Top NCAA NHL Free Agent Prospects for 2016-2017
by Chris Dilks@ChrisDilks Jan 12, 2017, 10:29am PST
UMD’s Neal Pionk Matt Christians
Now that the calendar has flipped over to 2017, it is the time of year when NHL teams really start focusing in on what NCAA agents they will pursue when their college season ends in March/April.
This year’s class of NCAA free agents looks to be another average one. There are some good players available, as always, but not the type of players that will make a major impact immediately, and likely not another Chris Kunitz or Dan Boyle in the group that will go on to a long, great career. But it takes more than superstars to make a good hockey team, and uncovering the right gem for free in college free agency could be the boost that helps take an NHL team to the next level.
When it comes to college free agents, much of the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the great Bob McKenzie wrote last year, one team’s top target is another team’s ‘are you kidding me?’
With that said, here is our list of who we feel will be some of the top NCAA free agents available to be signed this coming spring.
Zach Aston-Reese, Left Wing, Northeastern
Zach Aston-Reese’s head coach Jim Madigan summed it up nicely: ““If he’s not the best college free agent, I haven’t seen who’s better than him.”
Aston-Reese is an absolute beast working along the boards and in heavy traffic situations. He’s continued to develop his two-way play, and put in a lot of work on his shot to become a more effective scorer.
You can read more about why Aston-Reese is the best NCAA free agent available in this feature piece, with some more great quotes from his coach.
2. Daniel Brickley, Defenseman, Minnesota State
Last year, Minnesota State’s Casey Nelson was one of the top free agent defensemen available out of the NCAA, eventually signing with the Buffalo Sabres and jumping right into their lineup. Brickley is an extremely similar, if not slightly more polished, prospect.
Brickley isn’t a lightning-fast skater, and is still developing on the defensive end, but his combination of size—listed at 6-2 205 lbs.—and tremendous offensive abilities give him a tantalizing amount of upside. He missed time this year with a fractured wrist, but his time out only increased his value as Minnesota State’s power play struggled without him running things from the point.
What he lacks in straight-line speed, he makes up for with a shiftiness laterally which is really impressive for a big defender that allows him to create his own passing and shooting lanes. He’s aggressive in looking for his shot which helps generate a lot of offense. He’s still a bit of a project, but could develop into a second pairing defenseman that is very good on the power play at the NHL level.
3. Mike Vecchione, Center, Union
Vecchione has had opportunities to sign NHL contracts before. He was an integral part of the Union team that won a national championship with the likes of Shayne Gostisbehere and Daniel Carr, and followed that up with a 50-point sophomore season that earned him offers to turn pro.
It looked like the decision to pass up that opportunity was a mistake when his point total dipped to 29 points as a junior, but Vecchione returned for his senior season and has been dominant at the NCAA level. He’s second nationally in scoring with an 18-21-39 scoring in 21 games and is among the favorites to win the Hobey Baker.
Vecchione is a complete, 200-foot player. His skating is good enough to make plays in open ice, and he can win battles along the wall. He’s also capable of playing center and being a go-to guy in the face-off circle, which makes him more intriguing as a pro.
4. Neal Pionk, Defenseman, Minnesota Duluth
In his sophomore season, the Duluth-area native has developed into the top defenseman for the Bulldogs, who have spent much of the season as one of the top teams in the country.
Pionk is a very good two-way defenseman thanks to his excellent skating ability and agility. He moves the puck up the ice reliably thanks to an ability to spin his way out of traffic and is an excellent outlet passer. His quickness also gives him the confidence to hold the line in the offensive zone, rather than giving up ice to give himself more cushion defensively.
He’s just an okay defender one-on-one against the rush, but has an above average amount of toughness and physicality for a guy that will classify as a smaller defenseman at the next level.
5. Blake Winiecki, Center, St. Cloud State
Winiecki is a big centerman—always a valuable commodity at the NHL level—that has started to contribute more offensively now that he is playing a bigger role and seeing more ice time in his junior season with St. Cloud State. Winiecki is solid on face-offs, plays good defense, and has the size to provide a net-front presence, while still having the skill to not be a drain on possession when he gets the puck.
He’ll be a grinder at the next level, but the type of player that plays a valuable role for a team.
6. John Stevens, Center, Northeastern
John Stevens is the son of an NHL coach, and that really shows in his game. He’s not the most physically-gifted athlete, but he makes up for that with incredibly high hockey IQ. He’s a smart, two-way centerman that plays a very complete game. He doesn’t have tremendous upside, but lots of potential to be a reliable defensive centerman at the NHL level.
