The college free agent has become one of the more attractive assets to NHL teams over the last few years. The success of a guy like Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher, who signed after a four-year career at Canisius College, this season only strengthens the desire. Justin Schultz is another top rookie, but he became a free agent the more unusual way, but there are a few guys out there that could make a similar decision.
Undrafted college free agents can sometimes fill out some organizational depth or they can step right into the NHL lineup. Either way, these players give teams an affordable option to fit some sort of need whether it be immediate or something further down the line.
This year’s class of free agents is particularly strong at the top. Many of the best available players are underclassmen, so it also means they’ll have to decide if now is the time to make the jump to pro or if there’s room for additional development in school.
While the class itself is expected to be deep, there is a clear cut top two players that will bring offers from many, perhaps the majority of the teams in the NHL.
Coming up after the jump, a look at those two and some of the other players that will highlight the 2013 college free agent class.
The top two guys that everyone is after are junior defensemen Danny DeKeyser of Western Michigan and Andrej Sustr of Nebraska Omaha. Both are very different players, but both have a host of skills that have most NHL teams readying the paperwork for as soon as their seasons are over.
Danny DeKeyser — D — Western Michigan — DeKeyser shocked many when he opted to stay in school after last season. It was rumored that all 30 teams had put out feelers for the then sophomore defenseman. It could be that many again.
DeKeyser is a stout defenseman with good puck-moving abilities and is a really strong skater. He plays a very mature game, which is why he could hop into a lot of NHL lineups tomorrow if necessary. However, now that players may not be able to burn a year of their entry-level deals in the CBA, there shouldn’t be as big a rush to a decision.
Having spent the last two years under the tutelage of a former NHL coach (Andy Murray) probably helped bolster DeKeyser’s game, making him all the more attractive this season. DeKeyser’s offensive production has been pretty flat over his three years with 17 points in each of his first two seasons and 15 so far this year. His defensive value is what is keeping teams interested, however.
Last year, it was believed that the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning were among the favorites to acquire DeKeyser. Have to imagine Detroit will be putting on the full-court press as soon as WMU’s season ends in order to keep the Clay Township, Mich., native in his home state. DeKeyser has several ties within the Red Wings organization including his former coach at WMU Jeff Blashill, who is the head coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins now, and assistant GM Jim Nill, whose son Trevor was a youth hockey teammate of DeKeyser’s giving the two families a lot of familiarity.
The race for DeKeyser should get very interesting, seeing as pretty much everyone wants in.
Andrej Sustr — D — Nebraska Omaha — One look down the roster and you already get a good idea as to why Sustr is a hot name on the market. He stands at a listed 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, so there’s the hook. What sells Sustr however isn’t his size alone.
The big Czech can really move on the ice and has taken leaps — not steps — forward in his development over three seasons with Dean Blais at UNO. Sustr has really soft hands for a bigger guy and can hammer the puck from the point. He’s nimble on his feet and has some good recovery speed.
The big man saw a solid uptick in offensive production this year, which is only enhancing his value. He has already posted career highs with nine goals and 14 assists this season, averaging 0.64 points per game.
Sustr still is fairly rough around the edges, so he’s a guy a team will want to take some time with to develop further. It’s somewhat rare to see this kind of upside in a 22-year-old, but it’s there. He’s still growing into his game and might be on the cusp of something special.
The Sustr Sweepstakes will be fervid. He had a chance to turn pro last season with offers from a reported 20 teams, but was wise to stay another year and move to the head of this class where there’s more urgency for him to get signed and perhaps more options for the right situation. Sustr was invited to participate in both Pittsburgh’s and Tampa Bay’s rookie camps last season.
It’s remarkable to see how far his game has come since he played for the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL four years ago. He wasn’t much more than a raw, gangly defenseman then. Now he’s got clear top-four NHL upside.
After Sustr and DeKeyser, there’s a second tier of free agents available that should receive heavy interest, but not quite the frenzy expected for the other two.
Antoine Laganiere – RW — Yale — One of the seniors that will garner a ton of interest in the very near future is Laganiere. One scout estimated that 28 teams were kicking the tires on the 6-foot-4, 215-pound forward.
