The path from college to the National Hockey League can take many forms.
Some skaters are highly-touted prospects from their teenage years, become early-round draft picks, and see success at the collegiate and professional levels. Those transitions from one level to the next are seamless –– think former Michigan forward Dylan Larkin.
Other players face more obstacles navigating the path towards living out their dreams.
For the past two summers, junior forward Jake Slaker has attended the Las Vegas Golden Knights’ development camp. NHL teams host development camps every summer as a means of evaluating young talent.
Slaker is tied for second on the Wolverines with 10 goals, tied for third with 10 assists and is third with 20 points. The alternate captain is currently undrafted, but like many players on the Michigan hockey team, he has NHL aspirations.
“(It’s) really since I picked up a hockey stick,” Slaker said. “You know you want to get to the highest level you can, and I didn’t start playing on the ice until I was eight years old. So, I think right when I changed to ice, it was a goal of mine that I wanted to fulfill. So right around that age when I switched to ice hockey from roller hockey.”
Slaker has the potential to one day play in the NHL. In his three seasons with the Wolverines, he has tallied at least 20 points each year, including leading the team with 21 points as a freshman. This season, he continues to be one of the main contributors on the offensive attack.
Having success at the collegiate level is not an automatic guarantee that a player will experience similar success at the next level. Conversely, putting up less than prodigious numbers in college does not mean a player cannot have a fruitful NHL career.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson knows this firsthand. The Wolverines have had their fair share of highly-touted draft picks don the maize and blue threads, like Max Pacioretty, Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski.
Being undrafted may have its perks, though, according to Pearson.
“When you’re drafted usually there’s just one team looking at you, but when you’re a free agent, you’ve got 31 teams which I think is better,” Pearson said. “… And we’ve got a lot of good players and pro scouts here all the time. And that’s what happened to Johnny Madden. New Jersey came to watch Brendan Morrison because he was a second-round draft pick and they kept asking, ‘Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy?’ and then ended up signing him after.”
Madden was a part of the 1996 team that won the NCAA Tournament when Pearson was an assistant coach. He went on to play on three Stanley Cup Championship teams after a two-year stint in the American Hockey League.
Pearson can see some similarities between Madden and Slaker.
“Johnny Madden was maybe one of the best (undrafted players),” Pearson said. “He wasn’t a big scorer when he was here and then obviously when he got to the NHL, he was put in more of a defensive penalty kill role. And that’s something like what Slaker could become at the next level. He might not be the big scorer but he’s someone that can kill penalties and add some offense.”
Slaker still has ways to go before making an NHL roster. And even further success at this level will not guarantee a prosperous professional career.
“I’ll give you a good example,” Pearson said. “Tony Calderone was a pretty darn good college hockey player. He had 25 goals last year and Dallas signed him. He played a little bit in their American League team and then gets sent down to the East Coast League. There’s a guy who put up 25 here and did (find success). And Cooper Marody –– Cooper Marody lead our league (in scoring). He got a few games in the NHL but he’s down in the American Hockey League.”
Marody and Calderone were a pair of forwards that Pearson referred to as “usually the best players every night.” And though Pearson has confidence in his players –– especially a player of Slaker’s caliber –– it is clear that the junior must continue to develop.
“You’ve got to be a hard worker to play on that level at a consistent basis,” Pearson said. “And one of the things he’s got to continue to work on is his consistency and his play without the puck … I’m not saying he’s not going to but to me –– come back and be an All-American, come back and dominate at this level.”
Slaker still has another year left of eligibility. But at the end of the day, he is an NHL free agent.
“It’s just a waiting process for (making it to the NHL) because I am a free agent,” Slaker said. “Teams will follow you throughout your college career and kind of give you calls or see you after a game and kind of just let you know their interest and talk to you at development camps. And when they think you’re ready to make the jump to the pros they’ll start to be serious about conversation and maybe offer you a contract and stuff like that. So, I think it’s just a waiting game and seeing what their interest level is.”
As Slaker and the rest of Michigan have their sights set on making an NCAA Tournament appearance for the second consecutive season, there is likely another thing that looms in the back of the minds many Wolverine skaters: their path to the NHL.