What do NHL pro scouts do during the All-Star break? There's no going to the AHL, with its schedule suspended for its own All-Star game. Junior? Well, maybe, just to check up on some already drafted prospects, hopefully their own, and make some projections about who might get a call-up to the AHL at the end of the season. One option for these scouts looking for something to do is fishing -- for an undrafted college player who'll be a free agent at the end of the season.
But the odds of catching prospects who'll play and stick at the next level are long -- in the opinion of a lot of scouts and general managers, too long to invest much time scouting and money wooing them. They'll cite the example of Ray Staszak, a guy who passed through the draft untapped when he was with the University of Illinois-Chicago in the mid-80s and then put up 37 goals in 38 games. The Detroit Red Wings thought this was good for a million bucks, making Staszak the first-ever undrafted player to fetch seven figures. For that small fortune Staszak lasted a year; four games with the big club, 26 with Adirondack. That's the cautionary tale and also how most of these signings turn out. You'll find exceptions, but the odds are not in your favor.
But the lure of catching that Great White Whale will always be there. Particularly because of one of the biggest exceptions of all. In 1985 there was one other attractive college free agent who came onto the market back in '85. Though he was considered a poor second to Staszak, Adam Oates also signed with Detroit en route to a career that featured 1,333 more NHL games and 1,419 more points than Staszak. And that's the reason NHL teams will continue to troll these waters for undrafted talent. Particularly those shy on draft resources.
Having dealt draft picks away for Phil Kessel and others over the years, Toronto has tried to buy college free agents in bulk. The signings have generated a lot of hype about the team being pro-active, but so far, one signee, Tyler Bozak has made the club. And while he showed promise of becoming a 20-goal and play-making center last season after signing in mid-winter, Bozak has gone backwards this season. Christian Hanson? Brady Irwin? These two are another question entirely.
So who will be out there among college free agents at the end of this NCAA season?
One player getting significant interest is Stephane Da Costa, a forward with Merrimack College. A lot of scouts, pro and amateur, out in New England caught Da Costa and the Warriors in back-to-back tilts with Vermont. Da Costa, who grew up and lives in Paris, France, was the NCAA's rookie of the year last season -- a truly amazing one at that. As a freshman out of the USHL, he managed a natural hat trick and a five goal game and wound up finishing eighth nationally in scoring. This link features some highlight-reel stuff from Da Costa's frosh season and the story of his somewhat unlikely landing at Merrimack. This year, with 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 games, he's had a decent sophomore campaign. Da Costa will be a player of interest out in the market this spring -- he went to Anaheim's summer camp but didn't sign a deal. Some scouts wonder if he's up to the tough sledding of the NHL at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. He will have bidders, however.
Stockwatch: Flashy IPO but potential of irrational enthusiasm.
Scouts at those games at Merrimack also had interest in two Vermont players, senior defencemen Kevan Miller and Dan Lawson. Scouts make them as stay-at-home bluliners -- then again, if he joined the rush, the 6-3, 251-pound Lawson would be more Winnebago than sports car.
"They're more like organization players than anyone you'd project into the NHL," said one scout who has multiple views of the players this season. A lot of things would have to fall into place if either develops into a CFA-to-pro like the Rangers' Matt Gilroy. One point, though, is that you know quickly what you have with players in their mid-20s and, at best, it's someone whose upside is at the bottom third of a roster.
Maybe the most intriguing player is Chay Genoway, a University of North Dakota defenseman from Morden, Manitoba, by way of Shattuck-St. Mary's. Genoway is small -- a listed 5-9 but scouts suspect he's closer to 5-8 and he could fight as a middleweight. He received a medical redshirt last year for a concussion that has some teams wary as well, but the talent is there. "He's my favorite player in the NCAA right now," one scout said.
Stockwatch: Speculative but will generate interest.
To believe that a college free agent is worth signing you have to believe that he's a prospect that everyone missed (highly unlikely) or that developed late (somewhat more likely). All mentioned here were playing in plain sight -- none were missed. It's easy to believe that Da Costa, with this backstory, might be a late developer. Could Lawson get more nimble? Maybe. Might Genoway become a Brian Rafalski-type? Never say never. All teams have to risk is money, which is easier to come by than draft picks.