Are NCAA Free Agents Overvalued?

Is there an NHL asset more over-hyped than the NCAA free agent, specifically the undrafted NCAA free agent? Or are they excellent value contracts?

Over-hyped is vastly different than overvalued. It doesn’t mean they can’t help a team and it isn’t a shot at the players (most are very good), but more so how they are viewed by the NHL, some media and certain fans. Many NCAA free agents have proven they can play in the NHL right after being signed, but it is interesting to watch NHL teams go hard after them in free agency compared to other assets.

Jimmy Vesey was last summer’s big NCAA free agent. He wasn’t an undrafted NCAA free agent, however, he was drafted 66th overall in 2012 by the Nashville Predators. He was draft eligible in 2011 but wasn’t selected. He played four years at Harvard and elected not to sign with the Predators after his senior season and opted for free agency. Smart move by Vesey’s camp, considering how many NHL teams were willing to offer a max entry-level contract. But did his rookie season match the hype and maximum contract?

TSN’s Director of Scouting Craig Button, a former NHL GM and scout, and I had a discussion about NCAA free agents.

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Button explained their value:

“NCAA free agents’ entry-level deals are two-way and usually no more than two years. Economically that has benefits for a team. They are physically and mentally mature, for the most part, so they are better positioned to challenge for a spot on your team; which in a tight cap world has benefits for adding a player on an ELC. There is only seven rounds in the entry draft and most players selected are 18 years old and by 20, when they turn pro, many are not ready for the NHL and most have growing pains in the AHL. With most teams owning their affiliates, there is an economic and competitive benefit in having a player who is more ready to contribute at that level. Competitively, this helps your younger players by not being asked to do too much too soon. Economically, their AHL salaries are capped,” said Button.

There is a lot of value in signing a player who can contribute right away at the NHL level. It is difficult to find “value” contracts in the NHL.

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“With the two year ELC and their age, if they can’t make it to the NHL, your obligation ends quickly. Also, if you go this route, you are more certain about a player’s potential, or lack thereof, if you decide to let him go because of his age, maturity, etc. and feeling more confident about your assessment,” continued Button.

The latter comment makes a lot of sense in how teams assess an asset. Do NHL teams know more about a player at 24 than they do at 21? In most cases I’d say yes.

I won’t argue NCAA free agents have value, but it is likely the over-hyped factor that irks me. Teams chase after some NCAA free agents crazily, and some fans and some media get swept up in it. In Edmonton some have stated current NCAA free agent Spencer Foo should be the replacement for Jordan Eberle. That is a major reach. It is undervaluing how difficult it is to score 25 goals regularly in the NHL, and more importantly it places unrealistic expectations on Foo’s shoulders.

Button is correct in saying NCAA players are older, more mature and often more prepared to handle the rigors of the NHL, but they also sign two-year deals and if they perform well they get a massive jump in salary after two years instead of three. The economic advantage can change quickly for some teams.

Let’s look closer at Vesey’s rookie season.

He scored 16-11-27 in 80 games for the New York Rangers. He played 13:28/game. That is a good return on a $925,000 base contract. However, he was a team worst -13. Brandon Pirri, -8, and Matt Puempel, -6, were the other players who played more than 20 games and were a minus with the Rangers. He had a CF% of 44.5% and a FF% of 45.2%. Only Kevin Hayes was worse among Rangers forwards. Even being older and more mature, Vesey still had a difficult time adjusting to the NHL.

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A quick look at his 5×5 icetime vs. opponents and you’ll notice he wasn’t facing top lines, which should be expected for most rookies. Yet, the Rangers felt because of his success at Harvard that he was worthy of signing a contract similar to Auston Matthews.

Vesey signed a two-year deal, not the usual three, because he was 23 when he signed his contract. And he got a max bonus structure. I know the odds are extremely low he would have hit his “B” bonus of $2 million, like Matthews, but Patrik Laine, the 2nd overall pick in 2016, didn’t even get the maximum bonus. His “B” bonus was $1.8 million. Why do teams offer a 23 year-old who was bypassed in his first draft, then went in the 3rd round his second year and then spent four years in college more potential money than a 2nd overall pick?

