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Prospecting: 2017 NCAA Free Agents

Colin White is the college player who Sens fans would like to see first, but is there other NCAA talent who’d look good in a Sens uniform?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators
Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary was an NCAA FA that worked out for the Penguins.
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

When the playoffs look dire, I’m constantly checking up on the top NHL prospects, next year’s draft crop, and available free agents. But with the Sens being in the thick of things for the Atlantic Division crown, most of my attention has been with the big club.

However, if you take a step to look at the big picture through a gander at the team’s organizational depth chart, you’d soon realize how important this offseason is to the Senators organization. First: the BSens are having a downright awful year for the second season in a row. With the team moving across the border to Belleville for the 2017-18 season with Eugene Melnyk as an owner, you better believe that they’ll be asked to be in contention just like the big club. Second: the time to win for the NHL club is now, so the process of gathering up assets in the form of prospects and draft picks are crucial so that they could possibly be traded for NHL players later, or to step in if key players get injured. When you look below at projected BSens depth chart for next year, it’s easy to notice some key gaps.

2017-18 Belleville Senators Depth Chart

LW Centre RW LD RD G
LW Centre RW LD RD G
Francis Perron Chris DiDomenico Gabriel Gagne Thomas Chabot (?) Macoy Erkamps Marcus Hogberg (?)
Filip Chlapik Mike Blunden Andreas Englund Cody Donaghey
Nick Paul Maxime Lajoie Christian Jaros (?)
Vincent Dunn Ben Harpur
Colin White (?)

There are key question marks in the place of the currently-unsigned Colin White, Christian Jaros, and Marcus Hogberg, in addition to the probably-NHL-bound Thomas Chabot. I wouldn’t bring back many of the team’s restricted free agents other than Chris Driedger and potentially Jokipakka, while I’d expect the team’s UFA group that includes Bailey, Varone, and McCormick to fly the coop given the little ice-time they received during call-ups this year.

2016-17 BSens UFAs and RFAs

LW Centre RW LD RD G
LW Centre RW LD RD G
Max McCormick (UFA) Ryan Rupert (RFA) Casey Bailey (UFA) Jyrki Jokipakka (RFA) Chris Driedger (RFA)
Chad Nehring (UFA) Phil Varone (UFA) Patrick Sieloff (RFA) Matt O'Connor (RFA)
Marc Hagel (UFA) Brandon Gormley (UFA)

It means that outside of (potentially) the centre and left-defence positions, the team needs help all over the board. Although the Sens have signed free agents out of the CHL (Macoy Erkamps, Troy Rutkowski) before, the team has frequented the NCAA market at least once a season for a while now. Derek Smith (07), Jesse Winchester (08), Bobby Butler (10), Stephane Da Costa (11), Matt O’Connor (15) are the players who were ‘touted’ here, but some good AHL depth can also be found with players like Garrett Thompson, Buddy Robinson, and Cole Schneider. Judging by the frequency of players the team has signed in the past couple of years, it seems like Tim Murray — who’s continued this trend in Buffalo — was the biggest supporter of acquiring these ‘free’ assets from the NCAA. However, with both Pierre Dorion and Randy Lee stating that the team is in on 1-2 free agents this year, I thought it’d be worth a gander to see who’s available. It’s interesting to note that most of the players who have already been signed have been acquired by teams who are ahead of the Sens in the standings, so don’t let Dorion/Lee fool you if they try to say “No good players were available”. I’ve taken the time to only list players that were either a) >1.0 PPG this season, b) were on their conference’s respective all-star team, or c) were mentioned frequently by college hockey sources. My logic here is: if you weren’t drafted but still expect to earn a contract, you have to at least dominate in terms of production, or be recognized by hockey executives and media members to earn an ‘all-star’ nod. Some of these players are younger and still have college eligibility, but can forego their degree and turn pro. All of their EliteProspects pages are listed for you to go in and view on your own leisure, but I’ll highly my favourites briefly in the space below.

