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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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