Free agency is the obvious answer. Teams can only offer a maximum base salary of $925,000. So incentives, opportunity and ice time are the only other carrots they can dangle. The “B” bonuses will likely never be achieved, even for many top draft picks, so I realize it is easy to offer them. An agent told me he has never had a player guaranteed ice time, but in one case he had assurances his client would spend the entire season in the NHL, making NHL money, instead of being in the AHL.

He did confirm it was never in writing, so technically the team could have reneged, but it didn’t occur in this situation. Just because one team offered this doesn’t guarantee others will, but it illustrates teams are willing to go the distance to land an NCAA free agent.

Vesey had 11-7-18 as a 20-year-old rookie in College. When he was 21 he had 13-9-22 in 31 games. At 22 he had a breakout offensive season scoring 32-26-58 in 37 games and as a senior he tallied 24-22-46 in 33 games.

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College is designed to let late developers develop, which is great, but why does the NHL value NCAA players so much more than U Sports (formerly CIS) players? Are you telling me there are no 3rd or 4th year U Sports players as good as any of the NCAA free agents who come out every year? University players are usually signed to AHL deals, but NCAA players are sought after like veteran NHL free agents?

Why such a huge discrepancy?

“The U Sports players are known quantities so to speak,” said Button, “Players where their potential is pretty established having mostly come from the CHL. The NCAA players who are pursued are not known and have blossomed and have more of an upward trajectory from an evaluation perspective.”

I believe the unknown is a driving force in how players are evaluated. Many of them weren’t on the radar in previous years. Foo played in the AJHL until he was 19. He wasn’t in many scouts’ draft books, but as he progressed in College they started to notice him more. They didn’t have a previous evaluation. Some U Sports players were drafted, and never signed, while others were never drafted during their time in the CHL. Scouts likely have an impression of those players, and it is difficult for all of us to change our original perception of a player.

That doesn’t make it right, but I believe many scouts feel they’ve seen U Sports players for a few years in Junior, and even if they have progressed or improved at University they don’t stand out as much as the new, or “unknown,” NCAA prospect.

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I’ve often wondered if the NHL is missing out on finding some late-developing hidden gems in Canadian Universities. Many U Sports players sign in Europe, or often in the AHL at the end of their season, but they are never given the same opportunity as many of the NCAA free agents. Opportunity for any player is massive. If a coach or GM gives you a chance it can make the world of difference in a player’s career.

Let’s compare Vesey’s rookie season, at 23 years of age, to some of the other rookies. Vesey finished 23rd in rookie scoring, 11-16-27, behind these players:

2016 draft class:
Matthew 40-29-69  (1st overall)
Laine 36-28-64  (2nd pick)
Matthew Tkachuk 13-35-48 (6th pick)

2015 draftees:
Mitch Marner 19-42-61 (4th pick)
Sebastien Aho 24-25-49 (35th)
Zach Werenski 11-36-47 (8th)
Mikko Rantanen 20-18-38 (10th)
Ivan Provorov 6-24-30 (7th)
Travis Konechny 11-17-28 (24th)

2014 draftees:
William Nylander 22-39-61 (8th)
Brayden Point 18-22-40 (79th)
Christian Dvorak 15-18-33 (58th)
Nick Schmaltz 6-22-28 (20th)

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2013 draftees:
Anthony Mantha 17-19-36 (20th)
Jake Guentzel 16-17-33 (77th) **only 40 GP**
Ryan Hartman 19-12-31 (30th)
Arrturi Lehkonen 18-10-28 (55th)|

2012 draftees:
Brady Skjei 5-34-39 (28th)
Connor Brown 20-16-36 (156th)
Devin Shore 13-20-33 (31st)

Zack Hyman (14-20-34) was a 2010 pick and Nikita Zaitsev (25 years old) was undrafted and had 4-32-36 as a rookie blueliner for Toronto.

So, twenty of the rookies were younger than Vesey and some, like Laine and Tkachuk were five Vesey’s junior.

