‘Tis the season for college free agents.
Every spring we see a handful of NCAA players land with NHL teams and this year’s big college free agent is Jimmy Vesey after he decided not to sign with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him in 2012. It appears as though the coveted Harvard winger will join the Boston Bruins when he officially becomes available on Aug. 15.
With nearly four years of hindsight, it’s safe to say the 2012 NHL Draft was not great and some feel Vesey could eventually become one of the best players to emerge from that class. The fact Vesey’s in the spotlight following his impressive college career doesn’t mean success at the NHL level is guaranteed. But perhaps we can predict roughly how successful he’ll be — or at least get a better understanding of what our expectations of him should be — based on what other recent high-profile NCAA free agents have done in the NHL.
Vesey’s taking a somewhat unconventional route to the NHL, but by no means is he the first player to do so.
Just like Vesey is doing, Schultz chose not to begin his NHL career with the team that drafted him. The defenceman was selected in the second round (43rd overall) in 2008 by Anaheim but could never come to terms on a contract with the Ducks. In 2012, after he was ready to move on from the University of Wisconsin, Schultz became a free agent and signed with the Edmonton Oilers.
Similarly to the way Predators GM David Poile is upset with Vesey, Ducks GM Bob Murray didn't like how Schultz and his management team handled the situation.
"We received no phone call from Justin Schultz. I'm more confused more than ever," Murray told reporters on a conference call in 2012. "I'm confused because if he had it in his mind that he wanted to play in Canada then okay. I get that. I'm a Canadian too. But Eric Lindros, when he didn't want to play in Quebec, he went to his team that drafted him and said, 'No, I'm not going to play there.' He allowed that team to make a move to get something for him. He told us numerous times he wanted to play with us. He needed to just tell us the truth."
The offensive-minded blueliner began his first year as a pro with 27 points in 48 games with the Oilers plus an additional 48 points in 34 AHL games. However, his output has progressively gotten worse since his rookie campaign and the Oilers traded him to the Penguins for a third-round pick earlier this year.
While Vesey was the hottest commodity to come out of NCAA this year, Hayes had that distinction in 2014. The forward never came to terms with the Chicago Blackhawks after the team drafted him 24th overall in 2010. Hayes played four years at Boston College before electing to test free agency. He ended up signing with the New York Rangers where he has been a solid presence up front. The Blackhawks received a second-round compensatory pick in the 2015 draft, per article 8.3(b) in the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
"We offered Kevin what we believed was a generous and fair contract. Unfortunately, he felt it was in his best interests to become a free agent," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement.
The Preds and Bruins were two of the teams rumoured to have been interested in Hayes at the time.
Reilly also followed the path Schultz and Hayes chose to take. The defenceman was drafted in the fourth round (98th overall) by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2011 but signed with the Minnesota Wild in June 2015. The 22-year-old began the 2015-16 season with the Iowa Wild in the AHL but has been an everyday player for the NHL's Wild since early February.
The three players above were in the same situation as Vesey, but not all college free agents have to choose to abandon one organization to test the open market. Some never get drafted but still go on to enjoy NHL success after time in the NCAA.
The Maple Leafs dove into the college free agent waters in 2009 with two notable signings, one of which panned out. The team added Notre Dame's Christian Hanson and Bozak of the University of Denver. Hanson had a couple of decent seasons with the Marlies in the AHL but couldn't hack it in the NHL. Bozak, meanwhile, has developed into a quality NHLer. Bozak served as the team's de facto No. 1 centre when Phil Kessel was on the Leafs and he is currently the longest serving member of the team. The Leafs have shown to be a fan of adding talent from the NCAA. Last year they acquired the rights to Zach Hyman and signed Casey Bailey. They're reportedly interested in Vesey as well.
The power play quarterback was a revelation when he was thrust into the Bruins lineup during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite only having three regular-season games under his belt he shone and provided a spark in 15 post-season contests. The Michigan State alumnus has continued to impress at the NHL level and can be counted on for roughly 40 points per season.
Defencemen typically take longer to develop than forwards and that's what we've seen with DeKeyser. He was passed over by all 30 teams in the draft yet he showed vast improvements while at Western Michigan University. The Red Wings were a perfect fit for the Detroit native. The 26-year-old is in his third season as a top-four defenceman there.
Other recent undrafted free agents from the NCAA include: Matt Read, J.T. Brown, Justin Fontaine, Teddy Purcell, Ben Scrivens, Matt Irwin and Mark Letestu among many others.
Approximately 30 per cent of NHL players have spent time playing in the NCAA.