Monday Musings: Are NCAA free agents overrated?

“NCAA free agents have become the most overrated and over-hyped asset in hockey,” an NHL scout said to me at the 2016 draft over breakfast.

“I’m not saying they aren’t good players, but teams treat them like they are going to be stars. They get into bidding wars and pay them like they are top-three draft picks. It’s crazy,” he said.

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Jimmy Vesey is officially a free agent tomorrow and many teams want to sign the 23-year-old. He went undrafted in 2011, and then the Predators selected him 66th overall in 2012. He has spent the past four seasons honing his skills with Harvard, but he elected not to sign with the Predators. They traded his rights to the Buffalo Sabres on June 20th for the 76th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

The Sabres have yet to sign him, and starting at 10 p.m MDT tonight the Maple Leafs, Rangers, Devils, Blackhawks and Bruins (the rumoured teams with the best chance so sign him) will be able to “officially” talk to him about a contract.

How good is he, and is he worth the courtship?

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Time will tell if he’s worth it, but when you look at Kevin Hayes, Justin Schultz and Mike Reilly — recent NCAA players who elected not to sign with the team who drafted them and became UFAs — it might be wise to temper your expectations.

Vesey is a winger, and it is easier to break into the NHL there than on the blueline like Schultz and Reilly. I’d make a friendly wager he’ll be better than Hayes, but the fun question is how good will he be in the NHL?

Vesey is a late bloomer. He was bypassed in his first draft year before the Preds took him in 2012. He’s spent four years at Harvard and his first two were very average, before he exploded in seasons three and four.

year  GP G A PTS
2013 27 11 7 18
2014 31 13 9 22
2015 37 32 26 58
2016 33 24 22 46

Points totals are just one aspect of the game, of course, but if you expect him to be a top-six forward in the NHL he better have good numbers in NCAA, and he did. He might become the first one to live up to all the hype.



TSN’s Craig Button shared his scouting report on Vesey.

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  • He’s a very well rounded player. He plays physical, not in the way Milan Lucic does, but he’s good in body-on-body battles, good along the boards and physically he can make space for himself on the ice.
  • A really good skater. He has good hands. He is both a playmaker and a shooter. He can score in tight and he’s a very good passer under sticks and through skates.
  • He’s really smart, I think that’s his best attribute. He adapts to circumstances on the ice. He knows when to pass, and where to go to receive a pass. His “inter play” with others and in the game is very good.
  • He’s not flashy, but he has tremendous substance to his game. He’s a really solid all-around player. He is smart enough so he’ll be able to play with highly skilled players. He’ll give as much as he takes from them when he plays with them.
  • I think he can come right in and be a contributor to an NHL team.

Button really likes Vesey, but he cautioned anyone who is expecting massive production right away. The Artemri Panarin’s of the NHL world are rare.



  • After watching Panarin’s success in Chicago and the opportunity head coach Joel Quennevill gave him, I could see Vesey leaning towards the Blackhawks. He could play with Toews, while Panarin stays with Kane. That could be a great landing spot for Vesey.
  • Jack Eichel and Vesey are very close, and even though the Sabres haven’t signed him yet, once he talks to other teams he might think Buffalo is still the best fit. Keep in mind, Steven Stamkos (I’m not comparing Vesey to Stamkos as a player, FYI, just their UFA situations) spoke to other teams, and still signed with Tampa. Vesey might just want to hear the pitches of the other organizations. A well-placed source told me Stamkos’ opinion on Toronto changed after he met with them.
  • It will be intriguing to watch Vesey’s success. If he has instant success, I believe it will only ramp up the over-hyping of NCAA UFAs by some NHL franchises. I think you will find some quality players via the NCAA, but according to many scouts I’ve spoken with it seems too many franchises end up chasing them with unrealistic expectations. I hope Vesey goes to an organization with a plan where he can succeed, and not be given too much responsibility too soon.
  • The Anaheim Ducks signed Antoine Vermette to a two-year deal today worth $1.75 million/year. That makes them better than they were yesterday, and makes the Pacific division even harder for the Oilers.
  • The Coyotes signed Radim Vrbata to a one-year deal with a $1 million base, but with some performance bonuses as well. Vrbata is 35 years old and is eligible for a bonus-laden contract, in case you are wondering. The Coyotes still haven’t re-signed Tobias Reider, so maybe Vrbata gives them some depth, but he also gives them another veteran to help with a very young group of forwards. Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak will push for a roster spot in training camp. If the Oilers are going to make the playoffs they will have to be better than the Coyotes. I don’t see both of them making it, and signing a 13-goal scorer last year, and a 63-point player two years ago for $1 million is a good value bet by them.
  • I spoke with Kevin Woodley of In Goal Magazine today and he was on the ice with five NHL goalies. “None of them have the new gear, none have ordered it and they think they won’t have to,” said Woodley. It seems there is a chance the new slim line pants could still be in place before the start of the season, but not the chest protectors and arms. This will not look good on the NHL.

