Recently the NCAA announced that they were changing some rules to allow hockey players the right to return to junior hockey and stay enrolled in college.

Current student-athletes whose institutions will not be playing hockey during the fall semester will be permitted to participate in non-collegiate, amateur competition i.e. junior hockey on an outside team during the fall 2020 term (subject to school and conference approval). These student-athletes may compete on an outside team while remaining enrolled in their NCAA institution, which typically would not be allowed.

When they say junior hockey, they mean the USHL or CJHL not Canadian Hockey League teams (WHL, OHL, QMJHL), which are considered to be professional hockey by the NCAA.

The USHL and the CJHL only allow for players only up to age 20, however, so this option isn’t open to Leafs drafted prospect Nick Abruzzese, although his younger Harvard teammate Henry Thrun has just taken advantage of the change:

Abruzzese, drafted at age 20, is already 21, and has only one year at Harvard in the books. It was a great year on the ice, and if he wants to continue his college education as well as his hockey development there, he’s a bit stuck.

The closest any NCAA hockey conferences have come to declaring the state of the 2020-2021 schedule is that it will be delayed until January 2021 at the earliest, due to COVID-19 concerns. There is no guarantee that season will actually happen at all for all schools in all conferences.

At 21, Abruzzese is AHL age, and while the Leafs have talked like they are taking a slow development path with him — he needs physical development still — they definitely don’t want him idle. They’re hamstrung by the NCAA rules which would prevent him from even playing in exhibition games or on a tryout deal with the Marlies. Of course, there’s no firm schedule for when the AHL might start playing either.

Jack Drury, Abruzzese’s frequent linemate and number two in points on the team behind Abruzzese, has walked away from the NCAA, and is going to play in the SHL this season. He’s on Leafs’ prospect Pontus Holmberg’s team, and Abruzzese could find opportunities like that if he wanted to leave, but that’s a tough call for a young athlete to make.

The best the Leafs can offer is whatever form of training they can arrange in Toronto once the NHL Playoffs move to Edmonton. But they have to follow new, tougher rules in the CBA designed to ensure this is all voluntary training.

So far the NCAA hasn’t made any moves to support the development of older athletes who are prevented from training and playing on their usual schedule, and the longer that goes on the more tough decisions will have to me made by elite-level athletes.

Aside from Abruzzese, the Leafs have:

  • Mike Koster - Due to start at the University of Minnesota this coming season, Koster could go back to the USHL. His rights run to 2024.
  • Ryan O’Connell - Looking to play his second season at Ohio State, O’Connell is too old for the USHL now. His rights expire in two years.
  • James (J.D.) Greenway - Greenway has three years of NCAA hockey brocken up by a return in 2018-2019 to the USHL, but he is also now too old, at 22. His rights expire next summer, and he’s at the age where he needs to decide if he wants to turn pro. He looks like an ECHL level player, but that league will struggle to operate this coming season as well./