Skjei was the Rangers’ first round pick in 2012, the same year Vesey was drafted. Skjei played three years of College and then turned pro. He played 68 games in the AHL and seven in the NHL in 2015/2016. This year as teammates, Skjei, a defenceman, outscored Vesey 39-27. Skjei had no “B” bonuses in his contract. He could get a maximum of $850,000 in his “A” bonuses. He was drafted higher than Vesey in 2012. He had seven NHL games and 68 AHL games under his belt when the same organization signed Vesey to a max deal.

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I understand teams are battling other teams when signing a free agent, but Vesey’s deal virtually assures the NHL coach has to play him. Vesey was overlooked in one draft and was a 3rd round pick a year later. Two years later he was still struggling to find his way in the NCAA and then he had a breakout third season and won the Hobey Baker. Now suddenly teams all wanted him.

Even for high-end NCAA players who are older and more mature, there is still a massive adjustment to the NHL, and especially the 82-game schedule. I often wonder if the NHL gets so caught up in the competition to sign a free agent that they suddenly overvalue them. When they own the rights to a draft pick, there is no competition. There was some, to a different extent on draft day, as you weigh the pros and cons of when to draft a player, but compare Vesey’s progression to the NHL to a CHL player who was drafted and then spent a few years in the AHL honing their skills.

Vesey was more of the unknown, even though he was drafted in 2012. He was now a free agent and teams get excited about free agents. It is natural human instinct: we often want what we don’t have. Many NHL teams wanted Vesey. The Buffalo Sabres traded a 3rd round pick to Nashville for Vesey’s rights in June, even when his camp made it clear he was going to test free agency in August. They threw away a 3rd round pick just for the chance to get to talk to him before other teams.

The Rangers did get good value. He was in the first year of his contract and he played and contributed in the NHL.

“If you look at it solely from what does a player do in the NHL and what is his potential, then value may be questioned, but when I look at the layers of benefits, there really is no downside to pursuing College free agents,” said Button.

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Button is correct. There is little downside, which is why I wonder why we don’t see teams looking to do the same with University players. Right now it seems there is a bit of a stigma around players coming in U Sports, that somehow they have reached their developmental peak. As the United States continues to develop more hockey players, will scholarships for Canadian players diminish?

A study of the 2015/2016 NCAA division 1 programs showed 68% of players were American, 28% Canadian and 4% European. It costs a school more to bring in Canadian players, and if the USA system is developing more quality players I wonder if the number drops. It might not, because more west coast schools like Arizona and USC are now starting a men’s hockey program. There will be more schools with teams, so even if the overall % drops, the amount of Canadians playing could stay the same.

I believe U Sports should market their players more. I don’t believe the gap in talent in the US to NCAA is as big as the free agent signings to NHL that teams suggest.

NCAA players are not overvalued by NHL teams, but I believe they are considerably more overhyped within hockey circles, media and fans compared to other NHL assets, and significantly more than players in U Sports.

Foo Comparable?

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a quick comparison of Foo to Drake Caggiula. Foo turned 23 in May, Caggiula turned 23 this month. Last summer the Oilers signed the undrafted Caggiula to a two-year ELC. This past season Caggiula played 60 games in the NHL. He missed the first 18 with a hip injury, while Foo lit up NCAA scoring 26-36-62 in 38 games.

Here is a quick look at their 20 and 21 year-old seasons in NCAA.

Foo scored 11-14-25 in 39 games in 2015.
He scored 12-13-25 in 26 games in 2016.

Caggiula tallied 18-18-36 in 42 games in 2015
He scored 25-26-51 in 39 games in 2016.

Caggiula had 87 points to Foo’s 50 over two seasons. Caggiula was in his third and fourth years of College while Foo was in his first two. Adjusting to the NCAA has to be factored in, but some also like using age as a baseline for a comparison. No comparison is perfect of course, but it gives us some numbers to consider.

Foo had an excellent campaign in his third season at Union and decided to turn pro. He will sign a contract very soon and Detroit and Calgary seem to be the two front runners, but Edmonton has had talks with Foo’s camp as well.

Here is Button’s scouting report on Foo.

He is a good skating, good thinking player. I don’t see a high-end offensive player in the NHL, but he can create chances with his skating and mind. Doesn’t have the quick hands or shot to be prolific. Competes well. I see him as having 8-12 forward potential depending on how you want to build your group.

