Friday August 5th, 2016

They were the ones left broken hearted in the stands, watching as hundreds of their peers celebrated their names being called on draft day.

Some of them went back the next year, and the next, only to be rejected again and again. Too small. Too slow. Not good enough.

But they didn't give up. Some grew. Some got stronger. Some just improved. And eventually, someone noticed.

Undrafted free agents are always a long shot, but given a chance, some find a way to prove the doubters wrong. Here's a look at seven who could make their marks in the Western Conference this season:

Drake Caggiula, Oilers

The Oilers look to be set on the left side, but don't bet against Caggiula. The 21-year-old was one of the NCAA’s top scorers last season, notching 25 goals and 51 points for North Dakota. He was even better in the Frozen Four, scoring six goals and seven points, earning tournament MVP honors while leading UND to its first national title since 2000. At 5' 10", 185 pounds, he lacks ideal size but brings the speed, smarts and skill to be a middle-nine scoring threat in the NHL. If he outplays Benoit Pouliot in camp, Caggiula could start the season in Edmonton.

NHL
Undrafted players who may have an impact in the East

Tyler Gaudet, Coyotes

The decision to buy-out the contract of veteran center Antoine Vermette ostensibly opens up a roster spot for a high draft pick like Dylan Strome or Christian Dvorak. In the end though, it could be Gaudet who earns the job. Signed as a 20-year-old overager after less than one full season in the OHL, Gaudet brings good size (6' 3", 205) and solid playmaking skills to the table. He's unlikely to be a big scorer—he posted just one goal and three points in 14 games with the Yotes last season—but is hard to play against and responsible on both sides of the puck. He can make a contribution if the kids aren't ready.

Garnet Hathaway, Flames

Signed as a free agent out of Brown University, Hathaway epitomizes the Brian Burke style of play. The 24-year-old registered 50 hits, and 31 penalty minutes, over just 14 games of spot duty last season, taking full advantage of his size (6' 2", 210) and truculent nature. Given how small the team's skill forwards are, his presence on the bottom-six could serve as an equalizer.

NHL
Flames stars Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau stick together

Michal Kempny, Blackhawks

No team relies more heavily on the undrafted free agent than Chicago, a club that has both a pressing need for older, affordable talent and the allure to win the bidding wars. The Hawks are expected to dress at least five undrafted regulars next season, including Kempny, a 25-year-old Czech Republic native coming off a solid season (5-16-21 and +17 rating) with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. A 6', 194-pound left-shooting defenseman, he's expected to enhance Chicago's bottom-four with his puck skills, mobility and ability to quickly read and react to the play.

Tanner Kero, Kyle Baun, Blackhawks

Most preseason speculation centers around 2013 fourth rounder Tyler Motte stepping into the first-line left wing hole vacated by Andrew Ladd, but it could just as easily be Kero or Baun that land the plum assignment alongside Jonathan Toews. Kero, signed in April of 2015 out of Michigan Tech, scored 20 goals in 60 games with Rockford of the AHL in his first professional season. Points weren't as easy to come by in a 17-game stint with the big club, but he made an impression on coach Joel Quenneville with his solid defensive play, strong forechecking and reliable positioning. At 24, there's a safety to his game that's sure to earn him a regular spot sooner than later.

Baun (in the photo at top of the page) is less of a sure thing. The 24-year-old out of Colgate (79 points in 113 games) made Chicago's opening night roster last fall, but lost three months of the season to an arm injury and never quite found his groove again. This time around, he'll look to trade on his size (6' 2", 209) as much as the touch he showed in college to earn a role with the Hawks. He's more likely to start out on the bottom six, but could get a look for that top line job if his hands warm up.

Troy Stecher, Canucks

Alright, the numbers game isn't smiling on the 22-year-old defenseman who signed this summer out of North Dakota. With six blueliners ahead of him on the depth chart, including newcomers Erik Gudbranson and Philip Larsen, Stecher needs a fantastic camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster. But even if he's not there from the start, it is only a matter of time. The Canucks clearly have a need for a young, right-shot backliner who can make a power play sing with his mobility, smarts and shot. Stecher, who skates like the wind and ranked sixth in the NCAA among blueliners with 29 points, fits the bill.

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