Its that time of year. The NCAA hockey season has come to a close and conference tournaments are in full swing. NHL teams are now salivating at the chance to sign the top undrafted college free agents as their teams play their final games of the season.
These prospects don’t always have an impact at the NHL level, but the chances of finding a diamond in the rough ala players like Matt Read, Danny DeKeyser, Chris Kunitz, Andy McDonald, Dustin Penner, Tyler Bozak, Matt Gilroy, Cory Conacher, Jason Garrison, Chris Tanev, Ben Scrivens, and others who have been uncovered in recent years is always a chance that NHL teams seem willing to take. At worst they give out an Entry Level contract, pay a player to play for their minor league club for a couple years, and then let them go. At best they get a player who can contribute at the NHL level, for a relatively low cap hit, without using a draft pick, or trading other assets. These players are low risk/big reward and so the competition to sign them will be fierce.
With that said, who are the top Free Agents available? I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by last name for ease of reference in our College Free Agents Class of 2014 series.
I will be handling this over the weekend in four parts, with 10 players in each part.
Shayne Taker, Defence, Notre Dame (6’4″ 207 lbs) Signed an ATO with the San Antonio Rampage (Florida Panthers AHL Affiliate): The 24-year-old attended Vancouver’s summer prospect camp last year, but decided to return to Notre Dame for his senior season where he has put up 16 points in 35 games. He’s probably never going to be a big point scorer, but he is a big defenceman who excels in his own end. He plays huge minutes against the other teams top lines, and has played a big part in Notre Dame consistently being amongst the best defensive teams in the country over his four years. He plays his position well, and doesn’t go running around looking for hits, but if they are there to be had, he can lower the boom and play a very physical game. He’s also a very good shot blocker. While he’s a stay at home defenceman, who isn’t likely to join the rush often, he does make a good first pass to get the transition game started.
Bryce Van Brabant, LW, Quinnipiac (6’3″ 205 lbs) Signed with the Calgary Flames: In his first two years in the NCAA Van Brabant was a bottom line grinder, only scoring nine goals. So far this season he has 14 goals and has showed some more offence, becoming more of a second line forward. Still his future at the pro level is likely as a grinder. He’s got great size and just loves to hit. He gets in on the forecheck and can absolutely punish defencemen. He loves to battle in the corners and in front of the net, providing an effective screen for goaltenders. He also plays a solid defensive game. With that size and physicality he will be attractive to NHL teams, even if he is one of the lowest scoring forwards in this list.
Trevor van Riemsdyk, D, New Hampshire (6’2″ 185 lbs) Signed with the Chicago Blackhawks: The brother of Maple Leafs star James van Reimsdyk, many thought that Trevor would leave school last year after an all-american sophomore season at New Hampshire. However he went back for his junior year and had four goals and 23 points in 26 games and was well on his way to another all-american nomination before an ugly ankle injury ended his season in January. He’s one of the top offensive defencemen in the NCAA with outstanding mobility and great skating ability, good vision and passing skill, and a hard shot. Prior to his injury he had taken his defensive game up a notch by becoming more physical in his own end of the ice. If he decides to come out this seaseon he’ll be a top player in this class, but he may decide to finish his college career.
Ryan Walters, LW, Nebraska-Omaha (6’0 196 lbs) Signed an AHL ATO with Bridgeport (Islanders’ affiliate): With 22 goals and 52 points in 39 games in 2012-13, many assumed that Walters would sign a pro contract last season. Instead, went back for his senior season, and has just six goals and 31 points in 34 games this season. A down season has taken some of the luster off this now 22-year-old senior. He has good hands, a quick shot and an excellent release. He grinds on the boards and is a smart playmaker who is able to cycle the puck and then thread the needle to set up teammates. However its not just his offensive skill that makes him one to watch, Walters is also an agitator who gets under his opponents skin and plays the game on the edge. He’ll still be sought after this season, but not nearly as much as he was last spring.
Sam Warning, LW, Minnesota (5’9″ 181 lbs): The 21-year-old has 31 points in 33 games so far this season. He’s a little undersized and that kept him from being drafted despite a strong season in his last year in the USHL. He has outstanding hands and stick handling ability, he can be a real magician with the puck. An offensive catalyst, he has an accurate shot, and is a very good playmaker with great vision, and the ability to make a pass through the smallest of openings.
Clay Witt, G, Northeastern (6’1″ 187 lbs): After three years of limited ice-time, Clay Witt has been a huge surprise as Northeastern’s starter in his red-shirt junior season. With a 16-11-3 record and 2.23 GAA and .937 save percentage, he’s been the team’s MVP this season. The 23-year-old does an especially good job at taking away the bottom of the net and at controlling his rebounds. He may decide to go back for a senior season as NHL teams may want to see him play another season as a starter before offering big bonuses in their ELC offers.
Oleg Yevenko, Defence, UMass-Amherst (6’7″ 250 lbs): A huge Belarussian defenceman, the 23-year-old isn’t known for his offence, scoring just three points in his three seasons at UMass-Amherst. He showed an ability to fight in his USHL days. He’s improved as a skater and plays a decent defensive game. He’s a ways away from playing in the NHL, but some teams may see that size and potential to be a shutdown defenceman as an intriguing project for their AHL team.
Matthew Zay, LW, Mercyhurst (6’1″ 190 lbs): The 23-year-old has 16 goals and 40 points in 32 games so far this season. He is the key to Mercyhurst’s offence with nearly all plays being generated through him. He is good along the boards and has good vision and a quick accurate shot. While he is certainly one of the best players in his conference, there are certainly some questions about the level of competition he faced playing in Atlantic Hockey.
Mike Zalewski, LW, RPI (6’2″ 209 lbs) Signed with the Vancouver Canucks: The 21-year-old scored 9 goals and 26 points for RPI in his sophomore season. He is a physical and grinding winger, who is very strong on the boards, wins battles, and loves to stand in front of the net. He’s a strong two-way player, who continues to be physical in all three zones. He’s got a decent shot, and some offensive tools, but he’s a player whose future likely is in a bottom six, grinder type role at the next level.
Mark Zengerle, Centre, Wisconsin (5’11” 180 lbs): Despite NHL interest after both his sophomore and junior seasons, Zengerle decided to stay in school for the full four years. As soon as the 24-year-old finishes this season at Wisconsin there will be plenty of interest again. With 36 points in 32 games so far he’s had a fourth straight strong offensive season. Zengerle is a very good skater, with excellent acceleration and very good top end speed. He is extremely dangerous off the rush as he has the ability to change gears and uses this to beat defencemen. More a playmaker than a goal scorer, Zengerle has great vision, and is able to make passes through the tiniest of openings. His shot could use some more power but he does have a good release. Solid in the defensive end of the ice, Zengerle is a very complete player and shows leadership.
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