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    • deferoiler

      Cagguila> Vessey. In all fairness though they both seem like similar players. Both have a scoring touch and can play gritty in depth roles. I think Vessey is leaning towards Chicago. I was kind of mad that he wouldn’t consider the oilers but then I realized there is no room for him and we already signed Cagguila who might have a higher ceiling and can also play center. That and the fact that eastern media has hyped up Vessey mainly cause of his “possible” connection to Toronto leaves me to believe we aren’t missing out on that much.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      too bad the Oilers won’t see the value in adding another veteran player up front like Vermette or Vrbata. both easily put Anton Lander in the AHL where he belongs. Anton, if not traded sometime this coming season, will not be re-signed by the Oilers.

      • Can we do better than Schultz?

        He was an incredible talent, and when he joined the OKC Barons, he tore up the AHL. He looked better than Hall and Ebs, who were still cheating for offense.

        He did so well that he lead in AHL scoring for at least a month (maybe two? I forget) after he left it.

        If it wasn’t for McDavid I don’t think we’ll attract another player like him. So I’m very skeptical than we can do better than Schultz.

        Now if you’re speaking to how he was developed in the NHL, that’s another issue entirely.

        Though one could argue, if the Oilers break down highly skilled young players, what’s the point in signing NCAA talent?

        • Shredder

          Fair enough, but my point was that NCAA haven’t given us much to work with. Sure Schultz ripped up the AHL, and coaching needs to take some blame for the lack of progress, but he was never really all that good. Maybe the NCAA can provide a better player, but it needs to prove itself before I believe in it.

    • Roberto

      If things do all go right I am cautiously excited about this team. I think Larsson is the real deal, more concerned about Klef bouncing back from weird injuries. I think Davidson is legit top 4, and Nurse will be a stud, hopefully now is the time it all comes toghether. Sekera and Fayne are a 4-5 NHL D men at the very least I think. We finally have a good starting goalie who can steal us some games. We have maybe the best player in the world this year, as well as a pretty decent surrounding group, with a very high ceiling, as well as more grinders/toughness with the addition of Maroon Lucic and an in shape Kassian.

      It all comes down our young D men turning the corner and changing from prospects to Studs, and I really hope 1) it happens and 2) it’s this year. I remember a few years ago I hadn’t really heard of Petriangelo or Shattenkirk and all of a sudden they took off. It would be nice if Nurse, Davidson, Larsson, and Klef become even close to that. It’s about time all of our suffering ended, and I am finally optimistic that this could be the year.

    • Hemmercules

      In my opinion, Chia isn’t expecting to make the playoffs or even really trying overly hard to either. He see’s the west for what it is and probably realises that the playoffs are such a long shot why bother signing these left over free agents and just go with what he has.

      There is no chance the blue line stays healthy the entire season. Losing 1 or 2 guys for longer than a couple weeks from an already weak defence will sink them.

      Unless a few guys make major strides this season I can’t see them above 10th in the west.

      • Shredder

        We have more LD than the rest of the league combined, so we do have depth…just on one side though and really in the 5/6 role. So to qualify your comments, if any 2 of Larsson/Klefbom/Sekera get injured for any length of time you could be right. But if Nurse goes down, it may not be as big a deal.

        • Hemmercules

          Figured my comment would be trashed pretty hard. But yes, I should have clarified, If they lose any of the top 4 on defence for an extended period it will be trouble. Klef hasnt played an NHL game since December, will Larsson fit in immediately and make an impact?? Will Davidson and Nurse take a step forward??

          Those are just the Questions on defence. Will Drai take a step forward too?? Can Nuge, Ebs and McD stay healthy the majority of the season?? Will adding Lucic and dithcing Hall be enough of an offset to get more wins??

          I’m not feeling super confident about the backup goaltending situation either. Neither guy appears to be an NHL calibre goalie.

          Way too many question marks for me to be confident in making the playoffs. If Drai, Nurse and Davidson take a step forward, the majority of the team stays healthy and Talbot can handle a ton of games and still play well they may be fighting for a playoff spot. I’m hoping all those things happen, based on past experience I dont see it.

      • deferoiler

        I was going to downgrade this but it’s honestly the truth. We don’t have a legit nhl guy we can call up and injuries have always cursed us. One of klefbom and Larsson go down it will be hard ground to make up, especially in the west.

    • Roberto

      Jultz made the right call signing in Edmonton. He made Millions of Dollars and carved out an NHL career based on NCAA numbers and 30 games in the AHL. MacT must have made him promises to play top PP minutes etc, and unfortunately for us, Mac T kept his promises. Smart by Jultz, but I still wonder how the heck that happened, I take one look at it and say well would ya look at that.

