Every year there are a plethora of undrafted free agents who are classified as “late bloomers.” Whether they hail from the college ranks or the Canadian Junior Leagues, these players seek to earn professional contracts at the end of their amateur career.
At the end of the NCAA College Hockey season a number of free agents were signed. Coveted defenseman Christian Folin, who was passed over at the 2009 NHL Draft, signed an entry level contract with the Minnesota Wild and dressed in one NHL game. Lesser known college free agents like Kevin Goumas, Mat Bodie, and Greg Carey were also awarded with professional contracts in the AHL/NHL.
The process is similar concerning overage players in juniors. The “cream of the crop” undrafted free agents have already been signed. For example, Dane Fox, who was passed over in 2012 and was the 2nd highest scorer in the OHL this past season, signed an entry level contract with the Vancouver Canucks in December. There are still, however, players who could receive attention this off-season.
The players who have already been signed are those who are the most prepared to jump into the pro game. The players listed below are more long range prospects. They will likely take more time to develop and could spend a year or two in the AHL before ever breaking into the NHL. It is also likely that some of them will become career AHL players. Either way, they deserve a look at a professional contract and/or an invitation to a training camp.
Here are five names to keep an eye out for:
Zach Bell – OHL – London Knights
This big, stay-at-home defenseman is no stranger to NHL interest. He attended the San Jose Sharks rookie camp a few years ago and has received interest from the Winnipeg Jets. He has never been a point producer, only scoring 20 goals and earning 62 assists through five junior seasons, but Bell has good size at 6’2″, 233lbs. His right handed shot could be very helpful to certain organizations.
Bell’s season came to a frightening end on March 27, when he broke his leg. You can see the injury at about 1:10 of this video.
Zach Bell would almost certainly be a long-term investment and teams will be cautious in signing a player coming off of such a tough injury. However, he has many of the tools necessary to play professional hockey.
Marcus Power – QMJHL – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
This 20 year old RW had a career year in 2013-2014. Keep in mind that at 20 years old, he is much older than his competition, so having a career year should be an expectation. Still, he was able to put up 31 goals, 78 assists, and 109 points in only 67 games. His previous career high was 59 points. He is left handed, likes to play the off wing, and showed great offensive ability this season.
Unlike many undrafted players, size is not an issue for Power. He stands six feet tall and is 185lbs. Power would have to adjust to the pro game, but NHL teams would be wise to take a look at any unsigned forward who put up triple digit points this past season.
Ryan Van Stralen – OHL – Ottawa 67’s
There is a lot to like in the game of this 6’3″, 207lbs power forward. As a second year left winger last season he was able to play on the 67’s top line with Sean Monahan and is allegedly looking for a pro contract. This past season, as a 20 year old, Van Stralen put up 58 (29G, 29A) points in 61 games. Although that looks good, those point totals are not exceptional for an overager in juniors.
Therefore, there are two ways to view Ryan Van Stralen. Some will look at his lack of point production and be wary of his potential. While others, like myself, prefer to view his size, raw tools, and improvement throughout his OHL career as signs that he can stick at the pro level. As the article linked above states explicitly, Stralen is no stranger to being underestimated and having to work hard to earn his keep.
Also, as a side note, if you search ‘Ryan Van Stralen’ on YouTube you will see that he is no stranger to dropping the gloves.
Rene Hunter – WHL – Brandon Wheat Kings
This 6’1″, 208lbs right handed defenseman is “expected to try playing professionally next season.” The 20 year old spent four junior seasons (one game of a fifth season) with the Brandon Wheat Kings and earned a total of 68 points (10G, 58A) in 247 games. Although he may never be a point producing machine, Hunter was able to earn himself 34 points in 63 games (.54 PPG) this past season.
There is not an NHL team out there that does not seek out depth in the prospect ranks, especially in terms of defenseman. Like many overagers, Hunter may have to settle for an AHL contract and work his way up the ranks. Either way, he will be a low risk, cap friendly addition to any club.
Franky Palazzese – OHL – Sudbury Wolves
This 6’1″, 160lbs goalie is just entering the most important time in his development. As a 20 year old, he still has a half decade until he would be expected to make noise in the pro ranks. Palazzese had an up and down season in 2013-2014, but ultimately finished with a .916 SV% and a 2.97 GAA. He is a player who has played on three different junior teams and has paid his dues.
During his hot stretches this season Palazzese showed quite a bit of potential. He made saves like this one and was named the OHL player of the week for the week ending on January 5th. During that week he went 3-0-0 with a SV % of .991 and a GAA of 0.32. Palazzese improved his save percentage each month of the season from October-January and was able to keep it relatively steady from January until the end of the season.
Goaltenders do not hit their prime until they are in their mid to late 20s. Palazzese will turn 21 later this month and could benefit from professional level coaching. Look for him to garner attention as a possible AHL goalie next season.