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NCAA free agents have stretch-run potential

by Michael Blinn
As league tournaments move toward championship weekends and teams prepare for the NCAA Tournament, a number of college squads already have finished their seasons.

Some of the student-athletes on those rosters will begin preparing for next season, while others can entertain the idea of joining the NHL team that holds their draft rights for the stretch run.

Other players, however, have more options: Since they were never drafted, they become unrestricted free agents that can sign with whatever team they please, and often become hot commodities. In some cases, these individuals get the chance to step right into an NHL lineup and can make an immediate impact.

Here is a list of 11 players who have shone at the NCAA level, and could be courted heavily once their team's season is over:

Spencer Abbott, F, Maine
Size: 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
Age: 24
2011-12: 37 games, 20 goals, 39 assists
Career: 149 games, 53 goals, 90 assists.

Has there been a more consistent player at such a high level this season? Abbott, a senior, raced up the national leaderboard by averaging more than 1.6 points per game; he's been held pointless in just 10 games, and just once in back-to-back games. He's had 11 games with at least three points, and his highlight was a 5-goal, 4-assist performance in a two-game set against Vermont in early December. He's improved upon his totals every season, and his game appears ready for the next level.

JT Brown, W, Minnesota-Duluth
Size: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
Age: 22
2011-12: 36 games, 23 goals, 23 assists
Career: 78 games, 39 goals, 44 assists

Brown might be the most NHL-ready player in the college ranks right now. The sophomore is a power forward with excellent hands and a nose for the net -- and as the son of former NFL player Ted Brown, he has the professional sports pedigree that some GMs especially find attractive. At the end of the regular season, he ranked fourth in the nation in goals (23), and ninth in points (46). While he's part of a high-scoring Bulldogs offense, Brown has shown the ability to carry the team when needed, as evidenced by his 13 multi-point efforts this season, including a hat trick and a four-goal game.

Jack Connolly, C, Minnesota Duluth
Size: 5-foot-8, 170 pounds
Age: 23
2011-12: 38 games, 18 goals, 38 assists
Career: 163 games, 54 goals, 129 assists

The nation's leading scorer for most of the season, the senior has been unstoppable for the second straight season. He's put up 56 points in just 38 games, tying his personal best set last season in 42 games. With Duluth guaranteed at least a couple of postseason games, he should best his own benchmark, despite not having the high-scoring cast around him he did in 2010-11. Named WCHA player of the year, the stats he's put up are gaudy thanks to a combination of speed, hands, and hockey smarts, though the number that could hold him back is his height. At 5-foot-8, his size may be a deterrent, though that didn't get in the way of former teammate Mike Connolly (no relation), who stands just 5-9 but signed a contract with the San Jose Sharks before being traded to Colorado where he made his NHL debut earlier this month.

Danny Dekeyser, D, Western Michigan
6-foot-3, 186 pounds
Age: 22
2011-12: 38 games, 5 goals, 11 assists
Career: 80 games, 10 goals, 23 assists

While his offensive numbers may not jump off the page, the Broncos blueliner brings other attributes to the table. The hulking defenseman eats a lot of minutes for Western Michigan, and uses them effectively to shut down opposing forwards and block shots. While the sophomore's game is of the defense-first variety -- he's a finalist for the CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman Award -- Dekeyser has contributed 16 points, including 2 power-play goals, proving that he can contribute offensively when called upon.

Brian Flynn, F, Maine
Size: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
Age: 24
2011-12: 37 games, 17 goals, 29 assists
Career: 150 games, 68 goals, 86 assists

Over his four-year career in Orono, Flynn has been as consistent as they come, averaging 17 goals and 38 points per season. He's 12th on the Black Bears' all-time scoring list. The senior has proven he can score goals, as well as play set-up man -- he and Abbott have meshed with junior Joey Diamond to form possibly the best line in the NCAA. Making Flynn an even more attractive candidate is his good size, and experience playing alongside such high-flying players as Gustav Nyquist.

