With the NCAA playoffs in full force and the Frozen Four coming soon, there should be some activity on the college free agent front in the coming weeks. At this time of year, college free agents are rarely coming in as impact prospects with high NHL ceilings (and this year is no exception) but it’s an opportunity for teams to add some depth pieces that are further along in their development compared to players coming out of major junior.
Here is an overview of some of the forwards that should be drawing NHL interest in the near future. Note that not all of these players will sign entry-level contracts as some will ultimately elect to return to college for another season while quite a few others not on this list will sign NHL or AHL deals in the coming weeks.
C Parker Ford, Providence
An undersized middleman at 5’9, Ford nevertheless plays with an edge and can play in all situations. Offensively, his numbers have been pretty steady throughout his four-year college career, ranging from 19 to 27 points. Ford is presently the leading scorer on a Friars team that has nine NHL draft picks on it as well. The 22-year-old might not be in high demand because of his size but he’s still a good bet to land an entry-level deal.
RW Riese Gaber, North Dakota
It’s believed that Gaber had some NHL interest last year but opted to return to the Fighting Hawks for his junior campaign. A small but speedy winger, the 23-year-old has hovered around the point-per-game mark for the last two seasons and had a pair of years of at least 50 points at the USHL level as well. With Gaber’s production not really improving too much this year, there would be a bit more risk of him potentially plateauing if he opted to forego signing an NHL deal this time around.
RW Collin Graf, Quinnipiac
It was a bit of a surprise when Graf entered the transfer portal following what was a solid freshman campaign with Union College but it’s safe to say the decision worked out. The 20-year-old saw his numbers improve across the board to the tune of 19 goals and 33 assists in 35 games, good for first on the Bobcats and second in the NCAA overall beyond only Adam Fantilli. On the one hand, a year like this is an ideal platform to try to land an NHL contract but he could be better served going back for one more year to fill out and work on his skating a bit more.
C T.J. Hughes, Michigan
Hughes is the Wolverines’ second-line pivot behind Fantilli and is having a nice freshman year, hovering around the point-per-game mark. In 2021-22, the 21-year-old averaged more than a goal and an assist per game with Brooks of the AJHL. There’s a strong case to be made for him to stay at Michigan next season where he’ll likely move onto the top line assuming Fantilli turns pro but if he wants to start his pro career now, there should be strong interest.
LW Ryan McAllister, Western Michigan
McAllister burst onto the scene after lighting it up early and often this season, battling Fantilli for the NCAA scoring lead for a good chunk of the year. While his output has tapered off a bit, he’s still in the top ten in points, quite a freshman campaign on the heels of a 139-point AJHL season in 2021-22. At 21, he still has a long college career ahead of him if he wants it but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him capitalize on what’s sure to be good interest in the coming weeks and turn pro now. He attended Toronto’s development camp last summer.
C Hunter McKown, Colorado College
At 20, McKown is one of the youngest players eligible for college free agency but a 20-goal campaign with the Tigers should have him on the NHL radar. Teams also would have gotten a good look at McKown in last summer’s World Juniors when he saw time on Team USA’s power play in the event; more than half of his goals this year have come on the man advantage. Already in his junior year, it’s possible that McKown could stick around for one more year and then turn pro when he’d only be eligible for a two-year entry-level deal compared to a three-year agreement if he signed now.
C Jaxon Nelson, Minnesota
Teams are always looking for size down the middle and at 6’4, Nelson checks that box. The 22-year-old hasn’t been the most prolific of scorers throughout his four-year college career (his seven tallies this season are a career-high) but he has a strong defensive pedigree that gives him a possible fourth-line profile in the pros. The raw upside isn’t as high as others on this list but Nelson is pretty much a lock to land a contract somewhere.
RW Jason Polin, Western Michigan
The 23-year-old has been part of arguably the most dominant line in college hockey this season and the end result is Polin leading the NCAA with 29 goals. For context, his previous high in points was 26. While there will be some question marks as to whether his output was linemate-driven or if it was a legitimate improvement that can carry over to the pros, he’ll be an intriguing free agent addition with a bit of upside once his senior year comes to an end.
C Max Sasson, Western Michigan
Another part of that dominant top line for the Broncos as he’s averaging over a point per game, Sasson’s skating is a strong element that helps him stand out among this group of players. The 21-year-old sophomore is an all-situations player which gives him a chance to carve out a lower role in the lineup which is where he likely profiles in the pros. Sasson is young enough that it makes some sense for him to stay in college for another year but if his linemates turn pro, he might decide to follow suit.
C Austen Swankler, Bowling Green
It’s very rare that a player who played a full OHL season is able to play in college but it happened with Swankler. The 21-year-old sophomore has been in the top ten in NCAA scoring for most of the season and made considerable strides compared to his freshman year, becoming a strong all-around offensive player. Skating is an element that still needs to improve and will go a long way toward determining what type of success he has in the pros. He has two years of eligibility remaining but some NHL teams would likely prefer to get him into their system now.
Others To Watch For
LW Matt Brown, Providence
C Justin Hryckowian, Northeastern
C Ondrej Pavel, Minnesota State
C Nick Poisson, Providence
LW Ondrej Psenicka, Cornell
LW – Matt Brown (Boston University), not Providence.
Great article Brian
It’s a rewrite. There isn’t one original thought in that story.
Canucks & Blues need to try & get Hughes, McAllister to sign early…