Foo looks ready to be on an NHL roster and that is a good value signing for any NHL team, but no one should expect him to be a dominant force right away.

It is great to value NCAA free agents, but over-hyping them doesn’t help the player or the team.


Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • tkfisher

    I’m surprised the Flames are considered to be a front runner. Foo is an Edmonton kid, and although the Flames are weak on the right side, so are the Oilers. The Canucks are a tire fire, and Vegas needs scoring. I think a lot of his decision has to be based on opportunity, chance at winning, depth chart and who his center could be. Flames over the Oilers would surprise me.

    • Spaceman Spiff

      Foo’s going to sign with the team that isn’t likely to start him in the minors. Realistically, that’s Detroit, Vancouver or Vegas. I’m not convinced that hometown is a factor, nor is going to a contending team necessarily one, either. Foo will tell his agent to get him to the team that’ll almost-guarantee him an NHL job earning NHL money.

      BTW, that’s essentially how the Oilers ended up signing Justin Schultz. They pretty much guaranteed him a roster spot on opening night.

  • TKB2677

    What I don’t understand is what is taking Foo so long to decide. He’s supposedly got his list down to Detroit, Vegas, Calgary, Edmonton. That was rumored more and a week ago, nothing has changed in a week. So decide.

    I don’t get why he would want to choose Vegas. Would he have a better chance to make the team? Probably but that’s because they will be bad. I thought the goal of a player turning pro is to Yes make the NHL but to win. Vegas won’t win, they probably won’t make the playoffs for years. So is that what he wants?

    The same can be said in Detroit. They didn’t make the playoffs for the first time ever this past season. They are a transition team. They have a few good, young players. Larkin is good, Mantha might be good. Then they have Nyqvist who will be 28. They have Tatar who will be 27. Then there is a bunch of old guys. Zetterberg is 37, Nielsen is 33. Their 2 best centers. Their best dmen are old guys. They aren’t making the playoffs any time soon.

    So if you are Foo, why would you not want to choose Edmonton or Calgary. 2 teams on the rise looking to be the big dogs in the West. Both made the playoffs this past season. Both have their best players as young. He could be on the home town team, rubbing shoulders with Gretzky, on the same team with the best player in the world. They just traded Eberle for Strome, another RW BUT last season they played their best second best center on RW because they didn’t have a better option. So what is Strome takes one RW spot, there is still the second line spot.

    • That's My Point

      If Foo signs with a weak team he’ll get more opportunity on the powerplay and may also get more icetime. He’s the “MAN” if he sign in Detroit or Vegas. If he signs with the Oilers he may win but may not get as much time on powerplay or icetime. May only be a bottom 6 player.

      • TKB2677

        He’s going to get the same money whether he signs in Edmonton or Detroit or Vegas. So it comes down to do you want to make NHL money and win or get beat every night. Plus who’s he going to play with in Vegas? Vegas had a chance to get a decent team but they passed up on teams like the Islanders where they could have picked a GOOD player like say a Nelson and took a package of crap and an AHL goalie. The passed on an actual cheap, #1 center in Staal from Minnie and took a prospect and a 3rd line center in Haula.

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Jason – to your question as to whether or not the NHL is missing out on finding some late-developing hidden gems in Canadian universities, the answer is … maybe. But you’d need a five-year crystal ball to find out if there is. That’s how late “late-developing” it is.
    Canadian university players have been heavily scouted in either major-junior or Tier 2 by the time they’ve made it university. The odd scout who attends a Canadian university game isn’t likely to change his mind on a player he saw on-and-off-and-on for three or four years on the junior circuit.
    Plus, the calibre of hockey in Canadian university varies, but only in the way that senior-A hockey varies from senior-AAA hockey. It’s decent hockey, but it’s far from pro level, even though the players are in their 20s. It generally isn’t until the university players graduate and (if they’re good enough and there’s interest) turn pro that they’d be ready to demonstrate if their physical game has matured or changed since their junior days.
    There are exceptions, of course. Randy Gregg, Steve Rucchin and Mike Ridley all stepped directly into the NHL (or with minimal AHL time) from Canadian university.
    Derek Ryan’s more the rule. The former U of A Golden Bear had to go over to Europe and slog around there for a few years and then land a minor-league contract over here. He basically had to “re-boot” over in Europe after his junior and university playing days ended. It obviously worked for him, but it took a long time. Like I say the “late” in “late-developing” takes a while for Canadian university players.

