BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Boston University/Minnesota rivalry isn't what it once was in college hockey. But Friday's NHL Draft results might just ratchet it up once again.
In 2006-07, the Minnesota Golden Gophers roster boasted freshmen Kyle Okposo, David Fischer and Erik Johnson, as well as sophomore Blake Wheeler in their lineup on a nightly basis.
That summer, Johnson went No. 1 to the St. Louis Blues and Okposo was selected No. 7 overall by the New York Islanders. Fischer went 20th to Montreal. Two years prior, Wheeler was drafted out of high school by the Arizona Coyotes No. 5 overall.
That gave them four first-round picks on one team at the same time, tying the most ever for an NCAA team. It also tied a high set by three CHL teams, though all those were in the 1960s and '70s, and hockey has obviously changed quite a bit since then.
While four is still the NCAA record, BU just simultaneously tied it and bested it. Because while the Gophers had four on the same team, the Terriers not only had four total, but four taken within 14 picks in the first round. That also quadrupled the previous BU record.
At No. 7, Arizona went off the board a bit to take center Clayton Keller – even Keller said he was surprised to go that high, though BU coach David Quinn said he had “top-five talent.” Then D-man Charlie McAvoy went 14th overall to the Bruins. Just three picks later, Nashville grabbed defenseman Dante Fabbro at 17. To round out the run, Kieffer Bellows went 20th to the Islanders.
“It's something that I'm so excited about,” McAvoy said the day before the draft. “We've got a lot of special guys coming in, and it's such a testament to BU as a school, and the recruiting by guys like [assistant coaches] Steve Greeley, coach [Scott] Young, coach [Albie] O'Connell, and those guys. I think BU recruits better than anyone in the country."
Greeley in particular was crucial in the recruiting process for these prospects, but has since taken a job with the New York Rangers. The fact that he was cited by all four as a big reason they chose BU speaks to the impact he made. Quinn likewise sung his staff's praises.
“[The draftees] are from Vancouver, St. Louis, Minnesota, Long Island,” he said. “These guys have gone all over and identified great talent. They've done a great job recruiting them, building relationships with them, and all the credit goes to those guys.”
But moreover, both Fabbro and Bellows said that what they liked about the entire BU recruiting process is the honesty the coaching staff takes when discussing why kids should go there. There's no whitewashing, no propagandizing. They can count on the program to sell itself.
“You know what, basically they were just up-front and honest with me,” Fabbro said. “Albie and Quinn and Young, they were all so awesome with me, giving me time and space to make my decision and kind of think things through. There's a reason why all those players are going there, because obviously Coach Quinn is doing something right. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Bellows echoed that sentiment: “He's honest with you. He's blunt with you. He tells you what he likes, what he's gonna want from you, and what he expects.”
Indeed, this is now arguably the most talented college hockey team ever assembled. Not only were Keller, McAvoy, Fabbro and Bellows taken in last night's first round, but there are surely more future Terriers who will likewise be drafted tomorrow as well, like Chad Krys, Patrick Harper and Ty Amonte (who will arrive in 2017-18).
“We had a lunch today, all of us,” McAvoy said. “Just talking about it and thinking about it. It's surreal, the class that we're coming in with. It's gonna be special. It's gonna be such a fun year next year. I'm really excited to get all those guys in, get back, and play some hockey next year.”
They join a roster already stacked with three past second-round picks (Boston's Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Minnesota's Jordan Greenway, Tampa's John MacLeod), a third-round choice (Calgary's Brandon Hickey) and a fifth-rounder (the Islanders' Doyle Somerby).
Not a bad situation for Quinn to get back to next year, even after losing key, drafted contributors like Matt Grzelcyk, Sean Maguire and Danny O'Regan.
“One of the great things about working at a school like BU is they do a phenomenal job supporting our program,” Quinn said. “Hockey's important at BU. We've always had great players at BU, and the stars all aligned for this to happen.”
At some point, though, the ability to attract players of a high quality becomes a recruiting tool in and of itself.
“When they came to me and I'm getting recruited, you want to see you're going to be a part of something special,” McAvoy, who accelerated to play his draft year at BU rather than another season in junior. “So you're obviously doing your homework on guys they have now, and kind of sizing that up. My big one was Jack [Eichel]. Jack was there and you see a guy like that, and you go, 'Oh how could I not want to play with a guy like that?'”
The Terriers have become a giant on the recruiting trail again — regaining a position from which they'd slipped in the previous few years — thanks largely to the quality of the program itself, with its top-notch facilities and tradition, as well as the fact that so many of the players benefit from going head-to-head in practice against elite prospects four or five times a week.
As McAvoy said, once one elite kid buys in, the likelihood that another does increases incrementally. The more high-end kids you get to commit, even with the knowledge that it's just for a year or two, the easier selling the program becomes.
"I was the first one committed,” Keller said soon after Arizona took him seventh overall. “So I did a little recruiting on Kieffer and Chad and Jake, so it's just good to have relationships with those guys and obviously get them to go to BU. It's a great spot, and I don't think anyone would turn BU down."
Those kinds of high-level players not only help you win, but they help recruits feel more welcome and better prepare them for hockey at the college level and beyond. McAvoy, for instance, credits ‘D’ partner Grzelcyk with a lot of his success on and off the ice in the past year. It's a story that most players would echo after a season or two on such a club.
“Without question, it creates an environment where, on a daily basis, they'd better be ready to practice and be ready to play, because they're gonna get exposed,” Quinn said. “We've been very fortunate with the quality of player we've been able to recruit. If you're a forward, you're going against a bunch of defensemen that are elite defensemen. If you're a defenseman, you're going up against elite forwards daily. I think that inner competition just pushes everybody and makes everybody better.”
Previous to this, the dominant recruiting and pro factory in Eastern college hockey was BU's crosstown archrival, Boston College. There, Jerry York spent a good 15 years winning lots and lots of recruiting battles with just about everyone, luring notable current NHLers like Johnny Gaudreau, Cam Atkinson, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and more.
Now, when BC and BU go head-to-head for recruits, York isn't the one coming out on top. Instead, it's Quinn, and the rise back to national prominence has been abrupt if unsurprising. Last year, rebounding from their heartbreaking loss in the 2015 national title game, the Terriers struggled at times but had the overwhelming talent — 10 drafted players got into at least 18 games — to cruise to a comfortable 21-13-5 record and a second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Despite the losses, more of the same now seems to be in the offing. The words “special year” were uttered by the draftees to a man; and clearly, it's shaping up that way.
There is a big “if” here, though. Keller is being courted rather aggressively — and for good reason — by the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, who hold his junior rights. There is a chance that the Coyotes might be able to influence his decision to head to BU this fall. But, to hear Keller tell it last night, there isn't much of one.
"I think [that might have influence] a little bit,” he said. “But right now BU is my top choice, and I don't see that changing. I think that's a great spot for me. Coach Quinn's a great guy and I don't think you go wrong with that. I think he's one of the best coaches and I think it's one of the top programs, so I'm excited."
Terrier fans should be too. When October rolls around, they'll get their first look at the most talented team in the program's illustrious history. And by April, they could have a whole lot more to celebrate than that.
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