Justin Florek is a 22-year-old graduate, which puts him right in line with your average four-year collegian. Among aspiring professional hockey players, there are fewer each season who fit Florek’s profile.
Florek, selected 135th overall in the 2010 NHL draft by the Bruins, played for Northern Michigan for four seasons. The forward will attend his first training camp this fall as he begins his pro career.
In hindsight, Florek believes it’s the right time to become a first-year pro.
“I wasn’t ready to leave early,” said Florek, who played for coach Walt Kyle at Northern Michigan. “Some of the guys who leave early, they really jump in there. But it wasn’t right for me. Walt told me, ‘If you’re ready to leave early, I’ll tell you.’ He wasn’t going to hold me back. But staying four years was the best thing I could do. It’s proved so far that for me, it was the right decision.”
Unlike the true-or-false questions on college exams, there is no right answer as to if and when a player should leave school early. For every four-year player like Florek, there is another would-be pro who believes a head start serves his best interests.
On March 25, the same day Florek signed his entry-level contract with the Bruins, Zach Trotman etched his signature onto his first pro deal. Trotman, selected two rounds after Florek in 2010, opted not to return to Lake Superior State for his senior season.
When Trotman committed to Lake State, he planned to play for four years. But after two solid seasons to begin college hockey, Trotman started to think about an early departure. As a junior, the defenseman scored 11 goals and 10 assists in 40 games.
Upon the conclusion of his junior season, Trotman informed the Bruins he was ready to become a pro. The Bruins agreed. Trotman, who will turn 22 Aug. 26, will push for a regular job in Providence.
“It’s really something you’ve got to decide on your own,” Trotman said. “There’s not really a set time. It comes to the point where, can you play at the next level mentally? Can you go in, night in and night out, knowing you might not be in the lineup? You might be in the lineup? Are you going to be on the power play? You might get traded. It’s about if you’re mentally stable enough to handle all that at the next level.”
For a collegian, there are few situations that are harder to address. With every pro comes a con.
Framed against the immediate lure of a contract and signing bonus, there is the debate of how the absence of a degree can diminish post-pucks earning power. One year, an organization might be under the 50-contract maximum and have vacant positions for prospects to pursue. The next season, the franchise might not have any contracts to offer. By leaving, a player can pad his bank account earlier. By staying, he could take advantage of certain quirks in the collective bargaining agreement — Justin Schultz, formerly Anaheim Ducks property, became part of a bidding war by staying at Wisconsin for his junior season — to reach free agency and drive up his asking price.
Two of Florek’s Northern Michigan teammates who left school early have played in the NHL. Mark Olver, a three-year Wildcat, has appeared in 42 games for Colorado. Erik Gustafsson, also a three-year player at Northern Michigan, dressed for 30 regular-season games and seven postseason matches for the Flyers in 2011-12.
Olver and Gustafsson were ready to go pro early. Florek was not.
“I just really wanted to be a dominant player at the college hockey level,” said Florek, a Marquette, Mich., native who committed to his hometown school when he was 15. “My junior year, I did pretty well, nothing spectacular. I really wanted to control the game and be a force every shift on the ice. I wanted to be a team leader and do everything I could to help the team win. My senior year, I really felt that was the best year I had.”
As captain last season, Florek scored a career-best 19 goals and 17 assists in 37 games. He has a degree in secondary education.
In contrast, Trotman estimated he has between 20 and 30 credits remaining toward his degree in exercise science. He hopes to earn his degree within the next two years.
“It is hard to be patient,” Trotman said. “You always think about it. When I was in college, of course I wanted to know what Boston was thinking about how I was playing. But I never worried about it. You’ve got to focus on the moment. I’d advise anybody in college not to worry about signing. Don’t worry about, ‘When can I go? I want to go now.’ Don’t be in a hurry. Play it out. When it comes to you, when you feel the time’s right and you’re ready to go, then go.”
Neil re-ups for three years
Chris Neil makes no apologies for being a hard-hitting, gloves-dropping bull. It is the style that earned the Ottawa third-liner a three-year, $5.75 million extension on Wednesday.
“Fighting, for me, is a part of the game,” Neil said during a news conference following the signing. “There’s nothing better than going out to a hockey game and seeing a good tilt on the ice. It will always be part of the game. The day of staged fighting is coming to an end. But I’m all for two guys battling in front of the net, if they don’t like the way one hit each other or if he hit a goalie, and the instincts take over. That’s where you see some really good fights. I came in as a fighter. I was able to establish myself and be able to play. I finish my checks. Other teams know when I’m on the ice. That’s what I want.”
The 33-year-old Neil, the 161st overall pick in 1998, is Ottawa’s version of Shawn Thornton, a gritty forward who’s developed from a scrapper into a dependable, physical force who brings stability to the dressing room. In 2011-12, Neil scored 13 goals and 15 assists while logging 178 penalty minutes (he earned five of those PIMs in a fight with Thornton) in 72 games.
Like Thornton, Neil is respected around the league for his honest if brutal approach. On Feb. 25, Neil wiped out Johnny Boychuk with a thundering wallop. Boychuk was diagnosed with a concussion. Boychuk credited Neil for throwing a clean hit.
