The fantasy hockey season has many seasons within a season. The off season with the draft and free agency, the post season to name a few. The month of March brings the college hockey free agent season.
There are two ways college players can become NHL free agents. The most common way is they simply were never drafted and have completed their collegiate careers. Some players of prominence who entered the NHL recently via this route include Danny DeKeyser, Tyler Bozak and Trevor van Riemsdyk. The other way is if they were drafted, but have not signed an NHL contract after four years, and their collegiate career is completed. This route is less common, but produces a higher caliber of player. Previous players who followed this pate include Blake Wheeler, Justin Schultz and Mike Reilly.
Signing a player out of college to a NHL contract is a low risk, and usually low reward strategy and one that applies to fantasy hockey as well. The rules vary from league-to-league of course, but some leagues allow waiver claims, first come first serve free agents and some require they enter the entry draft. While their offensive or fantasy ceiling may not be that high, acquiring college free agents is attractive as they are riper than players coming from junior and can make an impact on your team sooner. They require little to no time developing in the minors burning up a roster spot, and it is widely an untapped resource that produces players.
This year’s harvest does not seem to have a blue-chip prospect that will trigger a free agent frenzy of NHL suitors wooing, wineing and dining anyone. That is unless Nashville prospect Jimmy Vesey remains unsigned before July first. Vesey is Nashvilles top prospect and recently ranked 14th overall by the Hockey News in the Future Watch edition. Another potential player could be Calgary Flames former first round pick, Mark Jankowski who also remains unsigned. Matt Grzelcyk is a third potential unrestricted free agent as he has yet to sign with the Boston Bruins who drafted him in the second round of the 2012 draft. The lesser known of the three potential UFA’s Grzelcyk is a small, 5’9” 174 pound offensive defenceman who scored 10 goals and 22 points in 26 games in his final season. However, most of these players are already owned in deep keeper leagues.
One of the more prominent players was signed right out of the gate by GM Ron Francis of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Andrew Poturalski, a 22 year old centre had previously attended Buffalo Sabres training camp and this year produced 22 goals and 51 points in 35 games played to finish second overall in NCAA scoring for the University of New Hampshire. The 5’10, 190 pound sophomore has only completed his second season , but because he is 22 he is too old for the draft and became a free agent. He will start his pro career playing out this season in the AHL with Charlotte under an amateur tryout basis.
Drake Caggiula (Pronounced Ka-jewel-uh) is a 21 year old 5’10, 185 pound left wing from North Dakota. Caggiula chose to return for his senior year at UND but had undoubtedly received contract offers last summer, and was an invitee to the Buffalo Sabres camp. In his final year he finished with 19 goals and 42 points in only 33 games played on the CBS line with Brock Boeser (Vancouver) and Nick Schmaltz (Chicago). Scouting reports on Caggiula describe him as an excellent skater, willing to play a physical game despite his smaller size. In fact, he is a physically agressive checker and forechecker as well as a net front presence. He can score goals from a distance with an accurate and quick shot, and has excellent hand eye co-ordination for tips, and rebounds and greasy goals from just outside the blue paint.
Alex Lyon is a 23 year old, 6’1” 201 pound goalie from Yale. He will be the most sought after goalie from the college free agent ranks. His 1.59 GAA and .938 save percentage are tops in the NCAA. Scouting reports on Lyon describe him as a technical goalie that has quick reflexes and has sound positional play. He has quick legs and strong push for lateral movement and takes away the lower goal with his butterfly style. His glove hand and blocker are also quick, but he needs to work on rebound control.
