As the clock struck midnight on Aug. 15, a number of ex-college players became unrestricted free agents. Will Butcher, Blaine Byron and Alex Kerfoot had all been drafted by NHL teams, but decided not to sign with those franchises right away. That gave them the chance to be courted by every other team in the league.
It’s a pretty sweet deal if you think about it: all three got four-year educations (Kerfoot at Harvard, no less) and now they get to choose where they begin their pro careers. Jimmy Vesey did this before when he spurned Nashville for the New York Rangers, as did Kevin Hayes, who also joined New York even though Chicago drafted his rights.
Because of players like Vesey and Hayes, there are fans out there who believe the NHL has an NCAA “loophole” problem. The CBA states that college players can wait out their draft teams, so no one is doing anything wrong here – at least by the letter of the law. But is it really that big a problem?
I looked at the first two rounds of three recent drafts (2010-12) to see how many college-bound players signed with the teams that drafted them. I did not count players who were supposed to go NCAA but switched to junior, but those players (Jack Campbell, Jarred Tinordi, etc.) signed with their draft teams anyway. The result? There were 38 kids that signed with their draft teams and two – Hayes and Samuel Kurker (St. Louis) – that did not.
Now, it’s important to note that Butcher, Byron and Kerfoot were all late-round picks, which adds some complexity to the situation. Obviously they were projects when they were drafted and it is tough for the Avalanche, Penguins and Devils to watch these kids grow into potential pro talents for years without reaping the rewards.
On the other hand, players from major junior or Europe go through this all the time as well. Sometimes it’s player-based, like when goalie Frederik Andersen spurned Carolina, prompting him to be re-drafted by Anaheim two years later. Sometimes it’s team-based, like when Colorado punted on 2014 first-rounder Conner Bleackley, allowing St. Louis to draft the young center again in 2016 (Jarret Stoll was also drafted twice – Calgary to Edmonton!). And for those of you who think the Rangers get everyone, they actually lost defenseman Ryan Mantha to free agency when the OHLer signed with Edmonton after failing to come to terms with New York.
I’m not sure why the NCAA cases get more press, but here we are. I would speculate that it being mid-August, with nothing going on in the hockey world, plays a role, but we’ve also been talking about Butcher for months (national championships and last-place clubs will do that). Perhaps it’s because the level of competition in the NCAA dictates that younger players have a tougher time racking up points, compared to major junior, so the spotlight doesn’t shine on a player such as Butcher until he truly breaks through, as the Denver defenseman did in his junior campaign.
And hey: sometimes you just lose a guy. Hockey is a business and plenty of teams have mercilessly cut or waived players due to age or durability or any other number of reasons. There can be only some hurt feelings here.
Some teams have made sure they got their NCAA gems by going the extra mile. The Calgary Flames, for example, whisked Johnny Gaudreau off to the NHL in a private jet as soon as his Boston College career ended. Heck, they even signed his buddy Bill Arnold and got him on the plane, too. I’m not saying the Devils failed with Kerfoot – and we know Nashville did all they could before reluctantly trading Vesey’s rights to Buffalo (sorry, Sabres) – but I am saying that nearly every situation is different and various outcomes should be expected.
So don’t be afraid of your team’s NCAA prospects. Despite what the headlines may tell you, those kids almost always report – just like other hockey players.