It has been proven time and again there are many paths to the National Hockey League, and plenty of players take an unconventional route.
The college hockey season has reached its own "March Madness" with the final weekend of conference tournaments starting in a couple days and the NCAA Tournament beginning the following weekend.
That also means it is time for college hockey's version of a free-agent frenzy, as players who weren't drafted prior to turning 20 get ready to sign professional contracts.
It is a process that has become a more conventional path to pro hockey than it once was, in part because the depth of talent at the NCAA level has improved and because NHL teams have recognized the availability of talent that costs little to acquire.
Martin St. Louis is the best undrafted college free agent currently playing in the NHL, but there have been plenty of others both past (Adam Oates, Ed Belfour) and present (Chris Kunitz, Andy McDonald, Dustin Penner) who became impact players at the NHL level. Two of the top candidates for the Calder Trophy in 2012-13 are college free agents -- the Tampa Bay Lightning's Cory Conacher was an undrafted signing, while the Edmonton Oilers' Justin Schultz was drafted by Anaheim but left the University of Wisconsin four years later and became a free agent when he didn't sign with the Ducks.
Players have gone straight from college hockey to the NHL in recent seasons -- Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers was a prominent example last season, though he was a first-round draft pick in 2009 -- and the unique schedule in 2012-13 means some of these prospects have extra time to play in the NHL this season and even impact the playoff race.
The Vancouver Canucks already have signed 6-foot-6 center Kellen Lain from Lake Superior State, and TSN's Bob McKenzie reported goalie Jared Coreau from Northern Michigan will sign with the Detroit Red Wings.
Here is a list of some of the other players who could be signing contracts with NHL organizations in the coming days or weeks:
Danny DeKeyser, defenseman, Western Michigan
Several media outlets have pegged DeKeyser, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound junior, as the top free agent available. He had five goals and 17 points in each of his first two college seasons, and was expected to sign with an NHL team after last season. He has two goals and 15 points this season, and could be the most likely player on this list to be skating in an NHL game in the immediate future. Western Michigan looks like a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, and when he signs with a team will be impacted by that.
Andrej Sustr, defenseman, Nebraska-Omaha
The obvious thing that stands out about Sustr is his size -- he is 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds. Sustr is a Czech Republic native and represented his country at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He had nine goals and 25 points in 39 games for UNO this season. McKenzie reported he will leave school to pursue a deal, and Katie Strang of ESPNNewYork.com and Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News have reported the Rangers and Flyers are among the teams interested.
DeKeyser and Sustr are the consensus top prizes in this free-agent class. They may not be on Schultz's level, but nearly every NHL team could be interested in both.
There are plenty of other talents available, and here's a look at some of the players in the next tier (in alphabetical order):
Mike Boivin, defenseman, Colorado College
Boivin's career with the Tigers started slowly, but the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior has been an impact player the past two seasons. He has 14 goals, 28 points and 88 penalty minutes this season. Colorado College is in the WCHA Final Five this weekend, but likely will need to win it to earn an NCAA bid.
Eric Hartzell, goaltender, Quinnipiac
One of two players on this list who have helped the surprising Bobcats to the top of the college hockey rankings, Hartzell has posted some gaudy numbers as a senior -- he's 26-5-5 with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. He also is 6-foot-4, has been a workhorse this season and leads the country with those 26 wins.
Antoine Laganiere, right wing, Yale
A lot of undrafted players end up that way because of a lack of size -- see St. Louis and Conacher, as examples -- but this list has several players with "NHL size." Laganiere checks in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. He had 19 goals and 33 points in 35 games as a junior, and followed that with 14 goals and 27 points in 31 games to this point as a senior. The Bulldogs will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Jeremy Langlois, center, Quinnipiac
Langlois is the Bobcats' leading scorer with 30 points (12 goals) in 36 games. Listed at 6-foot and 173 pounds, Langlois grew up in Tempe, Ariz., before playing for the New Jersey Hitmen in the Eastern Junior Hockey League prior to his college career.
Drew LeBlanc, center, St. Cloud State
A fifth-year senior, LeBlanc leads the NCAA with 37 assists in 38 games. Listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds, he is tied for third in points with 50. Given the unlikelihood of Nebraska-Omaha and St. Lawrence making the NCAA field, LeBlanc could battle North Dakota's Danny Kristo, Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau and Minnesota's Erik Haula for the NCAA scoring title.
Andrew Miller, center, Yale
Unlike his teammate Laganiere, Miller is not a big player but he's certainly been productive, with 16 goals and 35 points for the Bulldogs in 31 games this season, and was named the Ivy League Player of the Year.
Nate Schmidt, defenseman, Minnesota
Listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds, Schmidt has racked up a bunch of points the past two seasons for the Gophers. He's got 31 in 38 games this season as a junior, which is tied for third-most among defenseman in the NCAA. Schmidt had 41 points as a sophomore, and it remains to be seen if he will forego his final year of eligibility. Minnesota should earn one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament and be a favorite to reach the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
Ryan Walters, left wing, Nebraska-Omaha
A junior forward, Walters currently leads the NCAA with 52 points, and is fifth with 22 goals. The 6-foot, 188-pound forward had a stretch earlier in the season of eight straight multi-point games, and he had at least one point in 28 of his final 32 games.
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