    • Jason Gregor

      I wrote they could leave after year three or four, just like NCAA players leave early. No U Sports player has to wait until the end of their five years. Foo wasn’t on anyone radar when he left AJHL. Three years later he is now sought after. Why can’t a player who leaves CHL have the same improvement. You don’t need five years.

      • Bagged Almond Milk

        Almost all CIS players play Major Junior until after their 20 year old year. By then, scouts have basically made up their mind on players(unfairly, in a lot of instances as you’ve pointed out)….. In NCAA, players are generally younger, as they usually leave Junior A earlier than 20, not always, but the highly touted ones usually do. So I’d guess teams reasoning would likely be that a player could improve more from 18-23 than a 21- 25 year old player…. I agree they are overly sought after in general, without taking anything away from individual players. I’d guess the Bears would beat most NCAA div 1 teams, and I think NAIT did beat some in exhibition…. but I guess the Idea is that some stars choose the School route over major Junior, so there could be really high end skill in the NCAA, whereas Scouts view that by 21, if a player goes to CIS rather than Pro, they’ve made up their minds that said player is not an NHL player.

        I understand the reasoning behind it, but I agree with you. Honestly I think it comes down to a lot of Scouts not being that smart and just following the status quo, rather than actually finding the best players.

    • Righty Defenceman

      I agree that maybe some gems are being overlooked:
      If we are talking about RHD in their mid-late twenties the scouting staff had to only look as far as the UofA campus and RHD Jesse Craige.
      “In his five-year career in an Evergreen and Gold sweater, Craige banked 93 points in 131 conference games as a defenceman, and a total of 128 in 196 overall games. He was awarded the Canada West Mervyn “Red” Dutton trophy as the conference defenceman of the year in 2012-13 and 2014-15, and he claimed the CIS defenceman of the year honour in 2014-15. He earned Canada West all-star recognition three times and CIS all-Canadian status twice. He was also on the CIS championship all-star team in 2014 and 2015.
      This past season Craige also went overseas to represent Canada at the 2015 Winter Universiade in Granada, Spain where the native of Edmonton was named an assistant captain, and helped Canada to a bronze medal, finishing with four points in six games.”

  • Tombstone

    Just like Shultz kind of but Shultz was drafted by ANA. He came to Edmonton, got paid the big bucks to play unsheltered minutes. All of a sudden his confidence takes a hit. Get traded, wins the stanly up, signs a one- year worth $1.4 mil, year after that plays sheltered minutes and on the PP with 2 of the best players in the NHL. So yeah Foo should sign in Detroit then after his Elc he can win the Cup in Edmonton. Only difference is that Foo understand that there is a chance that he might not be NHL ready and is also looking for a team that can help him develope. Having McDavid and Drai on this team can help him develop a lot quicker than Detroit.

    • Jason Gregor

      No guarantee though. He has to battle Puljujarvi, Strome, Slepyshev and even Caggiula. Detroit can offer more opportunity, even Calgary. Many factors for any UFA. He has two years to earn a new contract and most will want a one-way deal, so opportunity to play is a big consideration.

      • The Whispererer

        You left out Kassian and Pakarinen. If Foo is looking at RW depth with an eye to a top 9 spot by his 2nd year, it is difficult to see him signing here.

  • ed from edmonton

    I’m not sure if NCAA UFAs are “over valued” which is a hard thing to define. But one could summize they at overpriced as compared to a drafted player. makes me wonder why a drafted player would sign.

    • TruthHurts98

      Hey the dunce! The Flamers traded away all there high picks for the next few years and still won’t be able to beat the Oil when it counts! Meanwhile the Oilers are stockpiling talent through the drafts to play with two players that no one on Calgary even comes close to talent wise. Sorry you’re a Flamer fan, it must be depressing. So much hope at the start of each season… then swept by the Oil, then the Ducks. Not much will change this year. Foo… really? He won’t do much.

