Ramblings – The 10 Best Undrafted Free Agent Signings of the Past Month (Apr 20)
Last week I gave my prediction of how things will go for the NHL. You can find that here.
Also last week I listed my Top 10 signings of drafted prospects of the highest fantasy interest. This week, I will look at the undrafted prospects who were signed and are of interest in fantasy leagues.
NHL teams are getting much better at drafting. And what's more – they are getting much better at developing. They have an entire army of people dedicated to walking their prospects through every step of life, from health to fitness to finance to how to handle the media. Practices and drills have been honed to near-perfection. So once a player is drafted, he is thrust into an environment and situation where he can best reach his potential. An undrafted player may initially have the potential to be better players – but look at the mountain they need to climb just to keep up with their drafted peers! What I'm saying is, you aren't going to find as many undrafted players becoming stars as you once did. I feel strongly about this when it comes to college hockey. There may still be the odd gem coming out of Europe, and Artemi Panarin proved that just five years ago. But in college? The days of the undrafted star might be done. Torey Krug might be the last.
Look at last year's crop. At the time, Max Veronneau was the best of them. What's he done? The top undrafted players in the league now besides Panarin, Krug and Sergei Bobrovsky are Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Iafallo and Tyler Johnson. Neil Pionk is coming off a great year and Nate Schmidt is having himself a solid career. Mats Zuccarello has had himself a really nice career with several seasons considered fantasy-worthy, and Frank Vatrano could still yet become something decent. But that's it. And Iafallo and Vatrano are the only relatively new ones.
Will there ever again be an undrafted player come out of the NCAA and score 65 points in the NHL? Marchessault and Johnson were signed out of junior (both by Tampa Bay – well done). What are we looking at – every five years 'maybe' you get one undrafted college player who reaches the 55-point mark? And every five years 'maybe' you get one undrafted European player who reaches 65? After Panarin, I suppose if a player like Ilya Mikheyev gets there then the latter holds true. The point is, keep your hopes in check. Besides Veronneau we've had Drake Caggiula, Greg Carey, Daniel Brickley, Zach Aston-Reese, Mike Vecchione and others. This is more of a crapshoot then the drafted players so if you roll the dice on one – do your homework and make sure it is the very best of them, so at least your odds are little better.
I count 24 undrafted players who were signed (eight of them were profiled in the Midseason Guide). Teams are only allowed 50 contracts, so signing a player is still kind of a big deal despite what I wrote above. But teams also need quality depth in the AHL, or they don't mind taking a chance for one or two years to see if they can get a serviceable NHL player out of it. It's a cheap solution, because they're not investing six years of developing the guy – he's mostly developed already, and just needs a bit of smoothing around the edges. I'll be looking at not just overall talent, but what the scouts have to say as well as the opportunity they have on the franchise they signed with. If I were to rank the player types I favor when it comes to undrafted prospects, this is how I would do it…
- A European skater. Panarin is still pretty fresh, and Mikheyev looks good too. So I'm still pretty open-minded about the idea of potential undrafted fantasy studs coming from Europe.
- A junior skater. Forward or defenseman, I don't count out a junior player who gets signed by an NHL team after not being drafted. Especially if he's still only 19. Less so if he's 20 or 21 and tearing up the CHL.
- A college defenseman. There is a big gap between 2 and 3 here, but I can see once every several years a defenseman get signed out of college and putting up points.
- A European goaltender. At this point I pretty much assume that a European goaltender that gets signed has a high chance of making the NHL, but a low chance of becoming a starter. A fringe-type of backup-slash-AHL starter.
- A college forward. What I'm seeing over the last decade is a whole host of role-players getting signed. Even Iafallo is a role player, who has improved enough to click with Anze Kopitar and thus boost his points. I put Vatrano in Iafallo's category too. But you will never find a Panarin-caliber guy coming out of college and not drafted. I try not to speak in absolutes, but I can't help it here – you'll never find a Panarin in the NCAA.
Anyway, without further ado, the 10 most interesting players selected out of the aforementioned 24:
10. Cam Lee, D, Pittsburgh – Lee is a solid puck-mover from Western Michigan University. He picked up 55 assists over his last 99 NCAA games. I like the fit here because Justin Schultz will be gone so maybe after a year in the AHL Lee can make his mark with the Penguins. How well he transitions to the AHL will determine future value. Ethan Prow is a defenseman who put up similar college numbers and the Penguins signed him a few years ago. But by the time Prow translated those numbers into the AHL he was 26 – and not many teams give 26-year-olds a chance. Lee would need to have a big season for Wilkes-Barre right away.
