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At the end of the NCAA hockey season, there always seems to be at least a few teams in a rush to sign one of the many players who do not have any NHL rights. These are players who teams passed over in the draft during previous years because they were either not impressive enough at a younger age, were off many teams radars or decided not to enter the draft due to school or other factors. Despite that, most GMs and scouting staffs keep an eye on these players throughout college and attempt to sign them once they are close to graduating because they can improve an organization’s depth and possibly give you NHL-ready talent for a low cost.
There is no doubt that you can find a lot of useful players in the NCAA free agent pool and there have even been some hidden gems over the years in Martin St. Louis and Adam Oates, but how often do undrafted college free agents end up turning into a player who can make an impact? If you go through some of the names over the years, you’ll see plenty of players who went onto have good careers like Dan Boyle, Chris Kunitz, Brian Rafalski and Greg Adams and you’ll even find a few guys like Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and Joe Mullen who had Hall of Fame caliber careers despite not being drafted. There are also some younger players such as Matt Read, Teddy Purcell and Curtis Glencross who have made a decent impact in the NHL after going undrafted. Although, it’s worth noting that over half of the UDFAs who played in 100 or more NHL games came from either the WCHA or CCHA.
Just how often do teams manage to find these hidden NCAA gems, though?
How long do they last?
For every Dustin Penner in the pool there could be just as many guys who have played less than five total games in the NHL or players who were just organizational fillers over their careers. It’s definitely a gamble to sign one of these players, but you can probably say something similar about the draft and how likely a certain pick will blossom into an NHL talent. The major difference between the two is that taking a risk on an undrafted college player is a much smaller risk than using a draft pick on a player you’re not sure about, mostly because the commitment on an undrafted player can be as little as one year or even a few days.
The upside or ceiling of undrafted NCAA free agents, however, is obviously much lower than a high draft pick and the odds of a team ending up with nothing more than an AHL player are much greater. Out of the 238 NCAA undrafted free agent players who have spent time in the NHL, 48.7% of them have played 50 or fewer games in the NHL, 22.7% of those players have played less than five games and 9% of them have played in only one NHL game. Adding to that, less than 40% of all undrafted NCAA free agents have played more than 100 career NHL games, so the odds of a team finding an impactful player are already somewhat low.
How much do they score?
Another good question to ask is what can teams expect from college free agents who do manage to stick around for more than a few games. Going by Gabe Desjardins’ NHL translations, we can expect players who go from the NCAA to the NHL to retain about 41% of their scoring, but what happens if we limit that to just NCAA free agents? Should these players be expected to produce at a high level because they are older than your typical prospect or will they not produce as much because they may not be as talented?
The NCAA free agents who played at least 50 games in the NHL managed to retain about 35% of their scoring rate in college over their NHL careers, so it is actually lower than what is expected from NCAA players who make the jump to the NHL. However, this translation factor is a little different since we are looking at career scoring rates and not just one season.
Still, I think the overall point remains that the odds of finding a great NHL talent in the form of undrafted free agents are pretty slim. There is a chance that a team might land themselves an Andy McDonald or a Rich Peverley but with nearly 49% of NCAA free agents having brief NHL careers, it’s just as likely that they will end up with a Gabe Gauthier or Kyle Greentree. That being said, if a team is looking for a relatively inexpensive way to acquire some organizational depth, then looking at the college free agent pool isn’t a bad idea. Just don’t expect many of them to be future studs.
The feeder schools
Just for fun, let’s take a look at which schools most of these players have come from.
The most undrafted NCAA free agents have come from the University of Denver, but if you take a look at the column on the far right, you’ll see that they are nowhere close to being the leader in terms of the amount of games played by UDFAs. So while they may have produced the most NHL-ers, not many of them were able to stay in the NHL for long. The leader in games played by UDFA’s would be the University of North Dakota and they lead by a pretty big margin with 3913 games played, the next closest being Boston College with 2783. However, it’s worth noting that the number of games played by UDFAs from North Dakota is strengthened a lot by the 963 games played by goaltender Ed Belfour. The same goes for the third ranked Wisconsin Badgers who are boosted from the 943 NHL games played by goaltender Curtis Joseph.
A better way to look at this could be to decrease the sample to only UDFAs who had somewhat of a career in the NHL. I set the cut-off point at 100 NHL games played and got this total.
The leader is now Boston College as they have produced six UDFAs who were able to play 100 or more NHL games, but North Dakota is not close behind as they are in a second way tie with Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s also worth noting here that 95 out of the 238 UDFAs sampled played in 100 or more games, so the odds of getting an NHL-er out of a NCAA UDFA are somewhat low in the grand scheme of things. In a later post, we will look at which NCAA schools have produced the most NHL talent in general, but in terms of undrafted players there doesn’t appear to be one superior school.