With the recent transfer of former Northeastern forward Ryan Belonger, Arizona State hockey now has two players (defenseman Connor Schmidt being the other) that have played at an NCAA Division I team, then transferred to the Sun Devils.
It gives Arizona State high-level experience unprecedented in the ACHA, and it begs the question: How does the Sun Devils roster compare to those in the NCAA?
Arizona State is a top team in the ACHA, but that's a couple of huge steps below the NCAA. The gap between bottom NCAA teams and the top ACHA teams isn't as wide as say, the NFL to NCAA football, but to think that Arizona State hockey would compete for an NCAA national title with its current roster is laughable.
So instead, we'll look at the rosters of some of the teams who finished near the bottom of the NCAA rankings last year. Selecting a few schools with name-recognition, we'll look at Alabama-Hunstville, Penn State, Massachusetts and Bemidji State.
But first, a quick (and acronym-filled) primer on junior hockey and where NCAA players come from.
Rarely do players go right from high school to college to the pros like football, basketball or baseball. Skilled hockey players will play junior hockey, which can be thought of as a club team where talents are showcased for higher-level junior teams, colleges and in some instances, the professional ranks.
The top junior hockey league in North America is the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), consisting of three divisions: the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL). It is from the CHL that most North American NHL players come.
The NCAA does not consider members of the CHL amateurs, and because of that any skater to play in the CHL is ineligible to ever play at an American university (they do retain Canadian university eligibility).
Excluding CHL players (as all NCAA teams have to), it leaves a some high-level hockey leagues. For the United States, the top is the United States States League (USHL), which is the only Tier I league in the US. Next is the North American Hockey League, which is the only Tier II league in the US. The Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL) is a Tier III league, but sends a relatively large amount of players to Division I teams.
In Canada, the three CHL teams make up major juniors, but since players in major juniors are NCAA-ineligible, the top Canadian junior talent to move on to NCAA is from Junior A hockey. Junior A hockey is made up of 10 teams which comprise the Canadian Junior Hockey League, of which there are two leagues that regularly send players to NCAA: the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).
Confused yet? Here's what you need to know: The NCAA hockey teams are made up of players primarily from five leagues: three American leagues, the USHL, NAHL and EJHL and two Canadian leagues, the BCHL and AJHL.
So back to comparing Arizona State's roster. The Sun Devils finished first in the ACHA, so we'll look at how they compared to NCAA teams No. 58 Alabama-Huntsville, No. 51 Penn State, No. 47 Massachusetts, No. 46 Bemidji State, and just for fun, the NCAA national champion Union.
The following is a chart listing those five schools, along with Arizona State, numbering how many players from each of the five leagues I mentioned comprise their roster:
Arizona State is recruiting in the right places. Its USHL numbers are just a few below these schools, but its NAHL and EJHL numbers are right there. Arizona State can recruit with the best of them inside American borders.
Now obviously, Arizona State is in a different league than the other five. For example, all five of these players carry the four letters in NCAA that will attract the top players from each of leagues that may not be interested in going to an ACHA team like Arizona State. But judging based solely on the leagues from which the roster is made, the team's gap between itself and the NCAA is not as great as it may seem.