Future Considerations: Looking at the top college free agents in 2024

Quinnipiac forward Jacob Quillan(16) skates during the second period of an NCAA hockey game against Boston College on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Hamden, Conn. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper)

Now that the NHL trade deadline has come and gone, teams will start to sign targeted college free agents. It’s a strategy that has some risk and reward to it.

Before I present some of the top names to watch this season, here is a look at some of the considerations that go into signing a college free agent:


• Any player who turns 25 in the first-year of his contract is only required to be signed for one year. This age cut-off applies to all free agents around the world, playing both pro and amateur, whose rights are not already owned by an NHL franchise.

• If a prospect is 21 years old, he would qualify for a three-year entry-level deal.

• If there’s a 23-year-old prospect floating around, the NHL club would have to offer the player a two-year entry-level contract.


• Generally, high level college free agents search for maximum dollars to sign with an NHL team. They usually sign for close to maximum cap dollars and bonuses that are outlined in the current CBA.


The exact definition is as follows:

“An Amateur Try-Out (ATO) contract in hockey typically lasts for a short-term period, allowing NHL teams to sign undrafted or unsigned players from the college or junior level to their AHL affiliate team. The exact duration of an ATO can vary, but it is usually for a few weeks or until the end of the AHL team’s regular season.”

The biggest benefit of signing a player to an ATO is the flexibility it provides. The prospect doesn’t burn a year off their official entry-level contract in the process, meaning a player who is signed to a one-year entry-level deal is likely to go to the AHL at the end of their college season on an ATO.


Here are some top college prospects I’m monitoring to turn pro and sign with an NHL club after their season concludes:

Collin Graf, F, Quinnipiac

Graf is a 6-foot, 180-pound, 21-year-old, right-shot forward who has averaged 1.59 points per game this season at Quinnipiac. That makes him the fifth-highest per game point producer in the entire NCAA, contributing 20 goals and 26 assists in 29 games.

There was interest in Graf last spring. He attended the Nashville Predators’ summer development camp in 2023. The previous summer he attended the Florida Panthers’ prospect camp in July.

The team that signs Graf will be hoping his offensive element translates to a top six role at the NHL level. He won’t come cheap, though. Graf will certainly sign for maximum dollars and his entry-level deal will be for a full three-year term.

Here’s a clip of what teams like about Collin Graf from his extra gear:

To his ability defensively on this play, which turned into offence.

Both clips display how Graf can be dangerous in transition with the puck on his stick. He has a great release from both sides of the ice, but his ability to shoot the puck in stride is a weapon he possesses from the strong side.

I especially appreciate his commitment defensively in the second clip. He stops on the puck to create a turnover before skating up ice for the tuck.

NHL Projection: Top 9 forward/potential top 6. Deployed at even strength and the power play

Jacob Quillan, F, Quinnipiac

Quillan, 22, is a 6-foot, 201-pound forward who also plays at Quinnipiac. He’s the type of prospect who projects to bring more than just offence. Quillan has produced 32 goals and 45 assists in his last 75 games played at the college level, but it’s his reliable three zone detail and compete that gives me confidence in his overall trajectory.

Quillan is deployed in all situations for Quinnipiac. He wins the majority of his draws, especially in high-leverage scenarios defensively, and works to keep opponents to the perimeter in his zone while creating turnovers.

I’m wondering if there’s a team in the league hoping to sign both Graf and Quillan as a tandem. Here’s a clip of some of the synergy they have working together offensively:

In another clip, we’ll show an example of the “extras” that Quillan himself brings as a prospect.

This face-off starts the second period versus Brown. Quinnipiac is down two men on the penalty kill. The draw spills to the wing and Brown gains possession. Notice how diligent Quillan is to make sure Brown doesn’t gain clean entry into his defensive zone. He kills off what was remaining of the 5-on-3 disadvantage on his own. The sequence ends up off-side and Quinnipiac has a chance to regroup for the remainder of the penalty-kill.