9. Patrick Khodorenko, C, NY Rangers – A solid prospect, Khodorenko put up middling numbers (around a point-per-game) for Michigan State. But I like him because he's young – still only 21. So there's untapped offensive potential. What I don't like is that he's on the Rangers. The top six seems to be spoken for, so he' tops out as a third liner.
8. Jake Christiansen, D, Columbus – The 20-year-old posted 50 points in 38 games in the WHL as a defenseman. He will get a couple of AHL seasons in to show what he can do, and by then the makeup of the Columbus defense could be quite different. His transition to the pro game next year will be a key indicator, and I think the fact that he got in nine games for AHL's Stockton before the shutdown will help in that transition.
7. Bryce Kindopp, RW, Anaheim – Another undrafted Everett Silvertips player (along with Christiansen) is Kindopp, who posted 74 points in 63 games as team captain. Normally I don't put stock in production at 20 years old in junior hockey – and I still don't. But Anaheim is the best fit for a young, undrafted winger. Lots of roster spots that aren't spoken for, and still plenty of time to develop.
6. Marc Michaelis, LW, Vancouver – The 24-year-old posted gaudy numbers in his senior year (44 points in 31 games for Minnesota State University (Mankato). He projects to be a possible Drake Caggiula – minus the injuries. And that wouldn't be too bad, as it would mean good hits and 40 points. It's also good that you won't have to wait on him for too long, as he's close to NHL-ready.
5. Drew O'Connor, LW, Pittsburgh – The Penguins signed another young player out of college. I like that better. When a team gets a player at 21 years of age he can still be further developed. Signing 24-year-olds out of college to me means lower upside. O'Connor has many of the same qualities as Zach Aston-Reese. And ZAR is a good player who could have been so much better had he not been getting injured every five minutes. Maybe O'Connor can avoid the same injury bug and thus meet that potential for points, PIM and Hits.
4. Alexander Barabanov, RW, Toronto – Not great upside here, but I like him because he's as close to being an NHL lock as you can get without actually being one. His upside is probably third line, with possibly 35 points, 50 PIM, 150 Hits if he can hang onto regular ice time.
3. Connor Mackey, D, Calgary – I see the 23-year-old as a second pairing guy who could possibly make the team right away, or perhaps midseason. Potentially he could be a 30-point defenseman with 80 PIM.
2. Jack Ahcan, D, Boston – Did the Bruins find another Torey Krug? The 5-8 rearguard posted 59 points in his last 72 NCAA games for St. Cloud State and was team captain in his senior year. He doesn't turn 23 until next month, either, so a season in the AHL won't kill him. His odds obviously shoot upward if Krug signs elsewhere as a UFA.
1. Brinson Pasichnuk, D, San Jose – The biggest and best NCAA free agent signee also chose a great landing spot. Pasichnuk had 37 points in 36 games last season for Arizona State and he served as team captain for two years, alternate captain for one. I don't see that happen very often, and it speaks to character. He's only 22 and he joins an organization that has Ryan Merkley in terms of future offensive defensemen in the system. He'll enter his prime in three or four years, which times really nicely with everything the Sharks have going (i.e. Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson).
I will also add that Austin Rueschhoff on the Rangers is massive (6-7, 230 pounds) and if he ever gets into the NHL this Hits and PIM potential is pretty nice. Ditto for Nick Wolff (6-5, 229) for Boston.
Alec Rauhauser is an honorable mention here. Very good, consistent production for a defenseman and the fact that he was team captain speaks to his leadership and work ethic. But signing with Florida is tough because to me they have three defensemen firmly entrenched in PP consideration. I didn't like his decision there, so he misses my list. He'll see some NHL games, but won't be of fantasy help. And I think Mitchell Chaffee was a great signing by the Wild and he is bound for some NHL games. But I really think he tops out at 30 points. He could be a checking-line force though.
If you missed last week (and why would you? I'm here every Monday with non-covid, fantasy hockey gold!) – I mentioned that the Fantasy Prospects Report for 2020 and all of the packs, will be up for pre-sale later than the usual May 1. I will announce on May 1 when I will release the Guides and start selling the packs, but I'm thinking mid-June for pre-sales and mid-July for the FPR release. Just keep checking in or follow me on Twitter.
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