Given that each team generally has seven chances to makes a pick in the NHL Draft each year resulting in, until recently, 210 selections, and now 217 moving forward, the bulk of top players in the league come through the draft process. However, no matter the level – Canadian juniors, American juniors and the NCAA, and Europe – there are always players that slip through the crack. Sometimes those particular players don’t slip too far. Case in point: take a look at some of the top players in the CHL this season. A significant proportion of 2017-18’s most valuable players in the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL are not just undrafted, but have also already signed with an NHL team.
In the Ontario League, Aaron Luchuk is the poster boy for the year of undrafted signings. The 20-year-old Barrie Colts center signed an entry-level contract with the Ottawa Senators back in December. He’s rewarded them for taking a gamble on him by leading the league with 105 points thus far, including a league-leading 45 goals. This has been a major step up in his production of 60 points in 68 games in 2016-17. The 5’10” forward’s next step will be trying his hand at the AHL next season. Not far behind Luchuk is Sam Miletic, a fellow 20-year-old forward playing for the Niagara Ice Dogs. Miletic is fifth in the OHL with 86 points and also brings a good defensive sense to his game. Miletic signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in September after recording 55 points in 65 games with the London Knights last season; Miletic had 54 points in just 35 games with London prior to being traded mid-season. Undrafted netminders are also making a splash in the OHL. The Detroit Red Wings signed 19-year-old Kaden Fulcher back in October and the Hamilton Bulldogs goalie has since been a top goalie in the league, currently fourth in goals against average and seventh in save percentage among starters. Boston Bruins prospect Kyle Keyser is right there with him, as the Oshawa Generals keeper is sixth in save percentage and seventh in goals against average among starters.
The Western League is littered with undrafted free agent signings among its top scorers. The Moose Jaw Warriors’ Brayden Burke has joined that group, having just signed with the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday. Burke, 21, is tied for second in league scoring with 113 points in just 61 games, a pace of nearly two points per game this season. Burke is undersized at 5’10”, 165 lbs., but has done well for himself in the WHL, which is traditionally a heavier league, and will soon turn his sights on the pros. Also in the top ten in scoring are another Penguin, Jordy Bellerive, and the Colorado Avalanche’s Ty Lewis. Both forwards signed prior to the season and have each taken a big step in 2017-18, currently tied for eighth with 89 points. Bellerive, who is only 18, jumped on the opportunity to sign with the defending Cup champs after being passed over in the draft, and the Lethbridge Hurricanes center is now making the Penguins just as excited about the deal. Lewis, 20, has stepped into the top scorer role for the Brandon Wheat Kings left behind by Nolan Patrick and has excelled. Cameron Hebig of the Regina Pats is next in line with 88 points on the year, after signing with the Edmonton Oilers. The WHL also features an impressive undrafted goalie of their own in Cole Kehler, a 20-year-old for the Portland Winterhawks who inked a deal with the Los Angeles Kings in December as well. Kehler has a big frame and a quick glove, which has helped him maintain the best goals against average and fourth-best save percentage among goalies with at least 40 appearances this year.
While the Quebec League doesn’t count as many exciting undrafted prospects among its best, it does feature two consistent torrid scorers who, until recently, had been ignored due to their small stature. Alex Barre-Boulet joined the pro-bound on March 1st, when the Tampa Bay Lightning signed him to an entry-level deal. Barre-Boulet, 20, may stand only 5’10”, 165 lbs., but he is enjoying his third-straight 80+ point campaign. In fact, he is far beyond that in 2017-18, with a league leading 109 points that dwarfs the next-best scorer by 15 points. The Blainville-Boisbriand Armada star has at least earned a shot at the NHL. So too has Maxime Fourtier, the Halifax Mooseheads captain who has at least 70 points the past three years. Fourtier is slightly bigger that Barre-Boulet and has clearly focused on rounding out his game this season, after signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets in November.
The 2017-18 season shows that the draft is not the end of the line. These standouts make up only a fraction of the talented undrafted players skating in the CHL, some of whom are soon to be signed, and an even smaller fraction of undrafted players across the globe. Talent is always there to discover, even if it doesn’t fully manifest by the age of 18, and these players are proof. Expect to see many of them at the NHL level some time in the not-to-distant future.