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NCAA Free Agency Has History Of Wielding Hidden Gems

With NCAA free agency season looming, we look back at notable college free agents to establish themselves in the NHL

by Dan Marrazza @GoldenKnights / VegasGoldenKnights.com

It'll be the Golden Knights' first chance to participate in a free agency sweepstakes.

And it's starting…now.

While NHL free agency won't begin until after the Stanley Cup Final, NCAA free agency picks up its pace in March.

Basically, as soon as college team's season is over, if a player's rights aren't owned by an NHL team, he is a free agent that can sign with the professional team of his choosing.

Based on the Golden Knights officially being welcomed into the league on March 1, Vegas can now be a part of the list of teams that NCAA players can sign with.

Generally speaking, there are two sorts of NCAA free agents that are available.

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  1. Late-bloomers who have never been drafted by NHL teams, who after going unselected during their draft years established themselves as attractive commodities during their collegiate careers. These players are most commonly seniors, although a player may elect to leave school to turn pro at any point during their NCAA career.
  2. Players who were drafted by NHL clubs, whose rights are now available. When players are selected in the NHL Entry Draft, the pro club retains their rights for three years, during which only that club has the ability to sign the player to a pro contract. After three years, however, if still unsigned, the player becomes fair game for every NHL team again. Normally, it's the club which elects to allow the player to become eligible again, out of a loss of interest. Although in a few cases, players with superlative NCAA careers have elected to utilize the system in their favor, turning down contract offers from the club that drafted them, staying in school until their three years are up and then becoming a free agent with more leverage to negotiate a deal with a team of their choosing.

 

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With the NCAA regular season ending in March, any player whose team doesn't qualify for the NCAA tournament is immediately available.

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Players in the NCAA tournament are available as soon as their team is eliminated.

The NCAA tournament concludes in Chicago on April 8, meaning the longest that an otherwise-eligible player would have to wait before being able to sign would be only 25 days from now.

Players who sign contracts would immediately be eligible to play in the NHL, or could be sent to the minor leagues.

While it's hard to predict where this year's core of free agents will wind up and how their careers will pan out, here's a look at several notable NCAA free agents that have signed with NHL teams in recent years and established themselves as professionals.

 

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Jimmy Vesey (Harvard University/New York Rangers): A high-profile case last summer, Nashville Predators draft pick Jimmy Vesey saw his stock skyrocket during his four-year career at Harvard. Electing to test free agency rather than sign with Nashville, the forward was coveted by as many as 12 clubs last summer. He ultimately signed with the New York Rangers, with whom he enters Tuesday with 14 goals and 10 assists in 69 games.

Kevin Hayes (Boston College/New York Rangers): A nearly identical situation as Vesey's, Boston College's Kevin Hayes elected to not sign with the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2014 and tested free agency. Like Vesey, Hayes chose to play for the Rangers, with whom he currently has a career-high 46 points.

Justin Schultz (University of Wisconsin/Edmonton Oilers): Similar as Vesey and Hayes, the University of Wisconsin's Justin Schultz elected to test free agency after not signing with the club that drafted him, the Anaheim Ducks. This led to a widely publicized decision during the summer of 2012 to join the Edmonton Oilers, where he mostly struggled. With his career in turmoil, Schultz was picked up by the Pittsburgh Penguins off the scrap heap last spring, and picked up a Stanley Cup ring only a few months later. Finding his game again in Pittsburgh, Schultz is now one of the NHL's elite offensive defensemen, and is tied for fourth in the league among blueliners with 46 points.

 

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Tyler Bozak (University of Denver/Toronto Maple Leafs): Now in his eighth year with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he has mostly centered one of the team's top two lines, Bozak's pro career started without fanfare. Never drafted, he enjoyed two good - but not great - seasons at the University of Denver before turning pro after his sophomore year. At that time, then Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was stocking up on NCAA free agents, some of which stuck and a few of which never panned out. Bozak has, without doubt, been the most impactful for the organization, although he continues to polarize one of the league's most rabid fan bases, years after Burke departed for the Calgary Flames.

Torey Krug (Michigan State/Boston Bruins): The knock on 5-foot-9, 186-pound defenseman Torey Krug was always his lack of size. But three standout years at Michigan State after going undrafted changed the minds of NHL front offices and Krug signed with the Boston Bruins in 2012. Five years later, he remains in Boston, where he helped his club to an Eastern Conference championship in 2012-13 and a Presidents' Trophy in 2013-14.

Danny DeKeyser (Western Michigan University/Detroit Red Wings): The quintessential late-bloomer, lanky defenseman Danny DeKeyser took a while to grow into his body. After doing so at Western Michigan University, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound DeKeyser became coveted by more than 10 NHL teams before signing in-state with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013, where he's been a mainstay on the team's blue line for four years.

Chris Kunitz (Ferris State/Anaheim Mighty Ducks): Now a veteran NHLer with three Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medal on his resume, it's often forgotten how unheralded Chris Kunitz was when entering pro hockey. Never drafted, Kunitz was a consistent NCAA performer at Ferris State, who really exploded offensively his junior and senior years with 28 and 35-goal seasons, respectively. After being signed by the then-called Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003, Kunitz mostly spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues before establishing himself as an NHL regular. After winning his first championship with Anaheim in 2007, Kunitz found a niche as Sidney Crosby's triggerman on the Pittsburgh Penguins, with whom he recently tallied his 250th career NHL goal.

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