Neil might have to assume more rough stuff next year after losing Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka, who combined for 226 penalty minutes last season, to free agency. The Senators also traded edgy forward Nick Foligno to Columbus for Mark Methot to replace Filip Kuba, who signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Florida.
With skilled youngsters Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone, and Jakob Silfverberg expected to push for varsity employment, Neil’s granite fists will be in demand to shoo away opponents.
“We lost a couple guys that really give us an edge. There’s no question about that,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said during a July 1 news conference. “We’re disappointed that happened. That’s business today.’’
Looking thin behind bench
Not only will the Devils be without Zach Parise, their former captain, but they will also be down their top two assistant coaches in 2012-13. On June 26, the same day he gained entry to the Hockey Hall of Fame, ex-Bruin Adam Oates replaced Dale Hunter as Washington’s head coach. Last Monday, Larry Robinson was officially hired as Todd McClellan’s right-hand man in San Jose. Robinson’s grandchildren live in Redondo Beach, Calif., a far easier destination to reach from the Bay Area than New Jersey. Following the departures of Oates and Robinson, assistant coach Dave Barr and goaltending coach Chris Terreri are the only members of Peter DeBoer’s staff remaining in Newark. It’s possible that former captain Scott Stevens could take a permanent position on the bench. Stevens has been serving as a special assignment coach.
Looking for work
Former Black-and-Gold teammates P.J. Axelsson and Sergei Samsonov are pursuing reentries to the NHL. Axelsson, last seen Stateside in 2009, has one year remaining on his contract with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League. He is free to leave the club if he secures an NHL deal. The 37-year-old ex-Bruin appeared in 57 games for Frolunda last season, scoring two goals and 12 assists. Axelsson would fill a fourth-line and penalty-killing role if he can latch on with an NHL team. According to agent Neil Abbott, one team is kicking the tires on Axelsson. If the defensive-minded winger can’t secure NHL employment, he will play for Frolunda in 2012-13. Abbott also represents Samsonov, who didn’t play in 2011-12. Samsonov considered going to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last season, but ultimately took a one-year sabbatical. In 2010-11, he scored 13 goals and 27 assists for Carolina and Florida. Abbott said several teams have inquired about the 33-year-old’s services.
Tampa Bay added some much-needed muscle by acquiring B.J. Crombeen from St. Louis for fourth-round picks in 2013 and ’14. The Lightning have been without an enforcer for the last two seasons. The last Lightning player with some pop in his fists was Zenon Konopka, who racked up 265 penalty minutes in 2009-10. In 40 games last season, Crombeen threw down nine times, according to www.hockeyfights.com. Most of Crombeen’s scraps should be assumed by Ryan Reaves. The up-and-coming heavyweight took on battleships John Scott and Brian McGrattan last season.
Unfortunate news in Montreal about TSN 990, the English-speaking sports radio station. It is scheduled to switch to a French sports radio station to comply with Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission regulations. The CRTC limits media companies from owning more than three English-speaking stations in one market. Bell Media, owner of TSN 990, is scheduled to purchase Astral Media, which already claims three English stations in Montreal. Like every sports radio station, TSN 990 had its share of shtick, bluster, and overreaction to anything Canadiens. But the station served as the only outlet for English-speaking sports fans. It catered well to its listenership, which included Bostonians driving to and from Montreal on dark, snowy nights.
On Aug. 15, Tyler Seguin will participate in a round of speed dating at Lowell’s LeLacheur Park. The contest will take place in a private suite, where Seguin will host each contestant for five minutes. For all teenyboppers wishing to attend, signed permission slips are undoubtedly required. No word on whether juice boxes will be provided . . . Journeyman goalie Dan Ellis, currently seeking employment, recently e-mailed the Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma, pitching himself as a credible backup to Cory Schneider. Will keep checking my inbox for similar notes. But the bulk of my mail comes from someone named Harry Zou, informing me of freight services from Shanghai to Frankfrurt (sic). Doubt Zou has a quick blocker or proper side-to-side technique . . . Hopefully we are only weeks away from becoming familiar with a new CBA. Will admit it’s been interesting poking through the expiring one for obscure nuggets. For example, from Article 23.7, speech therapy, when recommended by a physician, is covered up to $2,000 per year for NHL players and family members. This is the stuff the agitators should be reading. Plenty of meat on the bone for creative chirping . . . Matt Carle, who signed a six-year, $33 million contract with the Lightning July 4, joins fellow Alaska boy Nate Thompson in Tampa. The last time two Alaskans were on the same roster, Scott Gomez and Brandon Dubinsky were skating together in Manhattan . . . NESN’s Naoko Funayama passed along the news that Zdeno Chara will touch down in France sometime this month. Chara has regularly attended the Tour de France, and is friends with Slovakian cyclist Peter Sagan. If necessary, Chara could use his size and power to serve as a one-man leadout train for the ace sprinter. That would be a lovely sight on the Champs-Elysees . . . To eternal Husky Jack Grinold: Your many friends in hockey have you in their thoughts.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.