7. Peyton Jones, Goalie, Penn State
Jones has a prototypical NHL-size frame for a goalie, and like most bigger prospects, it took him a little longer to develop. After a shaky first year in the USHL, Jones was very solid in his second year with the Lincoln Stars, but it wasn’t quite enough of a track record to get him drafted in his final year of draft eligibility. Now at Penn State, Jones is proving last year wasn’t a fluke. He quickly took command of the starting job for the Nittany Lions and is helping to lead them to their best performance in school history. Jones’ has the size and athleticism to compete for a job in the NHL.
8. Mitch Hults, Center, Lake Superior State
Late in his recruitment, Hults passed on the opportunity to play as a near-walk-on at Minnesota in order to take a bigger scholarship offer at Lake Superior State. That move has really paid off because Hults receives a ton of ice time—top line center, point on the top power play unit, top PK unit—and has ample opportunity to show off his skills. Hults is listed at 6-2 205 lbs., which gives him the size to use long reach and protect the puck effectively, but what separates him and makes him an NHL prospect is that he has extremely light feet and is a very fast skater.
Discipline is the biggest concern with Hults, but he has all the physical traits to be an effective winger at the NHL level.
9. CJ Smith, Left Wing, UMass Lowell
CJ Smith’s combination of first step speed and puck-handling ability makes him a dangerous offensive threat, especially when working off the wall in the offensive zone. Smith is a bit of a tweener, because he definitely plays more of an offensive-minded skill game, but isn’t likely to make it as a top-six forward in the NHL.
10. Adam Johnson, Center/Right Wing, Minnesota Duluth
Johnson was a prospect that drew serious attention from NHL Central Scouting in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, way back in 2012, due in large part to his explosive skating ability. But ultimately teams backed off because of a lack of physical maturity and a lack of toughness he showed playing against weak high school competition.
Five years later, two years of junior hockey and two years in college hockey has really matured Johnson’s game. He has filled out his frame a bit and plays a much heavier game while still maintaining that explosive quickness. He has the tools to be a very effective winger at the NHL level.
11. Dominik Shine, Right Wing, Northern Michigan
Shine is a bit off the radar because he plays at Northern Michigan, which is currently struggling through one of the worst seasons in school history. But despite that, Shine has managed to remain effective, scoring 12-4-16 in 18 games with minimal help. Shine has an excellent combination of speed and toughness, which makes him difficult to defend. He missed the first six games of his team’s season for an unspecified violation of team rules, which may be a minor red flag, but could be a great find for a team willing to look off the beaten path.
12. Tyler Kelleher, Right Wing, New Hampshire
Kelleher is definitely a boom-or-bust type of prospect. He’s the NCAA’s leading scorer with 40 points in 20 games—no NCAA player has come close to 2.00 points/game since Johnny Gaudreau—and has incredible offensive talent. But it’s questionable whether the small forward will be able to translate his high-skill game to the NHL level. He’ll be worth a shot for some NHL team, but with very little expectation attached.
The Rangers have found success in finding free agents in college, juniors and overseas in recent history. Here are some players the Rangers can target this year.
It’s no secret that the New York Rangers prospect pool is thin, and their AHL roster is even thinner. This has mostly been due to the fact that the Rangers have not had a first round pick since 2012. In recent years, the Rangers have had to look outside of the draft to bolster their youth development.
Fortunately, they have also been successful in this venture. Recent signings like Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes have worked out tremendously for the Rangers, giving them young, talented NHL players at almost no expense. Signings like John Gilmour and Ahti Oksanen also add youthful potential to the Wolfpack.
NHL ready veteran talent can also been found, in such examples like Alexander Radulov signing with Montreal, or Artemi Panarin with Chicago. Finding these hidden weapons, especially if they can be had on entry level contracts, is incredibly valuable to building a championship caliber team.
On that note, here are some players the Rangers can target this year:
Zach Aston-Reese, F Northeastern University (32GP, 27G 29A 56P)
Zach Aston-Reese is a forward who has improved statistically with Northeastern each year, culminating in a highly productive senior year. Second in the NCAA in scoring, the 22 year old Staten Island native can be a valuable addition to the Rangers organization should they encounter cap difficulties amongst their forwards.
