. What secured him the award, and what makes those numbers more amazing, was his performance behind a decimated Jets defensive core. According to Natural Stat Trick, in 2019-20, Hellebuyck faced the most shots against, high-danger shots against and had the highest expected Goals Against.
He finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy race last season.
Hellebuyck’s time at UMass Lowell was as impressive. In his freshman season, 2012-13, he led all goalies in save percentage (.952) and goals against average (1.37). He also led in winning percentage (.870) and shutouts (six). That season saw him backstop UMass Lowell to its first ever Hockey East playoff title and take the River Hawks all the way to the Frozen Four.
He followed up his freshman season by leading the nation in GAA (1.79) and save percentage (.941) once again.
5.) Jack Eichel, Boston University 2014-15
It’s been quite the offseason for Jack Eichel. He’ll most likely be on a new team soon and he still has a neck injury.
Here’s what hasn’t changed: He’s still one of the elite former NCAA players in the NHL.
Eichel, drafted second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, has put together a really good first six seasons in the NHL. He was named captain of the Sabres in October 2018. His best two seasons came in the following two years, as he posted point totals of 82 and 78, respectively. His career-high in goals (36) came in 2019-20.
The North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, native only spent one year at Boston University, but he certainly left his mark. In 40 games in 2014-15, Eichel posted 26 goals and 71 points, winning the Hobey Baker Award and leading the Terriers to a spot in the Frozen Four. He also brought home Hockey East Player and Rookie of the Year.
When healthy again, it’s safe to expect more top-tier play out of the BU product.
6.) Quinn Hughes, Michigan 2017-2019
Quinn Hughes is another prime example of a former NCAA defensemen taking the NHL by storm early in his career.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound d-man is far from the biggest guy on the ice, but he’s certainly proved extremely effective with the Vancouver Canucks. In 2019-20, his first full season in the NHL, he posted eight goals and 53 points, battling Makar all season long for the Calder Trophy. Ultimately, Hughes fell just short, finishing second in the race. In 2021, the second-year defenseman scored three goals and 41 points.
STAYING IN SCHOOL: Why Owen Power is waiting on the NHL and staying at Michigan
Before heading to the bigs, Hughes spent two seasons at Michigan. Year 1 saw him post five goals and 29 points, which landed him on the Big Ten preseason watch list for Year 2. That next year, Hughes posted five goals and 33 points en route to being one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker in 2019.
On the defensive side, Hughes has a ways to go in his development. But being one of the league’s best puck-moving defensemen just two years in is certainly cause for a spot on this list.
7.) Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College 2011-2014
He’s not called “Johnny Hockey” for nothing.
At just 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Johnny Gaudreau is in the midst of carving out a really good NHL career. Aside from being a five-time All Star, his best two seasons came in 2017-18 (24 goals, 84 points) and 2018-19 (36 goals, 99 points). In that 99-point season, he finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting and in 2016-17, he won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy given to the player who “exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
The speedy left-wing played three seasons at Boston College before heading to the NHL. Gaudreau posted point totals of 44 and 51 in his first two seasons. Those pale in comparison to his monster third and final year in the NCAA. The Salem, New Jersey, native posted a monster 36 goals and 80 points in 40 games in 2013-14, winning the Hobey Baker Award and leading the Eagles to the Frozen Four.
Gaudreau’s two most recent seasons were “down” years by his standard. Keep an eye out for a massive bounce back in 2021-22.
8.) Max Pacioretty, Michigan 2007-2008
Taken 22nd overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Max Pacioretty arrived at Michigan in the fall of 2007 for the 2007-2008 campaign with some serious hype.
He only did one year with the maize and blue, but put up solid numbers. He finished the year with 15 goals and 39 points in 37 games. His efforts helped get Michigan to the Frozen Four.
In the NHL, Pacioretty’s career has been highlighted by consistency. The New Canaan, Connecticut, native put up 448 points in 626 games over 10 seasons with the Canadiens, captaining the team for his final three seasons in Montreal. He also won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance in 2011-12.
His last two seasons have been two of his better ones. In 2019-20, Pacioretty put up 32 goals and 66 points. In the shortened 2021 season, the Michigan product produced at over a point-per-game pace, scoring 51 points in 48 games.
9.) Cole Caufield, Wisconsin 2019-2021
Some will say this is premature, but even with Cole Caufield’s short NHL sample size last season, he’s earned a spot on this list.
Coming in at about five-foot-seven and 162 pounds, Caufield is a smaller wing who expertly uses his speed, wicked shot and knack for going to the dirty areas. That was on display during the Montreal Canadiens’ improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final this past summer when Caufield posted four goals and 12 points in 20 postseason games, forcing the coaching staff to keep the rookie in the lineup. In his 10 regular season games, he scored four goals and added an assist.
All of this came following a standout career at Wisconsin. Caufield put up 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games during his freshman year to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. His sophomore season, which was just last winter, featured the speedy winger scoring 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games. That kind of play won Caufield the Hobey Baker Award, first team CCM/AHCA All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year.
The former 15th overall pick fits right in with where the NHL is headed. His play during the 2021 postseason is a small glimpse of the great career he's on pace to have.
10.) Jeremy Swayman, Maine 2017-2020
This final spot came down to Jeremy Swayman and Spencer Knight. The decision was not an easy one. Here’s how it was made.
Spencer Knight is an elite goaltending prospect and all signs point to him being one of the NHL’s best goalies in the next 10 years or so. He was really good in his four regular season games and two postseason calls. He’s a former 13th overall pick.
But Swayman was spectacular in his bigger sample size last season for the Bruins. In 10 regular season starts, Swayman went 7-3 with a 1.50 GAA and .945 save percentage. His high-danger save percentage of .895 led the league, according to Natural Stat Trick. He put up really good numbers in the AHL as well, going 8-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .933 save percentage.
Swayman has a history of standing on his head. The Anchorage, Alaska, native had three outstanding years at Maine, capped off by a sparkling final season in 2019-20. Swayman posted a record of 18-11-5 with a 2.07 GAA and .939 save percentage despite facing 1,170 shots — the most in the nation. Because of his performance, he was awarded the Mike Richter award, which is given annually to college hockey’s top goalie. He also was a runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award.
Swayman doesn’t carry the clout and draft position of Knight (he was taken 111th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft), but his athleticism and consistency make him a solid bet to be an elite NHL goaltender in just the next few years.