  • TruthHurts98

    The more I watched his highlights, the more I was glad the Oil passed on him. They don’t need 3 young almost rookies on the top 3 RW spots. I hope PC signs a Vrbata or someone with more experience at a good cap price to play top six minutes. Foo didn’t care about winning, only about ‘his’ playing time. We don’t need players like that here.

  • madjam

    Foo felt his career was better suited and more opportunistic with Calgary . It’s his choice to make . Not easy to make your mark and be scrutinized by fans in your home town .

  • McDavid's Comet

    Can’t blame the guy for going for the best opportunity to play hockey in the NHL, clearly he wasn’t going to get the money or ice time with the Oilers that the fLames promised him.

  • Drill Bit #97

    Given the hype, somewhat disappointing being him a ‘hometown’ guy……..
    I was going to throw some slag his way, but upon further reflection what his decision really says is that the OILERS ARE NOW A DAMN TOUGH TEAM TO CRACK……. no more promises, no more gifted ice time, no more bloated early contracts…… If you’re gonna a part of of the OILERS, be a part of the best, you’re gonna have to earn it.
    Have fun in Calgary Spencer, enjoy being on the 2nd best team in the BoA for the next 10 years! GO OILERS!!!!

    • Leichs

      I agree, he chose a team where he was guaranteed a roster spot. I mean its hard to blame the guy. I wouldnt want to start on a team in the minors riding the bus. But it does show a little bit about his character if you ask me. Not willing to fight to play for your home team, neext.

      • RealMcHockeyReturns

        Guaranteed a roster spot…not at all…Flames have other guys who will be a shot. Oilers depth is poor tooo…he just chose a city where people actually like to live!

        • McDavid's Comet

          City has nothing to do with it, he chose to go with the best opportunity placed before him. Foo will be on the fLames opening night roster beating out the likes of Lazar, Versteeg or Frolik for a spot on the top six. If he came to Edmonton he would be doing time in the AHL for certain. Calgary may have talent, but it’s at a lower echelon compared to Edmonton. Simply put: Calgary needs Foo; Edmonton doesn’t. LOL ?

        • Leichs

          Naah he knew he couldn’t crack the oil roster, just accept it. I dont blame him, easy path down in cow town.
          Cant wait to see Hammonic horrible foot speed get exposed by Mcd again and again next year. -27 last year damn that’s impressive. Ohh but the 35 year old goalie will save you guys.

      • T&A4Flames

        He was guaranteed nothing ass-clown. Holy crap you Oiler fans are morons and really, really low class people. 1 year removed from yet another top 5 pick and suddenly you think you’re the top of the NHL. I’ll laugh my ass off when the Oil fail to make the PO’s this year.

  • Leichs

    Yeeep thats pretty lame that he decided to go with the flames. I would have been happy to have him but at the same time, they guaranteed him a roster spot next year lol. I dont think that is something we could have done. We have a lot of dark horses next year like pitlick and jesse pul. Not to mention guys like strome, shelp, drake and drai if he starts on the wing. Long shot would be yamamoto but thats most likely still a few years away hopefully. It stings more that an Edmonton boy would go sign with the flames. Would have been happier if he went anywhere else but I’m over it now. No way we could guarantee him a spot. has to earn it like the rest of the guys (drake and benning).

  • Neumann

    The NCAA athletics programs develop better athletes. Strength and conditioning at a D1 school is too notch compared to U sports schools. Money in those programs gets great facilities, equipment and coaches. Some U sports schools are starting to catch up but are way behind.

  • Anton CP

    NCAA free agents are normally ready to hit the ice right away and when teams need to fill the roster spots that they are looking at NCAA players instead of Europeans. NCAA free agents have a few advantages over European pros like they are cheaper and has more to prove and with no language barriers that tend to juice the value in them. Once in a while that some NCAA free agents may rise to stardom but more often that they don’t. They are convenient choices for teams that need to fill rosters.

  • McRib

    NCAA FAs are extremely overvalued, but every once and awhile a team catches the white buffalo (Tory Krug, Greene, etc). Most of them however end up as career AHLers.