There’s less upside, but a solid base of talent with Laganiere that could fit in with a lot of organizations. His production has dipped this season after he scored 19 goals as a junior. His 12 goals and 12 assists are a little underwhelming, but he plays a sound two-way game and gets physical, using his frame well. His on-ice work ethic is also a huge plus.
It sounds like the Vancouver Canucks have shown interest early and often.
Nate Schmidt — D — Minnesota — After a highly productive sophomore campaign in which Schmidt registered 41 points for a Gopher team that made it all the way to the Frozen Four, the interest surrounding the junior rearguard should be pretty high.
The big question is if he’ll leave school a year early, but odds are, the level of interest will be high enough to consider cashing in.
Though his offensive production is down slightly from his near point-per-game pace of 2011-12, Schmidt has shown vast improvement in the defensive zone this season and has boosted his goal scoring. He appeared to be more engaged in his own zone and was a continual threat from the blue line with eight goals this year.
Schmidt doesn’t have great size at a generously listed 6-0, 195, but he has solid vision and play-making ability. He’s a speedy skater who’s good in transition and can create on the rush.
He’d definitely need a good amount of AHL time, but it appears his skill set will allow him to make a run at a solid NHL career. There’s room for him to develop and get stronger, so if he stayed in school, it wouldn’t be a total shock, but the interest is going to be there after this season.
Drew LeBlanc — C — St. Cloud State — He could have turned pro last season one junior scout told me, but after LeBlanc was granted a medical red shirt to return after an injury cut his senior campaign short, LeBlanc stayed with the Huskies.
As captain, he helped lead SCSU to a share of the WCHA regular-season title and he’ll get some serious Hobey Baker consideration.
Currently leading the nation in assists with 34, LeBlanc has proven to be one of college hockey’s great play makers. He also has 12 goals and is shooting at a verbose 20 percent. His offensive capabilities are going to get him quite a bit of interest from around the league.
He’s 23 years old, so whoever picks him up is getting a physically mature individual who might need a little extra time in the AHL, but whose talent is nearing NHL level.
There’s another bit of a drop in tier to the next round of free agents, but still a really intriguing group.
Greg Carey — LW — St. Lawrence — The nation’s leading scorer currently with 28 goals and 51 points might have a chance to cash in on his success after this season. The junior has been producing at a ridiculous clip all season and is shooting at 19 percent this season. Carey has a lot of skill and is showing a natural goal-scoring ability. He has produced in each of his three years at a school that has struggled to win. There’s going to be several teams that want to get him under contract. Will he leave his last year of eligibility on the table?
Ryan Walters — LW — Nebraska Omaha — One of the huge surprises this season, Walters has already double his production from last season and is the only other 50-point man in college hockey presently with Carey. It will be interesting to see what kind of interest Walters receives considering this season considering the sudden uptick in production. He was a high-scoring player at the USHL level before heading off to college, so the track record exists.
Jared Coreau — G — Northern Michigan — Though he’s less heralded than a lot of the others, Coreau might be one of the hottest college goalies on the market this year. At 6-4, 208, he has the size the NHL covets in his position and he saw a lot of action as a junior. He posted a .919 save percentage this year after .928 last season with a lighter work load. Coreau would be an intriguing pick up for any team looking to bolster goaltending depth, should he choose to leave school.
Other names to keep an eye on…
Rylan Schwartz — F — Colorado College
Alex Krushelnyski — F — Colorado College
Kyle Flanagan — F — St. Lawrence
David Makowski — D — Denver
Kevin Goumas — F — UNH
Steven Whitney — F — Boston College
Mark Zengerle — F — Wisconsin
Eriah Hayes — F — Minnesota State
Mike Seidel — F — Minnesota Duluth
Kellan Lain — F — Lake Superior State
Kyle Bonis — F — Ferris State
Steven Spinell — D — Miami
Eric Hartzell — G — Quinnipiac
Jeremy Langlois — F — Quinnipiac
Scott Czarnowczan — D — Ferris State
Austin Czarnik — F — Miami
Troy Grosenick — G — Union
Wayne Simpson — F — Union
Shayne Taker — D — Notre Dame
This list is by no means comprehensive, as there’s sure to be a lot of interest coming out of this season around a lot of players. Also, a lot of these underclassmen could decide to stay in school. Whether they do or don’t, this college free agent class should create a very exciting few weeks as they start signing.