Some might think the most popular and effective route to the NHL is to play junior hockey, get drafted, then work through the minor system.
However, another popular route is to attend a college, preferably one with a prestigious hockey program, before getting drafted and working through the minor league system.
Many of the best players currently in the NHL have attended colleges in the U.S.
Here are the best active NHL players to come out of U.S. colleges.
Erik Johnson played for the U.S. National Team Development Program. He went on to play one year at the University of Minnesota.
In 2006, he was drafted first overall in the NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues, but did not sign with the team until April 2007.
Johnson played out his entry three-year contract and re-signed with the Blues for another two years before the start of the 2010-11 season. He was then traded to the Colorado Avalanche before the trade deadline.
Many would argue that Johnson has not played up to the standards of a first overall draft pick. However, at 23, Johnson's best years are still ahead of him.
Brooks Orpik played three seasons at Boston College. While at BC, Orpik helped the team to two Hockey East championships and one NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship title.
The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Orpik in the first round of the 2000 NHL Draft. In 2009, Orpik and the Penguins became Stanley Cup champions.
Orpik was named to the 2010 U.S. Men's Hockey National Team. He helped the team capture silver at the Vancouver Olympics.
Following Sergei Gonchar's departure from Pittsburgh, Orpik was forced to step into the leadership role that Gonchar vacated. Orpik fit the role easily and should be the Penguins' leading defenseman for years to come.
James van Riemsdyk attended the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He then attended the University of New Hampshire for two years.
The Philadelphia Flyers drafted van Riemsdyk second overall in the 2007 NHL Draft and in 2009 announced that he would join the team instead of finishing his college years.
Van Riemsdyk joined the Flyers earlier than anticipated in 2009-10. He finished his rookie campaign with 35 points, 15 goals and 20 assists.
This past year, van Riemsdyk's sophomore season, he tallied 40 points, 21 goals and 19 assists. He had a good postseason, too, before the Flyers' elimination from the playoffs, scoring seven goals.
The 22-year old should be great for years to come.
Jimmy Howard played in the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League for the Westport Rideaus for two years. When he was 16, he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program.
In 2002, Howard helped the Men's U-18 team capture gold at the IIHF World U-18 Championship.
Howard was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft, but went to the University Maine and played hockey there for three seasons.
From 2005-2009, Howard alternated between the Red Wings' AHL affiliate and playing backup for the Wings.
He became Chris Osgood's official backup starting in the 2009-10 season and filled the role spectacularly.
Howard helped the Wings sweep the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of this year's playoffs, as well as make an almost-comeback against the San Jose Sharks.
Kevin Bieksa played three years for the Burlington Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
Bieksa was given a scholarship to Bowling Green State University, where he completed his degree before joined the Vancouver Canucks' minor league affiliate (Bieksa was drafted by the Canucks in the 2001 NHL Draft).
Bieksa became a full-time member of the Canucks in the 2005-06 season, where he has remained. He quickly established himself as a physical defenseman, who can score as well.
Bieksa has been a large part of the Canucks' success and will continue to do so with the team's future success.
In 1999, Dany Heatley began his tenure at the University of Wisconsin. Heatley was drafted second overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2000 NHL Draft.
After two years of collegiate hockey, Heatley joined the Thrashers. During his rookie campaign, Heatley led rookies in points and assists and came in second in goal-scoring to teammate Ilya Kovalchuk.
There was no sophomore slump for Heatley, who tallied 41 goals and 48 assists the next season.
Following off-ice troubles at the beginning of the 2003 season, Heatley did not perform as well in his third NHL season, or the next season when he played internationally due to the lockout.
However, when Heatley joined the Ottawa Senators in 2005, he scored 50 goals the next two seasons. The lowest number of goals Heatley has scored since then was 26 this past season.
John Madden played junior hockey in Canada, but was passed over in the 1993 NHL Draft. Madden then attended the University of Michigan, known for its exceptional hockey program.
Madden signed as an amateur free agent with the New Jersey Devils in 1997. He spent the next two seasons with the Devils' AHL affiliate, with sporadic call-ups interspersed.
After scoring 98 points for the AHL affiliate in the 1998-99 season, Madden was called up to become part of the Devils' roster the following season.
During nine seasons with the Devils, Madden won two Stanley Cup championships. As a free agent in 2009, Madden signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he won his third Stanley Cup championship.
