Unlike some of the other major sports, college isn’t always the most common route to the NHL. Players can come from overseas or from any number of junior leagues across the U.S. and in Canada. Those that do play in college typically stay all four years and have already had their rights secured by an NHL team. Add in the fact that only a handful of schools across the country have respectable hockey programs, and you can start to see why some of the more elite players in the league did not come with college experience.
With that being said, there are examples of incredible NHL players and legends who first made their names in the NCAA ranks. Players like Paul Kariya, Martin St. Louis, and Brett Hull have come from college. Players like these can use their four year college careers to fine tune their game as well as grow into their bodies and develop the physical tools necessary to succeed in the NHL. But as this list will show, there is no guarantee. It doesn’t matter if you were a school record holder, NCAA scoring leader, or even Hobey Baker award winner. The NHL is an unforgiving league where players often have shorter careers and even less time to make a lasting impression. So here are 20 of the greatest college hockey players who failed in the NHL.
20. T.J. Hensick
T.J. Hensick is widely considered one of the best college hockey players of the 2000s. At the University of Michigan he scored a staggering 222 points over a four year career, earning a reputation as a respectable goal scorer and even better setup man. Despite leading the NCAA in scoring in 2007 and being named to All-CCHA Teams, Hensick was never recognized by the Hobey Baker award.
He would go on to be drafted 88th overall in 2005 by the Colorado Avalanche. He had 45 points in 50 games during his first AHL season and was able to find his way into Colorado’s lineup 31 times. The next few seasons would be spent alternating between the AHL and NHL with mixed results, eventually catching on with the St. Louis Blues for only 13 games. Hensick never really matched his scoring output from college in the NHL and instead has become just a very good AHL player.
19. Brett Sterling
Brett Sterling was a better than point-per-game player at Colorado College. He had 108 goals and a total of 184 points in his 150 games at the collegiate level. He helped lead a successful program at Colorado with teammate Marty Sertich and was a top-three and top-ten Hobey Baker finalist in his junior and senior seasons. Sterling also finished his NCAA career tied with a record 23 game winning goals.
After being drafted 145th overall in 2003 by the Atlanta Thrashers he had a great season at the AHL level, scoring 55 goals in 77 games. He was rewarded the following year with playing time in the NHL and appeared in 13 games. But Sterling failed to make a good impression by scoring only once. All told, he has played 30 NHL games for the Thrashers, Penguins, Blues and scored just four goals. Sterling is a common example from this list of a great AHL player who has failed to make the most of his NHL chances.
18. Peter Sejna
Peter Sejna, a native of Slovakia, spent two years in the USHL where he scored 81 goals in 110 games before attending Colorado College. His goalscoring ways continued there as he posted 29, 26, and 36 goals in each of his three seasons. He capped his college career by winning the 2003 Hobey Baker Award.
That same year he made his NHL debut with the St. Louis Blues and did not disappoint. He played one game and scored one goal. It seemed as though Sejna’s scoring touch would translate to the NHL. But in 20 games for St. Louis the next season, the left winger only managed two goals along with two assists. At the AHL level he would continue to put up numbers and earned another shot at NHL success. However in 28 addition games with the Blues he only had four goals. Since then Sejna has been playing in Switzerland and seen his game steadily decline.
17. Spencer Abbott
Spencer Abbott was a reliable and consistent forward at the University of Maine until his senior year in which he truly broke out to the tune of 21 goals and 41 assists. In addition to being named to the All-Hockey East team he was also a Hobey Baker award finalist.
While the scoring outburst wasn’t enough to get him drafted, he was invited to an AHL training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was ultimately assigned to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL where he scored 103 points over his first three seasons. Abbott was given a shot at the NHL in 2013 and played in the Leafs’ home opener. That was the extent of his Toronto career and was later traded to the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Despite becoming a prolific scorer for AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs, Abbott was only called up for one game by the Blackhawks. He’s back in the AHL and leaves his NHL career total at a mere two games.
16. Carter Camper
In 156 games at Miami University (of Ohio), Carter Camper scored an impressive 183 points. Despite his relatively diminutive stature Camper was still a consistently productive player in college.
With that, the Boston Bruins were excited to sign Camper as a free agent and immediately put him to action with their AHL affiliate in Providence. He netted 48 points with the Providence Bruins during the 2011-12 season and earned playing time in Boston in the form of three games as his reward. He did score a goal in those three games but unfortunately they were his last in the NHL before it was back to the AHL. Yes, he’s become a decent goalscorer at that level but his time in the NHL was ultimately a failure.
