Undrafted college free agents are an interesting and unpredictable bunch. For every Martin St-Louis there are 10 T.J. Trevelyans. But that’s the risk-reward behind acquiring players this way.
When defenseman Matt Gilroy finished at Boston University, he was a hot commodity for NHL GMs. The Rangers won the derby and put Gilroy right into the lineup for 69 games in 2009-10 and another 58 last season. After two years, they were no longer convinced he was a fit on their young, emerging blueline and let him walk away to Tampa Bay.
So far in Tampa we’ve seen two different Gilroys – one who makes fans nervous with his aggressive and sometimes costly pinching and another whose instincts pay off in goals for his team. But as coach Guy Boucher and the Lightning stress a more simple two-way game for the 27-year-old, they’re becoming more comfortable with his place in the lineup. Whether or not it works in the long run is something to revisit at a later date.
If you look at a third Lightning player signed as a free agent out of college, Teddy Purcell, you’ll see a guy between St-Louis and Gilroy in his standing as an NHLer. Two and three years ago, Purcell was struggling to find his game with the Los Angeles Kings. But he had a breakout 17-goal, 51-point season with Tampa Bay last year and is starting 2011-12 like he’s poised for another career year.
And Tampa acquired him (plus a third round pick) for the low-scoring price of Jeff Halpern.
“The (Los Angeles) coach really didn’t give me a lot of chances to play like myself and I got lost in the shuffle there and because of that I wasn’t confident in myself,” Purcell said. “To be in this league and to be successful you have to do what got you there and I was getting away from those things. I was kind of mentally weak I guess.”
Under Boucher, Purcell is evolving into a much more important piece on a Lightning roster that lost productive playoff performers Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim in the off-season. Purcell recognized the voids their departures created and saw an opportunity to step up.
Through 13 games, Purcell has five goals and 12 points. But when you look down the list of the NHL’s top scorers, you’ll notice Purcell is the only player in the top 100 averaging fewer than 14 minutes of ice per game. In fact, the first player with less time than Purcell’s 13:23 is 148th-ranked scorer Jason Chimera, who has seven points in 12 games with the Washington Capitals.
Despite the relatively low average ice time, the 26-year-old Purcell is pleased with the trust coach Boucher has shown in him.
“When I came to Tampa I got a chance to play with some good linemates consistently and I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake,” Purcell said. “Ever since Guy got here he’s been good with showing confidence in me and pulling me aside when I need to improve.”
A big reason why most of these college free agents go undrafted: they’re late-bloomers. You can play into your early 20s in college, which gives you more time to find yourself as a player and grow into your body.
Lightning assistant GM Tom Kurvers noticed Purcell’s mature frame during training camp this year when Purcell stood amongst some of the team’s prospects. It perfectly displayed his maturation from prospect to pro.
“At the beginning of camp when we have a lot of our young prospects, they look like the tall skinny kid Teddy used to be,” Kurvers explained. “Teddy looks thicker and stronger just standing in line for lunch.”
Opportunity, a fully developed body, the confidence of the coaching staff and a collection of strong linemates all coming together suggest the best has yet to come for Purcell.
“We think he’ll be better this year than last,” Kurvers said.
This doesn’t mean Gilroy will follow the same path and excel under the same circumstances as Purcell after a couple years of NHL experience, but it does mean there’s still promise in the 2009 college free agent.
The immediate payoff is always attractive, but placing patience in the right player can give you the most positive return.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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