Madden joined the Minnesota Wild in 2010.
Dwayne Roloson went to the University of Massachusetts Lowell and remained undrafted upon graduation.
However, Roloson came into the league as a free agent for the Calgary Flames in 1994. Roloson split time between the Flames and their minor league affiliate, then was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, spending two years as backup goaltender.
He was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2000 Expansion Draft, but Roloson elected to join the St. Louis Blues' AHL affiliate instead.
Finally in the NHL, Roloson spent time with the Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders.
On January 1 of this year, Roloson was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. As a member of the Lightning, Roloson has experienced great success.
He is one enormous reason that the Lightning have upset the Pittsburgh Penguins and swept the Washington Capitals this postseason.
Zach Parise played high school hockey at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Minnesota. Afterwards, Parise spent two years playing collegiate hockey at the University of North Dakota.
Parise was drafted in the first round by the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 NHL Draft.
After an alright rookie campaign, Parise doubled his scoring his sophomore season, scoring 31 goals, 16 more than his rookie season.
Parise scored 32 the next season, then a personal-best 45 and 38. This past season, Parise scored three goals in 13 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
In addition to NHL success, Parise was a member of the silver medal-winning 2010 U.S. Men's Olympic Hockey team, scoring the goal that forced overtime in the gold medal game.
Patrick Sharp attended the University of Vermont for his collegiate hockey career. Sharp was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round of the 2001 NHL Draft.
Sharp played for the Flyers and their AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, from 2003-2005. During the 2005-06 season, Sharp was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 2009, Sharp and the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, ironically against Sharp's first team.
Sharp had an even better 2010 statistically than the previous season. He scored 34 goals and 37 assists, enough to be named to the 2011 All-Star Game, where he was named the game's MVP.
Ryan Miller was a standout at Michigan State University. He holds the NCAA record in most shutouts and was recipient of the 2001 Hobey Baker Award, presented to the best collegiate player.
In 2002, Miller joined the Buffalo Sabres' AHL affiliate, where he achieved great success during his tenure.
Miller became the Sabres' starting goaltender after the 2005-06 season.
Miller is perhaps most memorable for his performance during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His performance helped lead the underestimated U.S. Men's Hockey team to a berth in the tournament's gold medal game, where they were defeated in OT.
Jonathan Toews spent two years playing collegiate hockey at the University of North Dakota.
During the 2006 NHL Draft, Toews was drafted third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, but wouldn't join them for another year.
In 2007, Toews joined the team. He scored 24 goals and 30 assists, earning him a Rookie of the Year nomination.
Toews was selected as the third youngest captain in NHL history, and current youngest captain, the next season.
In 2009-10, Toews helped lead his team to a Stanley Cup championship. The win came only four months after Toews won a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Ryan Kesler was a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program and was then offered a scholarship to play hockey at Ohio State University.
Kesler spent one season at OSU before joining the Vancouver Canucks' minor league affiliate.
Prior to the 2010-11 season, Kesler was never really known as a prolific point-scorer. However, during this past season, Kesler tallied a personal best 41 goals and 32 assists.
Some Canucks have suggested this is due to Kesler focusing more on scoring and less on chirping, something he was known for.
Kesler is currently tied with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier for the NHL lead in postseason scoring.
Tim Thomas played all four of his college years at the University of Vermont. He was drafted late in the 1994 NHL Draft by the Quebec Nordiques, followed by many minor league and international stints.
Thomas finally reached the NHL with the Boston Bruins at 28, not becoming a starter until 31. He has since become known for his goaltending skills, winning the 2009 Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender.
This season Thomas has been a large part of the Bruins success. He is a leading candidate once again for the Vezina Trophy after his remarkable 2010-11 season.
He has also played well this postseason, posting a .927 save percentage, good for third in the league.
Martin St. Louis played at the University of Vermont, alongside goaltender Tim Thomas. St. Louis finished his tenure at Vermont as one of the greatest players in their history.
Yet, St. Louis was undrafted and in one of the greatest stories of perseverance, finally signed with an NHL club, the Calgary Flames, in 1998.
St. Louis was released in 2000 and he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he would have great success.
In his personal best season statistically, 2003-04, his team experienced great success too: winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
After a few bad years, characterized by many uncertainties, the Lightning are back in the playoffs and in the Conference Finals, helped along by the diminutive St. Louis, who shares the lead in league postseason scoring.