    • Boom or Bust

      Making the playoffs would be sweet but honestly I just want to see the team progress this year. I want to watch GOOD hockey. I want to see them play with some drive and grit. I’m tired of tuning in and watching them look like they would have trouble against AHL teams. Cut down on pathetic losses. Be harder to play against and finish higher up in the standings then bottom five. That really isn’t too much to ask for….

    • fisherprice

      I think Vesey will be a decent NHLer but I also think the hype train is out of control with him. Yes, he put up good numbers in the NCAA and won the Hobey Baker award – he’s also 23 years old and several years older than a lot of the competition. History tells us most NHL forwards are at their scoring peak from about ages 23-27. Most comparables have him being a 40 point guy, maybe 50 at best. So, a decent middle six forward. Yet, he’s being courted like a star forward. It’s a little silly.

    • TKB2677

      I wonder how much of Panarin’s success had to do with being on a line with Kane? Kane coming off his rape allegations had a huge career year. His previous high in goals was 30 – the 2009-2010 season, he had 46 last season. His previous high in points 2009-2010 season – he had 106 points. If you look at his career numbers, he’s a player that hovers near 30 goals and mid 70’s to low 80’s in points. So he was probably 30+ pts higher than his typical.

      It wouldn’t shock me if Kane, a year removed from his legal issues and no longer having something to prove, slides back into his normal numbers. You have to think that Panarin will see his numbers drop quite a bit as well. I’m sure Panarin helped Kane a bit but I think Kane had the way bigger impact on Panarin than vice versa.

    • Spaceman Spiff

      The problem is – it all started with Adam Oates. He fell through the cracks, got signed by Detroit, blooms late and next thing you know, he ends up as Brett Hull’s set-up man and then Cam Neely’s.

      For the last 25 years, teams have been scouring NCAA free agents looking for the next Oates. But he was the exception, not the rule.

      There’s a reason why the teams that originally drafted these guys didn’t sign them. It is because, more of than not, they’re simply not NHL calibre. They might be close (like Schultz, who was clearly too good for the AHL), or they might not be.

      The truth (probably) is, these hotshot NCAA drafted-and-unsigned free agents aren’t that much different than the (also-unsigned) players you see graduate out of Canadian university hockey.

      The only real difference is the CIS guys haven’t been drafted at all; scouts had a look at them when they were in major-junior or tier-2 and passed. In many cases, we’re talking point-a-game players in the OHL, WHL or the Q. Several end up lighting it up for three or four years in the CIS and, if they turn pro, they’re doing it in the AHL or over in Europe. Sometimes, they’re not far from being NHLers – and there’s probably only one key element holding them back, usually speed or hands.

      That’ll be the case with Vesey. Whichever team signs him will discover the “key element” holding them back. With Justin Schultz, it was a fundamental inability to retain anything coaches told him about coverage in his own end and shooting/passing the puck in the offensive zone. He wasn’t “programmable,” tools aside.

      Nothing wrong with any of that. Just how it works out. Ask the Canadian university guys – they learned that lesson long ago.

      • Roberto

        TO me, Jultz must have been put in positions to succeed in College and the short stint in the AHL. I would actually like to see how he would do on the Bears (I don’t think he would light it up if treated as a equal by coaches). His Jr numbers weren’t great…. It would be interesting to see. Hard to look past how good he was for 30 AHL games with Ebs, NUge and Hall…. but also hard to overlook just how awful he was for 3 years in the NHL.

      • Oil drop

        The talent of ncca gas intesting. However, the charter of people who choose not to sign with the team that drafted them over a couple hundred thousand. Rookie max vrs league minimum is alarming.

        The second a player thinks he is better than the team that drafted him points to alarm bells.

        Sxhultz is and was a good talent. He ripped up the ahl. Once entering the nhl. The oilers did not develop him properly. How much of that was jultz not being willing to learn and be taught. 50 50 maybe idk.

        This is a guy who as a young adult thought he knew better than stanley cup contenders the ducks. This is a guy who felt he was an exception and did not need to follow the traditional path.

        Now of he was an oilers draft pick I might understand if he choose to get out as the oilers have a poor development history but Schultz left a strong developmental team.

        Vessel same thing. The preds develop players very well. Alarm bells.

        Lindross was a very good player but the whole leagues fan base crapped on him for rejecting Quebec. Why are fans so willing to open arms for ncaa mercinaries who are above the rules and know better than nhl teams who have a staff of people to make the transition to nhl as possible as can be. In fact the scouts jobs may depend on players success.

    • vetinari

      UFAs make GMs do stupid things because they cost nothing to acquire, except money.

      Regular UFAs are at least 26-27 years of age and have an established NHL track record before you throw money at them and you generally know what you are getting (such as Lucic).

