NCAA Signings: How Sanderson, Abruzzese, Harris, Fanti project in the NHL

North Dakota defenceman Jake Sanderson plays against Penn State during an NCAA college hockey game on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (John Amis/AP)

As winter turns to spring the traditional NCAA tournament season south of the border rolls along with teams vying for a National Championship.

This year’s version of the men’s hockey Frozen Four takes place in Boston from April 7– 9. Four traditional powerhouse programs (Michigan, Denver, Minnesota State and Minnesota) remain standing and one of those teams will win it all a little less than two weeks from now.

At the end of the tournament we will see some big names start to sign with the NHL teams that hold their rights.

I would expect to see Owen Power (Michigan, first overall pick of Buffalo’s in 2021) suiting up in a Sabres uniform come next fall.

What about Matty Beniers (Michigan, second overall pick of Seattle’s in 2021) and his 20 goals and 43 points in 36 games? Will he pull on a Kraken jersey in October and begin his NHL career?

Will Bobby Brink (Denver, 34th overall of Philadelphia’s in 2019) make his way east to the Flyers after his junior season in which he scored 56 points in 39 games?

Traditionally this is the time of year when NHL clubs are actively signing NCAA players they have selected in drafts gone by. Additionally, there is always heated competition to ink the most coveted college unrestricted free agents.

At the 2022 NHL trade deadline we saw a couple of high-end college prospects rights traded to the Arizona Coyotes.

Jack McBain was originally drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the third round of the 2018 draft. He informed the Wild that he had no interest in signing a contract with the team, so they were left with no choice but to try and recoup something for the asset. GM Bill Guerin and his staff did well. The return for McBain turned out to be a second-round pick that Arizona had acquired from Vancouver in the Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Conor Garland deal last summer.

Arizona also acquired the rights to Nathan Smith from the Winnipeg Jets for a fourth-round draft pick after the player informed Winnipeg he would not sign with the club.

These are a couple examples of the risks involved with selecting players out of college. These scenarios do not occur with every player, though, and most previously drafted college players chose to sign with the team that selected them.

Just this week we’ve seen a few NCAA signings from Canadian teams with the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs all signing these prospects out of the college ranks. Jake Sanderson is on his way to the Senators, Jordan Harris to the Canadiens and Nick Abruzzese to the Maple Leafs.

Here’s how those three players project and what they could bring immediately to the NHL.

JAKE SANDERSON, OTTAWA

Vitals: 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, left shot, D

NHL Draft: Ottawa Senators (Fifth overall, 2020)

I’m not sure I have enough room in this space to describe the kind of player the Senators are adding to their roster of talented young players.

Sanderson has the potential to be a as good, and possibly better, than Thomas Chabot. Ottawa has Chabot signed through the 2027-28 season with an AAV of $8 million, and now add another elite, franchise defenceman to their roster.

A complete player. He has the fitness and skill to log over 25 minutes per game in all situations. People who aren’t familiar with him will very quickly recognize his outstanding skating ability. He is quick, agile, and fast in transition. Eluding pressure is not an issue for Jake. He can spin off forecheckers and lead the rush on his own, or distribute and join as an added layer.

He will produce on the power play and also be called upon in key defensive zone scenarios. He also possesses a sneaky physical element. Opponents best not sleep on him when entering his lane.

All players experience growing pains entering the top league in the world, but especially defencemen. I expect his learning curve will not be a steep one. The Senators have to be ecstatic about his future.

Note: Sanderson is currently recovering from a hand injury that will keep him out of the lineup for now, but is not considered serious.

JORDAN HARRIS, MONTREAL

Vitals: 5-foot-11, 179 pounds, left shot, D

NHL Draft: Montreal Canadiens (Third round, 71st overall, 2018)

Every NHL team needs to hit on mid-round picks to fill out their organizational depth chart, and Harris is a player who has a chance to be an NHL regular (in time) as a third-round pick.

Harris was the captain at Northeastern. He bleeds character and gives nothing short of all he has every night.

He was used in all situations at the college level (upwards of 27 minutes a night), but he won’t be a candidate to run the PP for the Habs. Look for Harris to, eventually, become a two-way defenceman who can slot into the same kind of role that the recently departed Brett Kulak was playing.

On the PK he rotates well, gets in the shooting lane, and has an active stick.

He makes sound decisions with the puck and outlets responsibly. His jump to small area space is solid. He’s not exceptionally fast in open ice, so it will take him some time to adjust to the speed of the NHL game.

At his size, he will be challenged by some of the bigger bodies at the NHL level, too.

I wouldn’t bet against this kid, though. He’s going to give everything he’s got to become an NHL player.

NICK ABRUZZESE, TORONTO

Vitals: 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, left shot forward

NHL Draft: Toronto Maple Leafs (Fourth round, 124th overall, 2019)

As previously described, it’s vital to have mid-round selections become part of your organizational depth. Abruzzese will get to be around the NHL team, and possibly get into game action, before eventually landing in the AHL with the Marlies. He needs more time to develop and add “pro strength” to his frame.

A leader at Harvard, he played heavy minutes at even strength and on the power play. Most of his goal scoring came with the extra man. Don’t look for Nick to contribute on the PK at the next level.

It’s my goal, in this forum, to be open and honest with my player evaluations. In saying that, this is a player who I don’t project to move the needle immediately at the NHL level.

A good skater, but not a burner in open ice. He has a small/light frame and will be challenged by the size and weight of the pro game.

His element is his playmaking ability on the power play (equal parts shooter and distributor). He values open space and can pick opponents apart from the perimeter. Although he isn’t a “heavy” player along the boards he does have a quick stick and will make positive small area plays.

Abruzzese isn’t a sure thing. He needs time to integrate at the pro level. Having said that, we are talking about a character individual and an organization that has the resources and development team to assist with his process. Time will tell.

RYAN FANTI, EDMONTON

Vitals: 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Goalie

NHL Draft: N/A (free agent signing)

The Oilers pick up a solid prospect between the pipes who is a bit more seasoned than other younger goalies entering systems around the league.

The 22-year-old Thunder Bay native is coming off an outstanding season at Minnesota-Duluth. His record (20-12-4) is easily trumped by his impressive stats line (1.83 GAA, .929 SV%).

A good-sized goalie who is active and athletic. His style reminds me of the Kings’ Jonathan Quick. Fanti gets low to the ice to make saves in tight. From distance he tracks the play very well and squares up.

He has quick pads and never quits on a puck. It is routine for him to make second and third stops if required. But, part of the reason he is tasked with making more than one save is his rebound control. This is an area that will need to improve at the pro level.

He plays the puck very well. Long range outlets come off his stick (when opponents are changing) with accuracy.

He’s headed to Bakersfield on an “ATO”. His two-year contract kicks in at the start of next season. Look for Fanti to challenge for a spot on the Oilers roster next fall. A really good signing for Edmonton.

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