Troy Stecher is a 20 year old defenceman from UND as well. At 5’10 and 190 pounds he is small by NHL standards, but that stigma is fading fast for players who can create transition, quarterback a power play and can skate. Stecher can do all that and as a result, will be one of the most sought after defencemen from this year’s free agent class. Stecher scored seven goals and had 26 points in 37 games with a plus-minus of plus-19. While those stats are not bad, they are not going to make you say “wow” either. According to scouting reports, the wow factor comes from his hockey IQ. Stecher is very effective wit and without the puck, both on offence and defence. He has a playmakers vision offensively and can make smart soft passes. He can steal pucks and intercept passes defensively and create offense and transition; All the commodities of successful NHL defencemen. Stecher has the option to return for his senior year at UND before making the jump to the NHL.
Casey Nelson is a 23 year old 6’2 183 pound defenceman from Minnesota State who Bob McKenzie of TSN said was one player who was generating more interest than most from NHL scouts. With only five goals and 21 points in 28 games his stats are not extremely impressive, but he shoots right, has good size, skates well and moves the puck. He may not have a great fantasy hockey upside, but he should project as a solid two-way NHL with perhaps some more development in the AHL.
Update: Casey Nelson was signed by the Buffalo Sabres on March 23 2016
Sam Anas is a small (5’8” 150 pound) highly offensive centre. In his third season at Quinnipiac he scored 22 goals and 46 points in 37 games for tenth overall in NCAA scoring. Anas was invited to Montreal’s camp last summer as an invitee. With players like Johnny Gaudreau and Tyler Johnson blazing a trail for highly skilled, undersized players Anas becomes an intriguing prospect. He has the skills, but some scouts say he lacks the wheels.
Gavin Bayreuther is a 21 year old, 6’1” 194 pound defenceman who has played three seasons with St. Lawrence University. Bayreuther scored 11 goals and had 28 points in 36 games as a junior this past season. His freshman year was very impressive where he scored 36 points before having a dip in his sophomore year producing only 17 points. Scouting reports favour his booming shot from the point as his strongest asset as it is both powerful and accurate. His skating is also an asset showing both speed and agility.
Ethan Prow is a 23 year old right shooting defenceman who has finished his four year tour with St. Cloud University. His final season saw him post eight goals and 35 points in 34 games. The point per game defenceman led all NCAA defencemen in scoring is undersized at 5’11” and 185 pounds but highly offensive. It goes without saying he needs to add strength bulk to move up to the next level, but he has the skating and offensive skills to be a highly effective fantasy hockey option.
Jordan Gross is another undersized offensive defenceman at 5’10” 190 pounds. Gross posted impressive point totals in his sophomore season at Notre Dame with nine goals and 31 points in 36 games with a plus-16. Gross is also a right shooting defenceman who has excellent skating ability and offensive vision. With two years of NCAA eligibility remaining he may choose to return to Notre Dame and add some size and strength before turning pro.
Brandon Denham is a big right wing power forward. The 24 year old 6’4” 216 pound winger scored 21 goals and 41 points and 68 penalty minutes in 37 games in his senior year with Robert Morris. Denham was an invitee to the Pittsburgh Penguins camp last summer and while some of the players on this list have NCAA eligibility remaining, Denham has graduated and will begin his pro career next season. He went undrafted mainly due to his lack of skating ability, but he has worked hard to improve that part of his game. He may only project as a bottom six NHL player but can provide good value to leagues which score categories like hits and penalty minutes.
Hampus Gustafsson is a 22 year old Swede who completed his junior year with Merrimack, scoring eight goals and 26 points in 39 games. Gustafsson is a two-way power forward that plays a sound two-way game. Gustafsson skates well for a 6’4” 205 pound centre, but prefers to go through defenders, rather than dangle around them. He is effective on draws, and can play very effectively defensively and has size which makes him attractive to NHL teams. He will have to choose between returning for his senior year, or turning pro.
Alex Kile is a 6’0” 190 pound left wing with University of Michigan and scored 15 goals and had 32 points in 34 games in his junior season. With one more year remaining he has the offensive skills and decent size that could attract an NHL contract. Skating is his strongest skill, acceleration and a top speed generate scoring chances with his agility and ability to handle the puck while in top gear. His shot release is quick and heavy and he has playmaking ability as well.