When Blaine Byron became an unrestricted free agent earlier this month, he had everything a young hockey player could hope for.
The 22-year-old centre drew immediate interest from NHL teams after completing four years at the University of Maine. A couple even stepped up and offered him a two-year, entry-level contract.
And yet when it came time for Byron to put pen to paper, he chose instead to take the road less travelled – signing an American Hockey League deal with Springfield, the Florida Panthers‘ new affiliate.
“I’ve always kind of been told to go with your gut feeling with things,” Byron said in an interview. “It just felt right there.”
The way the native of Manotick, Ont., worked through his decision illuminates how much of a minefield free agency can be for players graduating from the NCAA. There are certainly misconceptions about the process – Columbus Blue Jackets winger Brandon Dubinsky recently called it a “joke” – especially when you consider how many players quickly meet a dead end.
For Byron, everything came down to mapping out the clearest possible route to the NHL.
He was a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013, but saw an uphill path to the show with them muddied further when they signed NCAA free agent Zach Aston-Reese in March. That helped push him to endure the long wait until Aug. 16, when he became free to sign with anyone he pleased.
Of course, there are some drawbacks to hitting the open market so late in the summer. A few interested teams found themselves hamstrung by the NHL’s 50-contract limit. Others were waiting to hear from fellow NCAA free agents Will Butcher (who signed with New Jersey) or Alex Kerfoot (who signed with Colorado) first.
The NHL offers Byron received came from teams with a surplus of talent at forward.
His agent, Murray Kuntz of the International Hockey Group, had done a thorough analysis of each organization’s depth from top to bottom. The more they weighed the decision the more Florida’s AHL proposal made sense.
“You could sign a NHL contract, but at the end of the day if you never play in the NHL, what’s that really worth?” said Kuntz.
“It just seemed like they were real interested in me and they liked my style of play and where they could see me playing in the future,” said Byron. “It just felt right. It felt like the best fit. I was just trying to follow my gut feeling. Sometimes you’re taking a little bit of a bet on yourself.”
After leading Maine with 18 goals and 41 points in 36 games last season, the offensively inclined left-shot forward landed with an organization in need of scoring help. It just wasn’t on the type of contract he originally envisioned.
However, Byron still maintains the ability to sign an entry-level deal at any point this year – albeit with the provision that the Panthers have the right to match within 24 hours.
“If he goes into (training) camp and performs the way we think he can, I mean it could be Florida or it could be a number of other teams,” said Kuntz.
Byron concedes that the free-agent process came with some stress and uncertainty. His college season ended in March – a full five months before he signed his first pro contract. There was also a considerable amount of time spent on the phone with Kuntz over 10 days in August.
When it was finally over late last week, he and mom Donna went out for a quiet dinner to celebrate.
In addition to the fit hockey-wise, the Panthers organization offered Byron added comfort because of a strong contingent of Maine alumnus: Springfield assistant coach Doug Janik, scouts Billy Ryan and Wes Clark and Florida associate coach Jack Capuano, among them.
Byron also works out with Panthers prospect MacKenzie Weegar in the Ottawa region.
“Just having those Maine connections and having so many guys pushing for you and supporting you is I think huge in this process,” he said. “To have someone in your corner at the end of the day.”
That’s ultimately what it’s about for most college free agents.
They are among the select few players who get to chart their own course to the NHL, but it’s critical they land in the right destination. Time is usually of the essence. And a certain amount of support within an organization is usually needed to prove you can play at the highest level.
“A lot of times guys can get buried,” said Kuntz. “It’s a small window, especially with Blaine being 22 now, it’s not like he’s a 19- or 20-year-old kid. I know it’s only a two-year difference, but again the window is so small in today’s NHL, you want to make sure you give yourselves as many options as you can.”
In this case, it meant passing up NHL offers to sign an AHL deal.
There were a lot of factors that went in to making that decision feel right for Byron, including some lessons he’s picked up from other pros he trains with in the summer.
“The one thing I’ve learned over the last couple years: It’s not how fast you get there it’s how long you stay there,” he said. “That’s how I’ve kind of looked at things. I don’t want to just make it there and have a cup of coffee.
“Hopefully, if I get my chance, I can make it there and have a reasonable impact and have a long career.”