Aston-Reese projects as a bottom six two way forward with some offensive potential. Though the Rangers are deep in that area, players like that are always smart to retain in an organization, whether it be for the NHL team or as AHL projects.
Mike Vecchione, F, Union College (32GP, 24G 30A 54P)
Mike Vecchione has been gaining a lot of attention this season as a versatile forward for Union College. The fan favorite Vecchione is a hard working, gritty-despite-his-size scoring forward. His play style is similar to former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
Should the Rangers take a chance on the 23 year old Vecchione, he would most likely begin on the Wolfpack and work his way up the ranks based on performance. Putting a true projection on him is difficult; he has top six potential, but his style allows him to slot into just about any role.
Denis Smirnov, F, Penn State (28GP, 16G 23A 39P)
Smirnov is an undersized but electrifying offensive talent for Penn State University. Still only a freshman, the young Russian chose to take the college route after going undrafted as a USHL player. Now, he leads all NCAA freshmen in scoring, including first round picks like Clayton Keller.
A scoring forward in every sense, Smirnov utilizes his terrific hands and lightning quick release to set up teammates and score beautiful goals. Though he stands at only 5’8, his size is not a hindrance; he easily has the talent to become a top six forward in the NHL.
Matias Cleland, D, University of New Hampshire (32GP, 2G 30A 32P)
Matias Cleland is a puck moving defenseman in his senior year for UNH. The 23 year old leads the NCAA in points by defensemen, most of which have been assists created by his terrific on ice vision.
Though one could argue that his production is mostly a product of NCAA scoring leader Tyler Kelleher, the Rangers are starved for puck moving defenseman prospects. Cleland would fit that need without costing anything.
Darren Raddysh, D, Erie Otters (50GP, 15G 48A 63P)
Passed over in the NHL Entry Draft several times before, the overage defenseman Raddysh will now be eligible to sign as an unrestricted free agent.
The Rangers need for offense driving right handed defensemen will lure them into Raddysh’s camp, who is likely to get a contract this summer.
Raddysh, whose OHL teammate and brother Taylor was a 2nd round pick of the Lightning, would be a smart signing for the Rangers, and projects as a consistent AHL defenseman from the get go, with the talent level to potentially be a top six NHL defenseman.
He attended the Kings prospect development camp last summer.
Sebastian Aho, D, Skelleftea AIK (44GP, 10G 19A 29P)
Not related to the Hurricanes Sebastian Aho from Finland, the Swedish defenseman Sebastian Aho has been steadily improving each season at the highest level of hockey in Sweden, and deserves an NHL contract.
The undrafted offensive defenseman leads the SHL in points among his position and, due to his dominance amongst men at just 21 years old, will garner a lot of attention from teams that need young mobile defenseman. The Rangers fall right into that category, and would be silly not to offer him an entry level contract.
With players like these, it isn’t expected of them to be the answer to all the team’s problems, or even to develop into NHL talents. These signings are incredibly low risk with the possibility of high reward. On top of that, these players are more valuable than employing Tanner Glass in either the NHL or the AHL. The New York Rangers would be smart to reach into these markets again as much as possible.
Last edited by Mr.Wiskers; 02-24-2017 at 07:35 PM.
In what's been described as a relatively thin year for U.S. college free agents, (The) Ohio State University defenceman Josh Healey is making something of a name for himself.
He’s a throwback blueliner, a big open-ice hitter of some renown.
"Old school – keep your head up when he's on the ice," one NHL executive said of the 22-year-old from Edmonton who has generated interest from almost every NHL club.
He's also caught the eye of college hockey officials.
Today, the Big Ten suspended Healey for two games for a hit midway through Saturday night's game against the University of Minnesota. Healey was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head.
Healey likely got the two-game suspension because he was previously suspended for one game for a hitting major against Wisconsin on Jan. 28. He also had a five-minute major for a hit in a game on Jan. 7, but that didn't result in a suspension.
"Hits too hard for college hockey," another NHL scout said. "His game will be better suited to pro."
Healey attended the 2016 summer development camps of both the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators. In 2015, he attended the Edmonton Oilers' summer development camp. Those clubs are among the large group of NHL teams that will be competing to sign Healey once OSU’s season is over.
Healey is listed at 6-feet and 196 pounds. Scouts say he's a decent first-pass defenceman but his forte is open-ice hitting and playing a hard, physical game. He projects as a depth or perhaps third-pairing type defenceman. He’s not a sure bet to play in the NHL, but certainly worth a shot.
