With college hockey seasons ending for non-tournament teams, we have officially entered open season for recruiting and signing undrafted free agents from the college ranks.
The game is a strange one for a couple reasons. First, a huge fuss is usually made about a handful of players. Though gems do arise from the free agent ranks, it is not always the most sought after. In addition, many of these signees never amount to much which maybe is not that surprising since the scouts were not that high on them when they had the chance to draft them. But college free agent game offers and interesting way to boost prospect pools by adding players who are a bit older and therefore maybe closer to NHL ready without having to even spend a draft pick to do it.
Interestingly, the bidding war is virtually non-existent financially as the entry-level contract maximums are pretty much fixed by the NHL contract rules. The result is that the top players have basically the same contract offer from multiple teams and then have the leverage to pick where they want to play and maybe to some degree dictate the situation upon arrival. Recently, the better teams in the league have been winning more than their fair share of these players presumably because they offer a better environment for these players.
Ron Francis and the Hurricanes’ 2 trump cards for luring college free agents
But I actually think Ron Francis could have a strong case for luring some of the most-wanted players if he plays his cards right. These players are signing normal 2-way contracts just like other prospects, so obviously they have a much better financial return if they do in fact make it to the NHL sooner rather than later. That could help Francis in 2 ways.
First, with the Hurricanes lack of depth at the forward position, he can make a strong case that the path and chances of cracking the NHL roster soon are much higher with the Hurricanes than with a much-deeper top of the NHL team.
Further, at the point where Francis deems the Hurricanes to be out of the playoff chase completely, he could sneakily offer a 2016-17 financial bonus by promising to put a signed player on the NHL roster for the remainder of the 2016-17 season. For example, for a college player whose season is over, if he joined the Hurricanes at the NHL level for the final 16 games of the 2016-17 seaosn, he could earn $170,000 on a $925,000 contract prorated. That is significantly better than playing the same number of games in the AHL and earning about $14,000, especially for a kid who who was living on a college kid budget weeks earlier. Teams who are contending for the playoffs do not have as much roster flexibility to just insert a transitioning college player straight into their NHL lineup regardless of if he is ready.
Last year’s NCAA hockey free agents
Last year’s alleged prize was Jimmy Vesey. Vesey was supposedly wanted by many teams but ultimately signed with the New York Rangers. He has provided returns as an immediate NHL regular playing 69 games so far this season, but his 10 goals and 14 assists with power play time to boot are not exactly tearing up the league. From the college free agent ranks last year, the Hurricanes added Andrew Poturalski who is having a good season in Charlotte leading the Checkers in scoring, but he has yet to play in the NHL.
This year’s top names
I spend the vast majority of my hockey time tracking our Carolina Hurricanes, so I know only what I read about college players who are not Hurricanes prospects. Chris Dilks at SBNation’s College Hockey post offered his top 10 list of college free agents for this year. Zach Aston-Reese seems to be garnering the most attention right now. If he is truly the best out there, I see no reason why Ron Francis should not put forward a strong effort to win his services and have a decent chance of winning the sweepstakes against other teams with a legitimately higher starting point on the NHL depth chart and possibly a promise of NHL ice time and money in late March and April.
Right up Francis’ alley in terms of exploring all options and being frugal
College free agents are right up Francis’ alley, and as noted he did use it last season to sign Andrew Poturalski. Francis has regularly reached to the waiver wire to claim players for his NHL roster. The NCAA free agents are basically the prospect equivalent in that a team does not need to spend a draft pick or anything to acquire the free players. The acquiring team only needs to be willing to commit to the contract which is a 2-way deal and therefore has incredibly small downside risk to it.
What say you Canes fans?
Do you think the annual fuss over players who were recently not good enough to be drafted in the top 210 of their age group is overdone?
Do you agree that the Hurricanes and Ron Francis might actually be capable of putting together a more compelling offer than better teams?
What does anyone know about the players who are available? Who would you like to add to our prospect pool without burning a draft pick?