Every off season, there are always a number of NCAA free agents available to NHL teams. They usually produce quite a bit of buzz in the media (last year’s buzz was about Jimmy Vesey, and this year it’s all about Will Butcher), but they are rarely the kind of star talents that you would find in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
Additionally, there’s always a handful of undrafted free agents that went through the CHL—that’s the Canadian major junior hockey leagues, the OHL, the WHL, and the QMJHL.
For Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, the NCAA and CHL undrafted players were a well that he went to early in his tenure with the team. It’s worked out with some pretty good successes and with some failures, but that’s true of any prospect with that risk of busting always present. The last few off-seasons though, Yzerman has not signed these players, and the Lightning have rarely been reported as in the mix for them.
Why? You’d think that the Lightning would be an attractive place for players to come play and have a chance at winning a Stanley Cup. There are some nice things the Lightning have to offer, but there are also some definite downsides that have made it harder for Yzerman to win those negotiations.
NCAA and CHL Free Agent Eligibility
Before we jump into why the Lightning haven’t been a player in this market recently, let’s touch on what players are eligible.
- A player that was not drafted in the NHL Entry Draft and is no longer eligible to be selected in an NHL Entry Draft can become an unrestricted free agent and sign with any NHL franchise.
- A player that was drafted in the NHL Entry Draft and went to an NCAA college can declare he is leaving school. If he does, he can wait until August 15th and become an unrestricted free agent free to sign with any NHL franchise.
- A player that was drafted in the NHL Entry Draft and plays in the CHL, if that player does not sign with his drafting club after two seasons, he re-enters the NHL Entry Draft. If he goes undrafted, he is be free to sign with any club. If he is drafted again, the team will retain his rights for one season, after which he’ll become an unrestricted free agent
Yzerman’s history with NCAA and CHL free agents
Early on, the Lightning’s prospect cupboard was pretty barren. Yzerman wasn’t handed a whole lot when he took the job in 2010. He quickly went about wheeling and dealing prospects he wasn’t interested in while acquiring assets. His 2011 draft class ended up being stellar with picks of Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat. Add in Nikita Nesterov, Matthew Peca, and Adam Wilcox, he had a pretty healthy looking draft class. On top of that, there was the signing of Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent out of the WHL that summer.
With so few quality prospects in the system, there were plenty of opportunities for prospects brought in to earn their way to the NHL or get playing time in the AHL if they needed development. They didn’t have to worry about coming in and being a third or fourth liner for the AHL club. If they didn’t make the Lightning, they could play lots of minutes in the AHL while developing.
The two big names that Yzerman pulled in through the NCAA free agent route were J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr, both undrafted. For both of them, he used a negotiating tactic of starting their entry level contracts immediately as a lure to get them into the organization.
When signing an entry level contract mid-season, the start date for the contract can be the current season or the next season. By starting the contract in the current season, and keeping them with the Lightning for the last month or so of the season, the players were able to not only get their signing bonuses, but make an NHL salary. Even at league minimum salary, for a month in the NHL we’re talking about over $100,000 plus the signing bonus.
For the player, that incentive is certainly nice. It gives them a financial cushion to take care of themselves over the summer as well as to give them the money up front that they’ll need in finding a place to live at the start of the next season, whether in the NHL or AHL.
Since taking over as the Lightning’s General Manager, Yzerman has signed Pat Nagle (2010-11), J.T. Brown (2011-12), Cory Conacher (2011-12), Andrej Sustr (2012-13), and Cody Kunyk (2013-14) from the NCAA ranks. Conacher is the one that’s an outlier since he was signed to an AHL contract first and then earned his way to an entry level contract. But he was still a player that came out of NCAA as a free agent.
From the CHL ranks, Yzerman has signed Tyler Johnson (2010-11), Charles Landry (2010-11), Danick Gauthier (2011-12), Dan Milan (2011-12), and Artem Sergeev (2012-13). You could also probably include Yanni Gourde in this group, but he had been a professional for a full season before the Lightning snatched him up.
The Lightning haven’t signed an NHL-impacting player from this group since 2012-13 with Sustr, and haven’t signed one since 2013-14.
So why aren’t these guys coming to Tampa?
The other side of how well Yzerman and his Director of Scouting Al Murray have done their jobs is that the farm system is now stacked. This summer, going through some depth chart projections, it’s easy to see how stacked the team is at the professional level with so many good draft picks coming into the AHL. There are a couple of young prospects that I had a hard time projecting into the AHL line-up.
The Lightning also have a well-defined core of players, especially at forward, that limits the opportunities for players to come in and make a mark quickly. Looking at the team right now, the only way that such a free agent would get immediate NHL time is if they were ready to play the minutes as a second-line right winger. That means going to the AHL. And that could mean that if they aren’t already high end for the AHL, they’re going to play down in the lineup and have less of an opportunity to showcase their skills.
Yzerman has also shown some of the same habits as the Detroit Red Wings front office where he learned his GM skills. He errs on the side of developing too much instead of not enough. Players have to pay their dues in the minors, and there have been few exceptions to that in the Yzerman era. Not only that, but they can see that there are a lot of bodies in front of them in the depth chart with the level of depth and quality of prospects the Lightning possess on the farm.
That would be a big turn-off to a player that could already be 22 or 23 years old. They don’t have that much time left in their career to spend two or three years in the AHL before getting a chance in the NHL -- it’s a luxury they can’t afford. If they’re good enough, they’re going to look to an organization that can get them to the NHL quickly and help them get paid. Lately, the Lightning aren’t in a great position to offer that to these free agents.
And this is more of a blessing than a curse.