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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Ivey: Tis the Season of Undrafted Hockey Players

It’s that time of year again. The season is ending for most college teams and their fans are wondering if some of their players will stay in college or take their talents to the professional level.

But I’m not talking about college basketball players. I’m talking about college hockey players. Free agent college hockey players, to be exact.

Yes, this is the time of year when most free agent college hockey players sign entry-level contracts with NHL teams looking to add depth to their organization near the end of the season.

The common free agent college hockey player is a little older than the normal age of college seniors, around 22-24 years old. After high school, these players spend about two or three years playing junior hockey before enrolling in college. Some do this to try and gain size and strength to compete better at the college level. Some do this because this is their only way of getting scouts to see them play and hope to get offered a scholarship.

These players go undrafted by NHL teams for whatever reason. Maybe they’re not big enough, strong enough, don’t have enough skill, speed, etc. The typical college hockey free agent is a “late bloomer.” They don’t give up on their dreams of playing professional hockey and work to prove themselves by developing into dominant college players.

Over the course of three or four years, they become just that. They dominate their opponents and lead their teams to wins and championships while also earning individual awards themselves. Many people watch these players and ask themselves, “Why wasn’t this guy drafted?” Some NHL general managers ask themselves the same question.

Luckily for NHL general managers, they have the opportunity to rectify this mistake by signing that player to an entry-level contract when that player’s college season ends. Hockey is different from most sports. College hockey players, whether they have already been drafted or not, can sign an NHL contract with a team once their college season ends and play right away for that organization. Most play in the minors, but there are a number of players that play with the big-club right away.

Look no further than last week, when Minnesota State junior defenseman Casey Nelson signed with the Buffalo Sabres and made his NHL debut a few days later. He recorded an assist on a goal scored by Hudson Fasching, who also signed with the Sabres just a few days before. Fasching played at the University of Minnesota the previous three years and was drafted by the Sabres back in 2013.

Another example of an undrafted college free agent playing in the NHL right away is current Detroit Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser. Back in March 2013, DeKeyser signed with the Wings after spending the previous three seasons at Western Michigan and contributed right away, recording an assist in 11 games that spring while also playing in two Stanley Cup playoff games.

The current list of top free agent college players include Nelson, St. Cloud State senior defenseman Ethan Prow (who just signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins), North Dakota junior defenseman Troy Stecher and senior forward Drake Caggiula, and Harvard senior forward Jimmy Vesey, who announced he won’t sign with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him, and will become a free agent August 15.

Signing a free agent out of college is a smart investment for any NHL organization. It’s a low-risk, high-reward free agent signing that doesn’t cost the team that much money and can be very beneficial to a team if the player is able to contribute at a high level like the examples mentioned above. If a player doesn’t work out, the team can release him after a couple of seasons playing in the minors. It also provides more opportunities for hockey players to live their dream of playing in the NHL.