15. Scott Parse
Scott Parse finished his career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha as the school’s all-time leader in points with an astounding 197 in 159 games. He was consistently named to the All-CCHA First Team as well as being named an All-American and two times was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
In 2004 the Los Angeles Kings drafted Parse 174th overall and spent four years playing in the AHL and ECHL before making his NHL debut. He had an impressive rookie season in 2009-2010 with 11 goals and 13 assists in 59 games. Things went downhill from there, partly due to injury, and Parse never regained his footing in the NHL. He finished by appearing in only 14 more NHL games through 2012.
14. Gabe Gauthier
As an undersized left winger, Gabe Gauthier had his best experiences with success in college at the University of Denver. He was part of the back-to-back National Championship teams in 2004 and 2005, contributing 100 total points over those two years.
He showed promise after signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings and taking an AHL assignment with the Manchester Monarchs. There he scored 42 points in 69 games and was rewarded with a call-up to five NHL games. That’s when things stalled for Gautiher. He did not get his name on the scoresheet or in the three games he played during the 2008-09 season. Perhaps unfairly, he was never given another shot at the NHL level and has instead continued to bounce around the minors.
13. Peter Mannino
Peter Mannino was the goalie for the University of Denver team that won the 2005 NCAA National Championship. Mannino was named tournament MVP for his efforts, capping a season in which he had a 16-4-1 record, 2.25 goals against average, and five shutouts.
He went undrafted despite the success at Denver yet still caught on in the AHL as a member of the New York Islanders organization. He would go 1-1-0 in three appearances with the Islanders before moving on to a contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. Mannino fared no better in Atlanta and only appeared in two games. A few years later he showed up in one game for the Winnipeg Jets, bringing his NHL experience to a total of six games. The netminder spent a couple more seasons in the ECHL and AHL before retiring and taking an assistant coaching job in the USHL.
12. Andy Miele
Andy Miele’s four year collegiate career at Miami University produced a long list of awards and accolades for the centerman. Between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 seasons, Miele was named CCHA Player of the Year, Hobey Baker Award winner, and CCHA Tournament MVP, and USA Hockey Player of the Year. So with that resume, along with 43 points in his first AHL season, you’d think he’d have no problem adjusting to the NHL.
But Miele is on this list for a reason. That’s because his NHL career totals 15 games played with the Phoenix Coyotes where he posted two assists. In May Miele decided to sign to an SHL team in Sweden to continue his professional career. Ultimately he is an example of a fantastic college and solid AHL player but an NHL bust.
11. Brian O’Neill
Brian O’Neill posted three straight seasons of at least 45 points during his career at Yale. He saved his best for last, scoring 21 goals and adding 25 assists as a senior. It was a great way to raise his stock for a willing NHL team.
After his Yale career he signed with the Los Angeles Kings and was immediately assigned to the AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs. His game continually improved at that level for four years and he was rewarded with an NHL call-up during the 2015-16 season after being traded to the New Jersey Devils. O’Neill failed to make the most of the opportunity and only managed two points in 22 games. It was one more AHL season and then the KHL for O’Neill.
10. Robb Stauber
The goalie for the University of Minnesota had two fantastic back-to-back seasons in which he was awarded the Hobey Baker award, and won 34 games, in 1988 and was the runner-up for the award in 1989 when he posted a 2.43 goals against average. It seemed he had a fine NHL career ahead of him.
Stauber appeared in two NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings during the 1989-90 season but spent most of his time in the Kings’ organization in the AHL and IHL. The 1994-95 season was his last in the NHL as he appeared in a handful of games for the Buffalo Sabres.
9. Greg Brown
Greg Brown was a scoring defenseman while at Boston College. His three year collegiate career was interrupted by a stint with the U.S. National Team in the 1988 Olympics but while playing for the Eagles, Brown had 24 goals and 96 assists. Twice he was Hockey East Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker finalist.
His NHL career was far less consistent as he spent time with the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Winnipeg Jets spread out between time in the IHL and AHL. He finished with just 18 points in under 100 career NHL games, failing to consistently make an NHL roster. After his NHL career ended, Brown went back to his roots. Brown has found much more success as an assistant coach back at Boston College.
