We’re nearing the end of the NCAA college hockey season. Conference tournaments will be starting soon. That will then be followed in early April by the national tournament and the Frozen Four in Boston to determine a national champion. That means that we’re getting close to prospects and undrafted free agents from the college ranks leaving school to begin their professional hockey careers.
In the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning started to pivot more towards NCAA bound players for their draft picks. In the six previous drafts going back to 2011, the Lightning selected eight NCAA players, for 17.4% of their draft picks. Since then, the team has selected three in 2017, four in 2018 (counting Magnus Chrona who was playing in Sweden and elected to go to NCAA hockey), two in 2019, two in 2020, and three in 2021 for a total of 14 NCAA bound players for 38.8% of the team’s draft picks in that span.
With this shift towards NCAA players, it’s made the decision making for stocking the roster in the AHL for the Syracuse Crunch a bit different. The vast majority of NCAA prospects will stay in school until they are at least 21 or 22, and sometimes as late as 24, a point where a Canadian Major Junior or European prospect would already have a year or two or more in the AHL. It’s allowed the Lightning to keep that group of prospects that come in earlier in better line-up situations for longer as they developed. Players like Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk out of the OHL who are now up in the NHL after spending three years in the AHL.
It also gives the team more time to evaluate the player and their development before committing a contract to them. The Lightning have had a few draft classes where they’ve had more than the usual seven picks, such as 2016 when the team made ten draft selections. More prospects in the system means more players that need to count against the 50-contract limit when they sign their entry-level contracts. But with those NCAA prospects, they get to continue to develop past 20 years old without counting against the contract limit. The team continues to control the rights of NCAA players until the August after they leave school.
The other side of the coin has been that the Lightning have been more free to sign veteran minor-leaguers to surround their prospects with and give them a solid leadership corps. Guys that can show the prospects on and off the ice what it takes to be a professional.
With all that said, let’s take a look at three NCAA prospects in the pipeline that should be signing with the Lightning in the next month and joining the Syracuse Crunch down the stretch to finish off the season.
Guttman was a 6th-round pick by the Lightning in the 2017 draft. In his draft year, he posted 54 points in 53 games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL. His follow-up season was interrupted by injuries as he recorded 11 points in just 17 games. He moved on to the University of Denver. Over 131 NCAA games, Guttman has put up 50 goals and 112 points. As a senior, he has recorded 14 goals and 36 points in 32 games good for third and second on the team respectively.
Guttman is on the smaller side at 5’11” and 175 pounds, and he has grown a bit since he was drafted as a small center. Guttman has shown enough offensive upside in NCAA hockey that he should be given an entry-level contract when his NCAA season has concluded. His offensive production isn’t eye popping enough to suggest he’s ready to jump straight into the NHL and instead would head to the AHL for more seasoning.
Like many late round and NCAA bound prospects, there are deficits in his game. While the Lightning haven’t shied away from small forwards in the draft, they usually need to have good speed and skating to make it to the NHL. Guttman turns 23 in April and he’ll need to quickly show in the AHL that he has both the offense and the skating to make it at the NHL level.
Sammy Walker is a prospect that Lightning fans have long drooled over after seeing him dazzle during a 3-on-3 tournament at a development camp. Unfortunately, he has not translated that into high end production at the NCAA level. Drafted in the 7th-round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft out of high school, Walker returned to his high school team for another season and then went on to the University of Minnesota. In 139 games, he’s put up 47 goals and 111 points and has 13 goals and 26 points in 34 games so far in his senior season.
Walker is another small forward listed at 5’11” and 180 pounds. He shares a lot of similarities to Guttman as far as his NHL future. He doesn’t have the offensive output to jump straight into the NHL and scouts have long questioned his skating and speed. Like Guttman, he is a senior and has done enough that he should earn an ELC and spend at least next season in the AHL.
Perbix is fresh off of an appearance at the Olympics with Team USA. Considering all of the high-end NCAA talent as well as NHL veterans from Europe the team brought to Beijing, that should tell you something about what the hockey world sees in him. He’s listed at 6’4” and 200 pounds and was drafted in the 6th round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Perbix was selected as an overage draft pick after being one of the younger defensemen in his draft class of 2016 with a June birthdate.
Perbix spent a year in the USHL and then moved up to St. Cloud State in NCAA in 2018-19. In 130 career NCAA games, Perbix has recorded 19 goals and 85 points from the blue line. In his senior season, he has recorded three goals and 27 points in 26 games. He posted one assist in four games at the Olympics.
Perbix is a prospect I’ve long been higher on than others. He has the kind of size that the Lightning like to have on the blue line, and is a right-handed defenseman which immediately increases his value. He’s got the kind of defensive game that could see him move to the NHL quicker than you might expect. He’s already 23 and will turn 24 in June. The Lightning only have three NHL caliber right-handed defenseman signed for next season in Erik Cernak, Cal Foote, and Zach Bogosian. Making him the 7th defenseman would be a waste of development time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the conversation as an injury call-up next season.
In Syracuse, Perbix should get a lot of minutes on the back-end. For the rest of this season, most of his competition for playing time comes from Andrej Sustr, Darren Raddysh, and Alex Green when the Lightning’s blue line is fully healthy. If all three of those defensemen are in Syracuse, then Perbix may not break in immediately. But if any of the three are up in Tampa, as Sustr is currently because of an injury to Zach Bogosian, that opens up a spot for Perbix to play right away.
The Lightning have six other NCAA prospects, plus one in the USHL. Goaltender Ty Taylor was also in NCAA hockey but spent this past season in Canadian USports college hockey. Taylor signed with the Orlando Solar Bears recently but isn’t much of a prospect at this point.
Defenseman Max Crozier, a junior at Providence College and a 4th round pick from 2019, is the closest of the group to being ready to sign. He’s another right-handed defenseman, but hasn’t found the same offensive level in NCAA hockey that Perbix has. He did take a step forward this season though recording seven goals and 22 points in 30 games. He’s a possibility to sign, but I think it more likely he’ll head back to Providence for his senior season.
The rest of the college prospects haven’t shown yet that they are ready for the pro game. Dylan Duke, McKade Webster, Nick Capone, Eamon Powell, and Alex Gagne are all freshmen or sophomores in NCAA hockey and have posted less than a half point per game this season which isn’t enough production to see them as ready to make the move to the professional ranks. They’ll all spend at least another year or two before they are ready to go pro.