You don’t always have to go to the NHL Draft to get useful pro players. Sometimes teams are able to find diamonds in the rough by signing players who were either never drafted at all, or who were, but never signed a contract with that NHL team.
In that spirit, this week’s CHL Power Rankings look at 10 players who were signed as free agents by NHL teams, and why they might prove to be a great under-the-radar pickup in the future.
10. Dereck Baribeau, Quebec Remparts (Minnesota Wild): Baribeau got into 16 games as a QMJHL rookie in 2015-16 and was able to put up a 10-3 record with a mediocre 3.44 GAA and .879 save percentage. He saw more work as a sophomore, but struggled on a weak Val d’Or squad. A mid-season trade to Quebec last year helped those numbers recover enough to earn an invite to Minnesota’s camp this past fall. Baribeau is a right catching keeper who fits the modern day mould of an NHL netminder, standing at 6-foot-6. He was ranked by NHL Central Scouting last year, but went undrafted. He is a project and not expected to grace the pro ranks for another two years.
9. Cameron Hebig, Regina Pats, (Edmonton Oilers): Hebig is an average-sized centre who mixes a relentless work ethic with a high level of skill. He’s strong on his skates, has great awareness and can stand his ground in front of the net. He flew under the radar starting his career with a Saskatoon team that was in a post-Memorial Cup rebuild, but Hebig’s points-per-game average has risen every year in the league. A mid-season trade to Memorial Cup host Regina allowed him to settle in as a secondary point producer as opposed to being the main go-to with the Blades. In the NHL he projects as a third-line player who can win faceoffs, play both ends responsibly and still give you some offensive upside.
8. Sam Miletic, Niagara IceDogs, (Pittsburgh Penguins): Miletic left the USHL to play for the London Knights in 2015-16 and had to earn his ice on a team that won the 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup. Typical to most offensively gifted players who have come through London, he has experienced a steady developmental curve. He’s a playmaking winger who can score and give you some valuable minutes on the power play. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds he has enough size to get in the corners and strip pucks. He is a good puck protector whose production increased after being traded to Niagara this season. Asked to play a more prominent role on both offence and with his leadership, he’s provided both to the Niagara lineup.
7. Hayden Verbeek, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, (Montreal Canadiens): Verbeek had a breakout season, scoring 30 goals and 61 points, both career highs. He was a major asset on a deep Sault Ste. Marie team, showing versatility by playing up and down the lineup and being effective in the faceoff circle. Without a doubt his greatest asset is his never-ending motor. Verbeek is a tireless worker, a quick and agile skater who uses his speed to get in on the forecheck equally as well as he uses it on the back track. He’s difficult to play against and is constantly in the opponent’s kitchen. He is the nephew of former NHLer Pat and his style of play resembles that of current Hab Brendan Gallagher.
6. Glenn Gawdin, Swift Current Broncos, (Calgary Flames): Selected by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft, Gawdin was never signed by the team and later became a free agent. His numbers jumped incredibly from 26-33-59 in 2016-17 to 56-69-125 this season, which was good enough for second spot in the WHL points race. Gawdin has worn the ‘C’ for coach Manny Viveiros over the past two seasons, plays in every situation and is never afraid of going to the dirty areas. Gawdin has some physical edge to his game and finishes checks all over the ice. He’s the heart and soul of the Broncos.
5. Patrick Bajkov, Everett Silvertips, (Florida Panthers): Earlier this season, first-year Everett head coach Dennis Williams had high praise for Bajkov, calling him one of the most underrated players in the WHL. Apparently the Florida Panthers felt the same way. A sixth-round bantam pick, Bajkov has quietly seen steady year-over-year point total improvements. He’s unbelievably durable having missed just two games over the past four seasons with the Tips and he’s a skilled winger who likes to shoot. He has shown the ability to be effective on special teams, but is at his best producing in even strength situations.
4. Aaron Luchuk, Barrie Colts, (Ottawa Senators): Luchuk will always have a Memorial Cup game-winning goal on his resume, but he brings so much more to the table than that moment. He’s not particularly adept in any one area, but does everything rather well. His point production (50-65-115) this season is not a mirage as he emerged from the shadows of all the stars he’s played with in previous years. Luchuk has missed just one game in the past four seasons and has seen point total improvements in each of those seasons. He’s got great work ethic, excellent hockey IQ and produces well in big situations.
3. Brayden Burke, Moose Jaw Warriors, (Arizona Coyotes): Burke, a seventh-round WHL bantam pick has turned out to be one of the most proficient point getters in recent history. Over the course of 238 regular season games he has put up 338 points for a whopping 1.42 points/game. The playmaking winger got a bit of a bad rap after his exit out of Lethbridge. Since arriving in Moose Jaw, Burke’s production has increased to 1.61 points per game and he had points in 48 of 59 games, with 34 of those being multi-point efforts. He never went more than two straight games without recording a point.
2. Alex Barre-Boulet, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, (Tampa Bay Lightning): Tampa has a knack for finding top-notch junior producers who end up as solid NHLers. Think Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde. They’re hoping Barre-Boulet, who lead the QMJHL with 116 points, is next in that line. He used a 25-game point streak that started in October to put up 57 points and help him break away from the pack in the ‘Q’ scoring race. Barre-Boulet has been remarkably consistent with three straight 80-plus point seasons and has only missed nine games over the past four seasons. Having participated in two NHL camps the previous two seasons, he impressed enough this season to earn a contract. QMJHL scout Michel Boucher has a keen eye and the Lightning aren’t afraid to follow players well after their first year of draft eligibility.
1. Jayden Halbgewachs, Moose Jaw Warriors, (San Jose Sharks): Alex DeBrincat’s success in his rookie season in Chicago has given hope to all NHL teams. DeBrincat’s ability to score at a ridiculously high rate in the CHL has translated into him becoming a near 30-goal getter in the NHL. The Sharks are betting that Halbgewachs can become that guy after scoring 120 goals in his past 143 regular season games with Moose Jaw. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound snipe show mixes a wicked release with pin-point accuracy. He’s agile on his skates and has the goal-scorer’s knack to know where to go to get open on the ice.