College free agents: Worth it?

Some good news came about recently for Bobby Butler: Teams are interested in his services. Of course, this good news followed the bad news that the Ottawa Senators were no longer interested in his services. That's quite a feat considering how hard the Senators fought to get him on the team and his strong pedigree: He was a Hobey Baker finalist (he lost out to Blake Geoffrion), and in his first pro season put up 54 points (32G, 22A) spread across 83 games in the AHL and NHL, was an AHL All-Star and won MVP of the AHL's All-Star game, and finished the year on Ottawa's top line, displaying chemistry with Jason Spezza.

He spent more than a third of last year scratched, and only managed six goals and ten assists in 56 games with the Senators. And now he's gone.

It seems like every year we get excited when general manager Bryan Murray is able to sign a top college player. It's an area of managing we love to give Murray credit for, because we remember he signed Chris Kunitz and Dustin Penner in back-to-back years in Anaheim, and both of those players were factors in the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup victory over the Senators. Kunitz has gone on to win a second Cup with Pittsburgh, while Penner just collected his second as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

However, looking at the track record of Ottawa's college free agent signings, one wonders if we're not giving Murray too much credit for his past successes: This offseason has seen the organization actively choose not to retain three of the four five (Editor's Note: Reader DW19 reminds us the Senators also added Cole Schneider back in March. Refresh your memory on him with a scouting report here) college free agents they had on their roster.

That's an alarmingly dismal success rate.

Butler, of course, we have just recently discussed. Who were the other two?

One is Jesse Winchester, who was signed out of Colgate University following a strong career in which he averaged just about a point per game for his final three seasons, and was the team captain in his senior year. Winchester is no longer a Senator primarily because he suffered a serious concussion in the middle of last season, and sustained a second one not long after he returned to the ice. There are serious questions about whether or not he'll ever play hockey again.

Yet, even if he were healthy, Winchester's place on the team would have not been guaranteed. First round pick Jim O'Brien has looked good in the fourth-line center role and there was always the possibility a healthy Peter Regin--who is a natural center and was performing the role quite well last year on the second line before a season-ending injury--could have pushed Z. Smith out of the third-line center position and into a fourth-line role. If Winchester's ceiling was a bottom-six player, albeit a valuable one, he was going to face significant competition from the team's glut of bottom-six guys, all who have value in their own rights.

The third player is defenseman Matt Gilroy. Of course, Murray did not sign Gilroy. Glen Sather in New York and Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay had already done that. But Murray did give up defenseman Brian Lee to get Gilroy. Lee has been a whipping boy in Ottawa since he was drafted, but he was finally beginning to demonstrate actual value as a defenseman to the club. Murray obviously disagreed, and moved him to give Gilroy a tryout, which did not go well. Clearly Murray did not see Lee as a part of the team's future, which technically made him an expendable asset, yet Lee is still on Tampa Bay while Gilroy is not with the Senators.

Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award in 2009 and was widely viewed as a can't-miss college prospect. He put up gaudy numbers for a defenseman, and was just the third collegiate player ever to be named an All-American three times. Now he's just an unrestricted free agent.

Just how much value does the Hobey Baker Award have? It's been awarded since 1981. Per Wikipedia, here's a list of all of the winners:

Year Winner Position School
1981 Neal Broten Center Minnesota
1982 George McPhee Left wing Bowling Green
1983 Mark Fusco Defense Harvard
1984 Tom Kurvers Defense Minnesota Duluth
1985 Bill Watson Right wing Minnesota Duluth
1986 Scott Fusco Center Harvard
1987 Tony Hrkac Center North Dakota
1988 Robb Stauber Goaltender Minnesota
1989 Lane MacDonald Left wing Harvard
1990 Kip Miller Center Michigan State
1991 David Emma Center Boston College
1992 Scott Pellerin Left wing Maine
1993 Paul Kariya Left wing Maine
1994 Chris Marinucci Left wing Minnesota Duluth
1995 Brian Holzinger Center Bowling Green
1996 Brian Bonin Center Minnesota
1997 Brendan Morrison Center Michigan
1998 Chris Drury Left wing Boston University
1999 Jason Krog Center New Hampshire
2000 Mike Mottau Defense Boston College
2001 Ryan Miller Goaltender Michigan State
2002 Jordan Leopold Defense Minnesota
2003 Peter Sejna Left wing Colorado College
2004 Junior Lessard Right wing Minnesota Duluth
2005 Marty Sertich Center Colorado College
2006 Matt Carle Defense Denver
2007 Ryan Duncan Left wing North Dakota
2008 Kevin Porter Center Michigan
2009 Matt Gilroy Defense Boston University
2010 Blake Geoffrion Center Wisconsin
2011 Andy Miele Left Wing Miami University
2012 Jack Connolly Center Minnesota Duluth

By itself, the list isn't awful. There are some quality names on it. Yet most of them aren't immediately recognizable. This isn't meant to diminish those accomplishments. Instead, we should merely consider, yet again, that success at other levels does not necessarily translate to success at the NHL level. Perhaps it's more accurate to say those accomplishments represent promise rather than any kind of indicator of future success.

Bobby Butler displayed the offensive skill necessary to play in the NHL. What he didn't display was the overall game necessary to play for head coach Paul MacLean, and that's why he's no longer with the team.

When we ask whether college free agents are worth it, we have to consider when look at the three players we've mentioned, Ottawa only gave up one asset (the aforementioned Lee) and some meager salary. That alone justifies the risk in signing these types of players. Yet we've also frequently comforted ourselves with Murray trading second-round picks away with the rationalization that these college players can be considered the equivalent of second-round picks. If these are second-round picks, Murray has not done well.

In the end, the cost to the organization in seeing these players not meet expectations is minimal. In that sense, it's worth continuing to pursue them--but recent history shows us we need to temper our expectations when it comes to these players.

Those Adam Oates comparisons might just be too good to be true.

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