Few elements of the NHL’s business are proceeding on schedule as we wait to find out whether the league will be able to finish the 2019-20 regular season or crown a Stanley Cup champion.
One area, however, that is essentially on schedule, or even ahead, is the NHL’s fevered pursuit of U.S. college free agents. These are the classic late bloomers, the young men who were never drafted, went to American schools with high hopes and emerged a few years later as bona fide prospects, usually having added a few pounds and developed their games.
It’s not like this harvest yields elite talent every year, or even very often. Hitting a grand slam home run in this competition is signing Tyler Bozak. Or Torey Krug.
Those guys are very good. Not all-stars, but B-plus players. In the U.S. college free agency market, however, they are hall of famers. They are also by far the exception.
This signing period usually extends from March into April. This year, the cancellation of the college playoffs and the Frozen Four because of COVID-19 has accelerated the process. Before, once a player signed he forfeited any remaining college eligibility and had to leave school immediately, even if his team was still playing. Now, there’s no reason to wait because there is no season.
It’s a market that often attracts far more attention than it really should because teams get hugely excited in the pursuit of these players. Why? Well, mostly because anything that costs just money always intrigues teams. To sign one of these NCAA players you don’t need to sacrifice a draft pick or another asset. In some ways, it’s even less risky than drafting a U.S. collegian because — as we’ve seen in recent years with the likes of Jimmy Vesey, Alex Kerfoot, Will Butcher and Mike Reilly — drafted college players can just outwait their NHL teams and use that avenue to become unrestricted free agents at the end of their school years. So that draft pick is essentially wasted.
The danger is that the value of previously undrafted college free agents at this time of year gets a little exaggerated. Most are older prospects, and some have been to multiple NHL development camps. Not surprisingly, the results are inconsistent.
The Leafs, for example, got great value out of signing Bozak from the University of Denver back in April 2009, and almost no value from signing Notre Dame forward Christian Hanson. The Leafs got some decent mileage out of Cornell free-agent goalie Ben Scrivens in 2010, while Ottawa’s hopes that Boston University netminder Matt O’Connor might be their goalie of the future proved to be misplaced when he was signed in 2015.
After two or three years, you generally know what these players are going to become. If we look back to the Class of 2017, you get a pretty good idea what a strong crop looks like. Zach Aston-Reese signed out of Northeastern with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has become a useful bottom-six forward. Alex Iafallo signed with the Kings out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and has 17 goals this season, his third NHL campaign. The same school produced defenceman Neal Pionk, who was signed by the New York Rangers and is now a regular for Winnipeg.
Last year, the Minnesota Wild signed Clarkson forward Nico Sturm, who played two NHL games last season and six more this season. The Leafs signed offensive-minded Mercyhurst defenceman Joseph Duszak and he split the season between Newfoundland (ECHL) and the AHL Marlies. The Senators recruited Princeton forward Max Véronneau and he played a few NHL games last year and this season before a trade to the Leafs.
At this point, this year’s group doesn’t look like it contains a front-line NHLer. Calgary may have signed the best of the lot in 23-year-old defenceman Connor Mackey out of Minnesota State University. With T.J. Brodie, Derek Forbort and Travis Hamonic headed for unrestricted free agency, this could be a useful depth signing. The Flames also signed another blueliner, 24-year-old Colton Poolman out of North Dakota.
Pittsburgh had success in the past with Aston-Reese and Conor Sheary, and they’ve been active again this year with six-foot-three Dartmouth forward Drew O’Connor and Cam Lee, a 23-year-old Western Michigan defenceman who grew up not far from Sidney Crosby’s Nova Scotia home town.
The Rangers signed 21-year-old Californian Patrick Khodorenko, a centre who was part of the U.S. national development program at the same time as Auston Matthews. Khodorenko played at Michigan State, and already played an AHL game before that season was shut down. Vancouver signed another Minnesota State player, centre Marc Michaelis.
Other intriguing collegians are still out there waiting to be signed, including Alberta-born defenceman Brinson Pasichnuk, who played at Arizona State with Mario Lemieux’s son Austin.
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If history is our guide, one or two of these unrestricted college players will make it. Then again, Seattle will soon become the NHL’s 32nd team, which means more jobs. Getting players on NHL rosters at salaries below $1 million is now a priority for many teams, and these players, because they’re older, sometimes fit the bill.
These days, all players get seen when they are teenagers. So to go the long route and earn an NHL contract without having been drafted is a noteworthy feat. Becoming a full-time NHL player, however, is a much greater one.