Scorers who can also check are very attractive prospects to sign as free agents. They can play up and down the lineup in a variety of roles. Quillan ticks off several boxes for me. He’s a player who will no doubt be signed by an NHL club.

NHL Projection: Bottom 6/match-up/checking/secondary scoring forward. Deployed at even strength and penalty kill

Justin Hryckowian, F, Northeastern

Hryckowian, 23, contributes in all areas of the game for Northeastern. The captain of the Huskies leads by example. He’s a 5-foot-10, 195-pound, left shot centre who wins over of 60 per cent of his face-offs. He’s involved in the hard areas of the ice extending plays. On the power play Hryckowian has the skill to make plays from the flank or the bumper position, but it’s his net front and crease area presence that leads to results. He’s committed defensively on and off the puck, and proven to be a reliable penalty killer at the college level.

Hryckowian is more quick than fast. He bursts to space ahead of opponents, but isn’t a pure burner in open ice. I appreciate his relentless compete and how he produces offence. He’s contributed 11 goals and 30 assists in 31 gams this season. Impressively, in his last 10-game segment he’s scored five goals and 13 assists.

Here’s a sequence that shows the subtle contribution Hryckowian makes in the offensive zone. He absorbs contact along the wall to extend the play before heading to the crease area. He then takes away the eyes of the goaltender before finding a loose puck in the paint for an open net goal.

NHL Projection: Bottom 6 forward. Secondary offence. Ability to be used in a variety of roles

T.J. Hughes, F, Michigan

Hughes, 22, has contributed four goals and 11 assists in his last 15-game segment. The 6-foot, 185-pound forward has produced 31 goals and 49 assists in his first two seasons (75 games played) with the Wolverines. Before arriving at Michigan, Hughes played for the Brooks Bandits in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he scored 66 goals and 61 assists in his final season (60 games).

The bulk of Hughes’ ice time comes at even strength and the power play. He occasionally has a limited role on the penalty kill, but it’s not his area of expertise. Hughes has fantastic puck touch and his element is clearly offence. He’s a solid skater with the quickness to escape checks in small areas and move the play to the net in the offensive zone.

Here’s a clip of Hughes extending a play in the offensive zone when his linemates are skating off for a change. Michigan State is asleep at the wheel and Hughes takes advantage. He wins a puck off the wall, walks to a high danger area to direct a shot on goal, extends the play a second time, and eventually ends up with the puck on his stick at the front of the net for the tuck.

NHL Projection: Top 9 forward. Better-than-secondary scoring is possible. Deployed at even strength and some power play.


Circling back to the beginning of my article, the Boston Bruins have signed defenceman Drew Bavaro to a one-year entry-level contract.

Bavaro had a breakout season offensively at Notre Dame this year (10G-10A). He’s a 6-foot-3, 202-pound, right shot defenceman who provides “range” in the defensive zone with his stature and long reach. His strong spatial awareness leads to sound positioning and the ability to interrupt plays. I appreciate his ability to time his gaps responsibly and chip pucks out of danger.

Bavaro’s skating on straight lines doesn’t concern me. He arrives on time in all three zones. His small area agility will need to go to another level for him to contain NHL players who are much quicker and stronger than college opponents.

Bavaro is 23 now, but his birthday is in June and he will be 24 years old when the season begins next fall. This is why the Bruins have signed him to a one-year entry level contract.

As I outlined at the top for these cases, Bavaro has reported to the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence on an ATO for the remainder of this season.

Bavaro will be challenged to make the Bruins out of camp next season. It’s likely it will take him an entire year at the AHL level to prove he is worth an extension beyond next season. His primary ice time will come at even strength and the penalty kill.

It’s a bonus to know Bavaro has the ability to occasionally join the rush as an extra layer of offence and provide a result like this:

NHL Projection: Recall two-way defenceman. Deployed at even strength and the PK.

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