"It's not a great year [for college free agents]," an NHL executive said. "[Healey] will get a contract. There's lots of interest in him."
Meanwhile, another free-agent defenceman attracting NHL interest is 25-year-old Czech Jakub Jerabek, who plays for Chekhov Vityaz in the KHL. Jerabek is free to come to the NHL once his KHL season is over.
The sub 6-footer (5-foot-10, 182 pounds) is a good skating and skilled offensive-minded blueliner. Multiple NHL teams have expressed interest in signing him.
Because he's 25, Jerabek can be signed to an entry-level contract, but only for one year.
The free agent college season is underway. Northwestern has been eliminated making Zach Aston-Reese and John Stevens free to sign. Aston-Reese already has Pitt, Ott, Mon. and Winn. Among others pursing him. Hope we are too. We have 5 roster spots available--the 50 contracts thing, so I hope we sign some people.
According to Elliotte Friedman, the Rangers are considered a favorite to land 22-year-old Russian defenseman Alexei Bereglazov. (Sportsnet)
Bereglazov went undrafted in 2012, is 6-4, 192 and has 1 goal and 18 assists this season for Mettallurg in the KHL.
He won Bronze with Russia at the 2014 World Juniors as a teammate of Pavel Buchnevich and was also a teammate of Buchnevich and Rangers prospect Igor Shesterkin in the Euro Hockey Tour last year.
In the preliminary Central Scouting Rankings for 2012, Bereglazov was ranked as the 34th Russian.
Bereglazov was ranked 54th by Central Scouting in their final rankings of European Skaters. (NHL.com)
He had 6 assists in 7 playoff games for Mettalurg this past season.
Adam Rotter: I'm in favor of the Rangers going after every young prospect/former high draft pick/European player, etc because while most won't pan out you can still add a roster player or in the best case one of them develops into a core player and you have Mats Zuccarello.
I'm sure the Rangers have seen Bereglazov a lot over the past few years with all the time they spent watching Buchnevich as well as top goalie prospect Igor Shesterkin play in the KHL. He's a young player, has size and if they can sign him, let him adjust in Hartford for some time and then see if he can be an NHL player. There is no risk involved other than using one of their 50 contract slots, many of which are designated for prospects like him.
Report: Rangers sign prospect Tim Gettinger to Entry Level Contract
The Rangers have reportedly signed prospect Tim Gettinger to an entry level contract. (Renaud Lavoie)
Gettinger was the Rangers 5th round pick last June and has 30 goals and 22 assists this season for Sault St. Marie.
He is 6-6, 220 and was ranked 9th by The Hockey News Future Watch that wrote, "Towering winger from Ohio is a good net-front presence. Having breakout season."
From the Rangers Prospect Report on March 13, "Gettinger registered three points (two goals, one assist) and a plus-three rating in three games last week. The Rangers' fifth round pick (141st overall) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft recorded two points (one goal, one assist), including his 30th goal of the season, on Mar. 12 at Sudbury. Gettinger has recorded a point in seven of the last nine games, tallying 12 points (seven goals, five assists) over the span. Gettinger has established OHL career-highs in goals (30) and points (52) this season, and he has tied his OHL career-high in assists in 2016-17 (22). In addition, he ranks third on the Greyhounds in goals and is tied for fourth on the team in plus/minus rating (plus-24) this season."
This puts us at 47 contracts. So there's 3 more people we can sign.
Last edited by Mr.Wiskers; 03-15-2017 at 04:29 PM.
The Rangers have signed UFA goalie Chris Nell
Mar 23 | 2:17PM
The Rangers have signed UFA goaltender Chris Nell of Bowling Green State Univeristy.
Nell, 22, was undrafted and went 17-14-2 this past season for BGSU with a 2.15 GAA and .916 save percentage.
From the Rangers release, "Over his final eight appearances of the season, Nell posted a 7-1-0 record, along with a 1.26 GAA, a .957 SV%, and 3 SO, and he registered three consecutive shutouts from Feb. 11 vs. Mercyhurst to Feb. 25 vs. Alabama-Huntsville. He was named the NCAA's First Star of the Week, as well as the WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, for the week ending on Feb. 26, as he stopped all 71 shots he faced in two appearances."
In his college career he went 41-29-10 with a GAA of 2.07, 11 shutouts and a save percentage of .922.