The men's college playoffs are upon us and soon, the Frozen Four. It's a very exciting time for NCAA fans and since last year's national championship was cancelled due to the pandemic, the stakes are extra-high for programs that thought they had the goods to go all the way in 2020.
But this time of year offers a bonus of sorts in the college realm, as we don't just care about which teams move on towards the title, but which players become available when their squads are eliminated. I am of course talking about college free agency season.
We've already hit the ground running on that front with the Columbus Blue Jackets scooping up Clarkson power forward Josh Dunne, a big defensive center who should fit in very well with the Jackets organization. NHL teams will have to wait for the big prize, however.
That big prize is North Dakota defenseman Matt Kiersted, a senior with the Fighting Hawks who has put up 20 points in 26 games this season and has scouts very intrigued thanks to his elite skating and his progression through four years in Grand Forks. Kiersted played in the USHL for the Chicago Steel before arriving at North Dakota and didn't do enough in his initial 2016 draft year to warrant a draft pick. His next season was marred by a knee injury, followed by his first year in college - and finding himself on a loaded North Dakota roster was a bit intimidating.
"When I first got here, it was my first season coming off a knee injury and I wasn't sure how I'd be able to come back from that," Kiersted said. "I started off slow, we had a good 'D' core and I was young. I didn't have all my strength or much confidence."
Playing behind those older blueliners did help Kiersted, however. Christian Wolanin is in the NHL with Ottawa and Colton Poolman is in the AHL with Stockton, while Kiersted gained experience and worked his way up the depth chart.
"Through the years, you see the older guys and learn from them," he said. "I put in the work and now I'm feeling good; I gained that strength and I have a lot of confidence on the ice. I'm a completely different player from my freshman year."
Which is why NHL teams are so interested. Kiersted can make the first pass and contain players in the defensive zone with a good stick. North Dakota could end up going all the way this year, so the wait might be a bit longer - but in a strange NHL season that will go on long after the Frozen Four (as opposed to finishing up the regular season around the same time), every franchise will be able to offer Kiersted NHL games right away as an incentive to sign with them.
One more important note on this year's college free agent class: because of the pandemic, the NCAA has allowed all players an extra year of eligibility, so if a potential free agent doesn't think they can get the deal they want - an NHL deal, versus an AHL deal, that is - then even a senior can simply go back to school for 2021-22 and try to improve their lot. So the marketplace is going to be volatile, to say the least.
Having said that, here are four more intriguing names to keep in mind.
Jordan Kawaguchi, LW, North Dakota: Kiersted's teammate was one of the top potential free agents last year, but he wanted to win a title and the pandemic robbed him of the chance. Kawaguchi's offensive numbers are down this year, but his game has continued to round out and scouts like how he has embraced his leadership role on the Fighting Hawks.
Marc McLaughlin, C, Boston College: The Eagles also have a very good shot at winning the national title, which will only give more opportunities for McLaughlin to show off the 200-foot game he honed in college. Before Boston College, McLaughlin played in the USHL for a Cedar Rapids team that struggled mightily at the time. His numbers weren't any better as an NCAA freshman, but as a junior this year, McLaughlin has a been a point-per-gamer. He's not flashy, but he is reliable.
Odeen Tufto, C, Quinnipiac: Things have gotten a lot better in recent years, but there is still a size bias in the NHL and Tufto's 5-foot-7, 175-pound frame has to be acknowledged as a factor in his NHL projection. Having said that, Tufto has been a dominant scorer for the Bobcats in all four of his seasons. He has put up 165 points in 137 NCAA games with Quinnipiac and been more than a point-per-gamer every year. A crafty playmaker, Tufto needs a scoring role in order to be effective at the NHL level.
Trevin Kozlowski, G, Army: It's not often I get to give Atlantic Hockey some love, but I'm happy to do it. This year's goalie crop is a bit of a mess because you have some small netminders with great teams in front of them and then just a lot of names in general to consider. Kozlowski is intriguing because he has NHL size at 6-foot-4 and has been a real difference-maker for Army this season, often putting the team on his back. He plays a puck-blocking style and has the Black Knights hot heading into the conference semifinal.