With everyone eagerly anticipating what new General Manager Kyle Davidson will do at the NHL trade deadline, people seem to overlook the college free agent signing period. The college free agent period is important because teams can essentially pick up a free prospect. The prospect can turn into a depth player at the AHL or NHL level or can become a star as in the case of Adam Oates and Martin St. Louis. The signee could also just be a guy who passes through your system and eventually washes out of North American Hockey. The point is that this is a period where teams lacking depth in their prospect system can try to find a diamond in the rough.
Once the NCAA Hockey season is over NHL teams can sign non-drafted players to Entry-Level Contracts. Players who are 18-21 must sign three-year entry-level contracts, players aged 22-23 must sign two-year entry-level contracts, and players 24 or older must sign a one-year entry-level contract. The maximum salary for an ELC is $925,000 for all teams. So the most the Blackhawks can offer a college free agent is $925,000.
While the Blackhawks have been deficient in a lot of areas of acquiring talent, the team has had success in signing NCAA free agents recently. In 2012-13, the Blackhawks signed Hobey Baker winner Drew Leblanc out of St. Cloud State. Leblanc was an AHL guy for two seasons before going overseas to the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. Leblanc has been played in the DEL since 2015-16.
2014 turned out to be a good college free agent class for the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks signed “coveted at the time” NCAA free-agent forward Kyle Baun. Kyle Baun was undrafted out of Colegate. Baun had scored 29 points in 38 games. After two seasons in the AHL, Baun was traded away in an AHL deal. He has not played pro-hockey since 2019-20.
In addition to signing Baun, the Blackhawks signed defenseman, Trevor van Riemsdyk, out of the University of New Hampshire. Van Riemsdyk turned out to be an NHL player appearing in 18 games in 2014-15. In three seasons with the Blackhawks, he appeared in 158 games and racked up 31 points. He is currently in his eighth NHL season with the Washington Capitals.
After Baun and Van Riemsdyk, the Blackhawks signed forward Tanner Kero out of Michigan Tech. Kero appeared in 72 games with the Blackhawks between 2015-18. Kero was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2018 for Michael Chaput. He signed a two-year deal with the Stars. He has appeared in 62 games with the Stars in two seasons.
In 2017, the Blackhawks signed Goaltender Collin Delia out of Merrimack College. Delia had been at two Blackhawks prospect camps before being offered a contract. Delia is the first player in franchise history to reach the NHL after playing in the ECHL with the Indy Fuel. In his career with the Blackhawks, Delia has appeared in 26 NHL games in four seasons. While it appears that Delia will be continuing his pro-career someplace else after this season, he was still a successful undrafted college free agent.
In 2019, the Blackhawks were able to sign Goalie Cale Morris out of the University of Notre Dame. Morris played in 106 games with the Irish before signing with the Blackhawks. He has appeared in 11 games with the Rockford Icehogs in the past two seasons. This season he has appeared in 16 games with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL.
That same year the Blackhawks signed Division three goalie Tom Aubrun. Aubrun sent the NCAA record consecutive shutouts at Norwich University. He had 13 shutouts his senior year. Aubrun has 14 games in with the Indy Fuel in two seasons. He has appeared in three games with the Rockford Icehogs last season in 2020-21.
The most recent undrafted NCAA free agent signing for the Blackhawks is Mike Hardman. Hardman has appeared in 29 games with the Blackhawks in two seasons, 21 games coming this season.
The expectation is that the Blackhawks are going to be very active in the college free-agent market. With their system severely lacking forward prospects aside from Luckas Richel, the Blackhawks should be involved in trying to persuade some of the top undrafted forward prospects.
According to Chris Peters of the Daily Faceoff, Ben Myers from the Unversity of Minnesota is the top undrafted NCAA free agent this coming year. This season Myers put up 34 points in 29 games with the Gophers, he also participated in the Olympics this year. As a member of Team USA, Myers had two goals and two assists in four games. Peters highlights that Myers has a quick release and is strong on his skates. Teams will have to wait on Myers for a bit as Minnesota is still in the Big-10 tournament.
Peters ranked Bobby Trivigno Left Winger out of UMass-Amherst as the second-best undrafted college free agent. Trivigno is an undersized skilled forward who helped UMass-Amherst capture its first NCAA National Championship. He was named the Tournament MVP and was tied for sixth in the country in scoring. He has participated in NHL camps before, the most recent being with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019. He was invited to the Rangers came in 2021 but could not attend because his classes had resumed. In addition to his skill, he has been captain of his team for the last two seasons. He figures to be a highly sought-after forward after his season ends.
The Blackhawks have done a good job of signing college free agents while all of them have not turned out, some of the free agents have turned out to be depth pieces in their system and at the NHL level. The Hawks are in the asset gathering portion of their rebuild and the more assets they acquire, the better chances of success in the future. Kyle Davidson should take the New York Rangers approach from last year and offer everyone and anyone a contract. There is virtually no risk in signing a college free agent and they have five contracts available before meeting the Maximum of 50 allowed contracts.
So why not go for it and try to get some new players in their system? The Blackhawks could be viewed as one of the easiest paths to play in the NHL. Potential signees are not going to have leapfrog top-tier prospects in order to make the NHL. Hopefully, the “newly” revamped front office will try to leverage the weakness of their system into a selling point for potential free agents signees.
Who knows maybe the Blackhawks could get lucky and find a Chris Kunitz type college free agent or perhaps a Torey Krug type?