8. Bill Watson
Bill Watson is another example of a Hobey Baker award winner who struggled to find the same level of success in the NHL. He played three years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, capped by an incredible 1984-85 season in which he registered 49 goals and 60 assists. Considering how the NHL was all about scoring, it seemed Watson would be a perfect fit for the high scoring league.
Following college he had two solid seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks in which he scored 24 then 32 points. Things seemed to be trending in the right direction for Watson, but his third season was spent in the IHL. He would only manage 12 more NHL games after that and then his professional career was over.
7. Dave Capuano
In three seasons at the University of Maine Dave Capuano was a Hobey Baker finalist twice. The left winger had 85 points his sophomore season and followed that up by scoring 37 goals in his junior, and final, season at Maine.
He immediately appeared in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins and played in six games during the 1989-90 season. From there he spent time in the IHL before he had a breakout NHL season with the Vancouver Canucks in 1990-91. In 61 games, he scored 13 goals and had 31 assists. Capuano’s NHL success would be short-lived though. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning and never really stuck in the NHL. After his solid season in Vancouver, Capuano only played 10 more games.
6. Mike Crowley
Mike Crowley started his college career strong and was named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Rookie team in 1994-95 after he had 38 points in 41 games for the University of Minnesota. The defenseman would rack up more accolades over his three year career before joining the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ AHL affiliate in 1997. After appearing in the NHL in 1998 with the Ducks, scoring four points in eight games, it seemed like Crowley could stick at the next level. As we’ve seen many times before though, the NHL was a little too fast and strong for Crowley.
5. David Emma
David Emma was a prolific goal scorer during his four year career at Boston College. His Eagles career culminated in winning the Hobey Baker Award in 1991 after scoring 35 goals and totaling 81 points.
Following Boston College it was two years in the AHL before reaching the NHL for two games in 1993 with the New Jersey Devils. Emma played in a handful of more games with the Devils between AHL stints. In the 1993-94 season, he did have 10 points in 15 games but he would only score one more point in the NHL after that.
4. Brian Bonin
The winner of Mr. Hockey for Minnesota in 1992, Brian Bonin would stay local and play four years at the University of Minnesota. In those four years, his scoring continually increased from 28 points his freshman year to 81 points as a senior. He led the country in scoring his senior year and was awarded the Hobey Baker Award in 1996.
Bonin was drafted in 1992 by the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to going to Minnesota. He spent three years in the minors before his NHL debut in the 1998-99 season with the Penguins. He played in five games and then would play another seven with the Minnesota Wild in the 2000-01 season. In in 12 career NHL games his totals were: 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points.
3. Bruce Racine
Bruce Racine became a legend at Northeastern University for his play in net. Playing from 1984 to 1988, he set school records for games played, minutes played, and wins for a goaltender. He was a two-time All-American and won two Eberly Awards, given to the goalie with the best save percentage in the Beanpot.
After Northeastern, Racine played in the International Hockey League and AHL and was unable to make it to an NHL game until the 1995-96 season with the St. Louis Blues. In St. Louis he acted as a backup to Grant Fuhr and as Racine’s luck would have it, it was the same season Fuhr set a record by playing 79 games. Racine was able to appear in all or part of 11 games that year. Racine’s NHL stats would end with a record of 0-3-0 and a 3.13 goals against average.
2. Brian Swanson
After two years in the USHL in which he amassed 129 points Brian Swanson was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 1994. From there he went on Colorado College where he had a fantastic career. His best season was his senior year: 25 goals, 41 assists, and 66 points and a Hobey Baker finalist.
His post-college career would never really take off, however. He had some time in the AHL before making his NHL debut in 2000 with the Edmonton Oilers but only appeared in 16 games. Swanson would play in 52 more games for Edmonton during the next few seasons and then played two games for the Atlanta Thrashers (now that’s an NHL graveyard for you) in 2003-04, bringing his career total to just 70 games.
1. Hugh Jessiman
Hugh Jessiman would ultimately be labeled an NHL bust after being drafted 12th overall by the New York Rangers in 2003. Prior to that he had a great three year career at Dartmouth College in which he finished with a career line of 40 goals, 42 assists, and 82 points in 80 games.
Jessiman spent years in the AHL and ECHL before finally making his NHL debut in the 2011 with the Florida Panthers. His NHL career would last a total of two games (and five penalty minutes) before it was back to the AHL.
Jessiman’s extremely short NHL career stings a little more when you look at the names selected after him in the 2003 Entry Draft: Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, and Patrice Bergeron are just three examples from what was an incredible draft class.
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