Troy Grosenick, G, Union
Size: 6-foot-1, 190 pounds
Age: 23
2011-12: 18-5-3, 1.66 GAA, .936 SV%
Career: 18-5-4, 1.77 GAA, .934 SV%

With Keith Kinkaid joining the pro ranks at the end of the 2010-11 season, the Union goaltending situation was tenuous at best. Enter sophomore Troy Grosenick, who has more than just ably taken the reins in net. Dutchmen coach Rick Bennett raves about the 23-year-old's character, including his role in the locker room. Grosenick is a good-size goalie who's in peak shape, and it shows as Grosenick ranks among the best in every major statistical category.

Torey Krug, D, Michigan State
Size: 5-foot-9, 180 pounds
Age: 21
2011-12: 37 games, 12 goals, 21 assists
Career: 116 games, 26 goals, 56 points

An undersized defenseman, Krug certainly plays a much bigger game. After just two years, he was named the Spartans' captain and has led the team in several aspects this season as a junior: His 12 goals lead the team and his 21 assists are tied for the team lead, while his 33 points in 37 games place him as the fifth-highest scoring blueliner in the NCAA. The number that stands out most, however, is his plus-18, which is tied for 22nd in the country, despite the fact Spartans coach Tom Anastos deploys Krug in nearly every situation, as evidenced by his 7 power-play goals and 3 game-winning goals. Krug has shown a propensity to lift his game -- and his team -- when the stakes are high.

Brian O'Neill, F, Yale
Size: 5-foot-9, 170
Age: 24
2011-12: 31 games, 21 goals, 25 assists
Career: 134 games, 69 goals, 94 assists

O'Neill flew under the radar when he entered college, but he quickly adapted during his freshman season and has become one of the most dynamic scorers in college hockey. A speedy playmaker with great hands, the senior has eclipsed the 45-point mark for the third straight season, and finds himself among the nation's top scorers, something made even more remarkable as Yale plays a shorter schedule in the ECAC. He's been a big reason for the Bulldogs' continual reign among the country's top offenses, and could make for a valuable asset for an NHL team.

Chris Rawlings, G, Northeastern
Size: 6-foot-5, 207 pounds
Age: 24
2011-12: 12-14-5, 2.71 GAA, .916 SV%
Career: 39-41-15, 2.74 GAA, .917 SV%

As a freshman, Rawlings came to the Huskies as a raw goalie with plenty of athleticism and promise. Three seasons later, he's a more polished prospect who has added technique to go with his size and speed. While some may point to his record as a black mark, his goals-against average and save percentage have stayed in the same ballpark, a sign that he's the victim of an up-and-down offense. Rawlings is a project for sure, but is of the coveted low-risk, high-reward variety

Kelly Zajac, F, Union
Size: 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
Age: 24
2011-12: 36 games, 8 goals, 33 assists
Career: 154 games, 37 goals, 90 assists

Zajac, the younger brother of Devils center Travis Zajac, has a lot on his collegiate resume. The senior has come into his own on the stat sheets over the last two seasons en route to becoming the highest-scoring member of the Zajac clan at the NCAA level -- a list that includes brothers Travis and Darcy, as well as their father, Tom. While he's shown an increased propensity for setting up and scoring goals while leading Union to new heights in the college hockey landscape, Zajac has also dedicated himself as a two-way player: he's a finalist for the ECAC's Best Defensive Forward award.

Mark Zengerle, C, Wisconsin
Size: 5-foot-11, 180 pounds
Age: 23
2011-12: 37 games, 13 goals, 37 assists
Career: 75 games, 18 goals, 68 assists

A lot of the buzz around the Badgers centers around super defenseman Justin Schultz, but Zengerle has thrived just outside the spotlight. The sophomore center has shown the ability to do a little bit of everything this season. He can score (13 goals), pass (an NCAA-leading 37 assists), and play with an edge (89 penalty minutes in 75 NCAA games). He exploded early with a 20-game point streak, posting 33 points in that span, after recording 36 points as a freshman.
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