      NCAA UFAs are different because they are only 23-24 years of age and are capped on their initial contract but have no NHL experience to speak of– yet GMs still fall over themselves to offer them maximum salary with maximum playing time.

      With 31 teams by next year, there will always be at least one team that will lose its head and offer stupid money and a guarantee of prime minutes to an unproven rookie on wishes and promises.

      The NCAA is development league, like any other, and GMs need to realize that these players need development time in the AHL before getting their shot at the NHL and that they shouldn’t promise them a ticket on the opening night roster.

    • Sorensenator

      Unless they are Johnny hockey or a Dekeyser then yes, over rated.

      I am willing to bet Schultz would have turned out completely different had he not been thrown in into top pairing minutes right off the bat. But when you dominate the AHL like he did, how can you not?

    • OilCan2

      There may only be a couple of decent college signings per year league wide.

      The Drake could do very well adding some speed and scoring on the third line.

      McDavid has given us the lock on Sekera, Lucic and the Drake.

    • Roberto

      @Gregor, how much better of a league do you think Div 1 NCAA is than CIS, specifically CIS west with teams like U of A and U of S etc.? I don’t think the difference is huge, minus a few top end guys, heck – didn’t NAIT (ACAC) beat a few Div 1 teams this year?

      • Jason Gregor

        Not much difference at all. CIS is older players usually 21-25 so that is part of it.

        NCAA does have many draft picks, where as CIS usually has a few, but they are guys were weren’t signed after being drafted.

        Overall I think NCAA has a few better high-end players, Gaudreau recently for example, but I think NHL looks at NCAA as still potential, where CIS are guys that were scouted for many years in CHL and scouts won’t change opinion on.

        We do see a few CIS free agents who come to NHL, just like we see a few NCAA free agents, who weren’t drafted, make it, but it seems NCAA undrafted free agents get a look more often, mainly due to them being 21 when they graduate where CIS players are 24 and 25.

        • Cowbell_Feva

          I recall Gregor interviewing the Golden Bears head coach Serge (can’t recall his last name) on his radio show last winter.

          I believe the Bears went down and played some exhibition games against Arizona State University (I think). At any rate, the Bears won one, lost one (that they should have won), and the 3rd game went to a shootout. Fairly closely matched obviously. CIS has some damn good players.

          I believe Joel Ward played CIS out east before making it to the show…..

      • Jason Gregor

        They pay them the max bonuses, which are usually only reserved for top-two or three picks.

        Schultz entry level contract was $3.775, which is like a top-three pick.

        • Spaceman Spiff

          Yes, and the other way they “bid” is by making promises on what role they’ll play on the team, ice-time, special teams, etc.

          Truth be told – that’s how the Oilers landed Schultz in the first place. There were likely plenty of teams willing to pay his dollar figure, but few (or none) others who were willing to offer him a first- or second-pairing role. The opportunity to play with (what were at the time) young up-and-comes like Hall, Eberle and Nuge probably also played a part, but the biggest two lures the Oilers used to sign him were the max-money and the promise that he’d likely never have to ride a bus in the AHL (and he wouldn’t have, if not for the lockout).

      • Hmmm, not quite: Cubs: Jack Arrieta/TCU/ 2016: 14-5/ Totals: 70-43…Kris Bryant/San Diego/ 2016: HR 28 RBI 73…Justin Grimm/Georgia/….That is just the Chicago Cubs and these players are making a difference. In Fact, the Cubs love drafting College Players (especially those who can hit) over High School Prospects….for example: Ian Happ/OF/Cincinnati, Donnie Dewees/OF/North Florida, Ryan Kellogg/SP/Arizona State…In the first 5 Rounds, they picked 3 College players. This is just a small sample, from one draft, from one Club. However, UFA College Hockey Players? Bigger Gamble.

      • Roberto

        Most CIS players are ex WHL players. In the case of the Bears, good ones. The bears would dominate a WHL team if they played. NCAA teams are considered higher level than the Bears, but I think overall they’d be fairly close, with the bears not having top end skilled guys ex. Eichel. (NCAA is usually younger, as CIS players play Jr. until 20). McDavid was way better than the Bears in Oilers rookie game, but he was also way better than pretty much everyone in the NHL so it’s not surprising.

    • Free Bird

      I think it’s a worthwhile gamble for teams with cap space. If you could add another prospect to your team without giving up an asset or burning a draft pick, wouldn’t you do it? Sure, it’ll cost you some cap space, but the rookie max on the ELC limits the cap hit, unlike veteran UFA’s in decline who can get paid a lot more. And on top of all that… when the ELC expires, the player becomes an RFA, so you still hold his rights and have some cost control. I wouldn’t do it every year, but if the right guy comes along then it’s worth taking a shot.