[Note: list of players who have already signed: Mason Mitchell (WSH), Hampus Gustafsson (WSH), Kris Bindulis (WSH), Gerald Mayhew (MIN), Dominik Shine (DET), Zach Aston-Reese (PIT), Tyler Kelleher (NSH), Gavin Bayreuther (DAL), Sam Vigneault (CBJ), Tim Clifton (SJS), Mitch Hults (ANA), Austin Ortega (ANA), Austin Cangelosi (NJD), Chris Nell (NYR)]

Left-wing: Adam Johnson, Corey Mackin, Marc Michaelis, CJ Smith

Right-wing: Spencer Foo, Justin Kloos, Nicholas Schilkey

Centre: Joe Gambardella, Alex Iafallo, Alex Kerfoot, Tyler Sheehy, Michael Vecchione, Austin Cangelosi, John Stevens

Left-Defence: Josh Healey, Jimmy Schuldt, Shane Hanna

Right-Defence: Jordan Gross, Neal Pionk, Sean Walker

Goalie: Parker Gahagen, Tanner Jaillet, Michael Bitzer, Atte Tolvanen

Jordan Gross + Neal Pionk

The BSens have played this season with only one regular right-shot defenceman: the now-traded Michael Kostka. Although Macoy Erkamps — signed last year but has been in the ECHL for the bulk of the year — may be ready for an AHL spot, the team’s depth at right defence is barren. Interviewed by TSN1200 earlier in the week, BSens HC Kurt Kleinendorst mentioned “If I could ask [Ottawa] to go get me one thing for next year, it would be a couple of right shot defencemen.” Thus, Notre Dame’s Gross and Minnesota-Duluth’s Pionk should be the top two targets for Dorion and his crew. Both have 1-2 years of eligibility remaining, but given their respective successes this season, they may feel like ‘now’ is the best time to cash in and turn pro. Here are some scouting reports from Ben Kerr:

The junior defenceman has put up huge numbers for the Fighting Irish this season with 8 goals and 27 points in 34 games. He is also a little undersized, but has excellent skating ability. Gross has very good vision and hockey sense, thinking the game very well and he almost always makes the right play with or without the puck. He also has an excellent wrist shot and one-timer, with a knack for getting them on net through traffic. Gross could stay in school as he has another year of eligibility remaining.

Pionk is one of the younger players on this list, at just 21 years old. He has put up seven goals and 28 points in 34 games for the Bulldogs. Pionk is an excellent offensive defenceman. He has an absolute rocket of a slapshot from the point. He is also able to play the role of powerplay quarterback, possessing good poise with the puck, excellent vision and good passing skill. Pionk also uses this passing skill to start the transition game. He might be a little bit undersized, but Pionk is also good defensively. He is very gritty, willing to battle in front of the net and in the corners. His two-way game is helped quite a bit by his skating, which is top notch.

Tyler Sheehy, Spencer Foo, and Mike Vecchione

A trio of Hobey Baker finalists for the top player in college hockey this season, Sheehy and Vecchione are right-shot centres while Foo is a natural right-wing. Vecchione is the oldest of the trio but also the most complete. He helped lead Union to a national title in 2014 and was a T3 scorer in the league this year. Despite his gaudy offensive numbers, he plays in all situations for Union — including the penalty kill. His biggest flaw, however, is whether his skating is NHL-quality. It may limit his ability to ever be an NHLer, but he could still potentially be an AHL standout. Foo, with 56 points in 34 games, is right behind is linemate Vecchione but brings a different skillset. His strengths appear to be his vision on the right boards and his quick feet — something Vecchione and Sheehy don’t necessarily have as strengths. Sheehy, the youngest of the group, plays for the powerhouse Minnesota Golden Gophers as their top centre. He’s a bit undersized, but appears to make up for it with his smarts and cycle play. The Sens always seem to make a play for a top offensive forward (Butler, Da Costa) and were in on Aston-Reese, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in on one of these three.

Atte Tolvanen

If the Senators want to sign a goalie, they have four decent options available. Gahagen has a high save percentage, but his conference is weak. Bitzer has the highest pedigree — he’s a Hobey finalist — but his resume is the weakest. This leaves Tanner Jaillet and Atte Tolvanen, and instead of going with Denver’s top goaltender, I’m picking the Finn. It’s hard to hold good coaching against a player, but Denver HC Jim Montgomery is out-of-this-world good and Denver is the #1 team in the nation. Jaillet is definitely a big part of that, and I wouldn’t mind signing him, but when I’ve watched DU play, it seems like he has less work. On the other hand, Tolvanen faces a ton of rubber for Northern Michigan, is the youngest of the four, and also has some junior pedigree as a former Rookie of the Year in the top Finnish junior league. He’s also the largest (6’0, 187lbs), and although I think size is overrated, I can definitely see the advantages of being larger as a goaltender.

Off the board pick: Marc Michaelis

The German (!) born forward is a ‘95 born rookie for Minnesota State, and he followed up his strong USHL season with a stellar 36 points in 39 games to lead his team in scoring. As the WCHA’s Rookie of the Year, he can return for three more college years, but I wonder if a team will be able to sign him right now. He’s a name to keep an eye on.

Do you have a favourite? Let us know in the comments!