NEWARK -- On the same day center Brock Nelson decided to make the leap from college to the pros, Matt Donovan, another Isles draft pick who made the same leap a year ago, made his Islanders debut in a 3-1 loss to the Devils.
College hockey players are still regarded with some wariness around the NHL, and the top of the scoring charts shows why: Of the top 30 scorers in the league entering Tuesday night's games, only four spent any time in U.S. colleges, including two players on the ice here last night, the Isles' Matt Moulson and the Devils' Zach Parise.
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Canadian junior hockey is considered the better track for talented teenagers to reach the NHL. J.T. Miller, the Rangers' first-round pick last June, de-committed from North Dakota to enter the Canadian junior system and try to fast-track his development.
North Dakota is where Nelson, 20, went after the Islanders drafted him 30th overall in the 2010 draft. He had a solid freshman year, then bulked up his 6-4 frame and had an eye-opening sophomore season, scoring 28 goals in 42 games.
The Fighting Sioux were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Minnesota on March 25. The last week was decision time, and Nelson decided to turn pro; he will join Bridgeport on an amateur tryout to play for the Sound Tigers in the AHL playoffs, then begin his three-year deal next season.
"I wanted to weigh my options both ways, not let emotion get into it and make a rash decision right after our season ended," Nelson said. "There were a lot of factors on both sides, but I feel like this is the right time for me."
Donovan left the University of Denver after his junior year and joined Bridgeport for its final few games of last season. The defenseman's development with the Sound Tigers this season has been crucial -- Donovan, Aaron Ness and Calvin de Haan have all spent nearly a full season in Bridgeport under coach and former NHL defenseman Brent Thompson.
"We're kind of all going through the same thing at the same time, and it's been a big help and a lot of fun," Donovan said. "We talk a lot about what we need to do, how we need to play to help our team win and get to this next level."
Nelson is aware, through playing against Donovan and Ness (Minnesota) and 2008 draft pick Anders Lee (Notre Dame), that the Isles value college players. General manager Garth Snow, who played three years at Maine before starting his pro career, tried to entice Lee to turn pro, but the Notre Dame sophomore returned for his junior year.
"That's a big plus," Nelson said. "I know some of those guys from rookie camps or playing in college, and you can see that they're coming along. I'm hoping I can get into the system and keep my development going the right way."
Eight of the players the Isles suited up Tuesday night had some college experience, including Donovan, who got thrown right in the fire by playing most shifts against the Devils' top line, featuring Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.
"Honestly, we don't care what league they come from -- college, juniors, Europe," Snow said. "If they can play, they can play for us. Every player is unique."