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College free agent season yields occasional gems for NHL teams

Goaltending sensation Andrew Hammond of the Ottawa Senators among college free agents who have gone on to shine in the NHL.

When we contacted scouts for a piece on the most promising college free agents of 2013, they were quick to sing the praises of sharpshooting forward Greg Carey, behemoth defenseman Andrej Sustr and goalie Eric Hartzell, the NCAA’s wins leader.

After weighing their takes, we wrote about nine other late bloomers who were seen as having serious NHL potential.

Goalie Andrew Hammond didn’t make the cut.

Even in hindsight, this was not a glaring omission. Nothing Hammond did as a college senior screamed future pro. He’d posted a 10-15-3 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in 29 games for lightly regarded Bowling Green that season. During his four-year college career he’d gone 30-68-13. There was little to suggest that it had been a mistake to pass him over in the draft.

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But at least two teams were able to look beyond his numbers and see the raw potential in the 25-year-old keeper: The Blackhawks, who had invited him to their rookie camp the previous summer, and the Senators. In the end it was Ottawa, at the urging of assistant GM Tim Murray, that eventually signed Hammond to a two-year, entry-level deal.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well for both Hammond, who beat a quick path to the NHL, and the Sens, who wouldn’t be fighting for a playoff berth without him.

Hammond, though, is one of the rare success stories to emerge from the annual college free-agent frenzy. Despite all the hype, there are far more misses—anyone remember Ray Staszak, Stephane DaCosta or Junior Lessard?—than hits. And most of the players who eventually make their way to the NHL end up being short-term depth players, a stark reminder that most signings at this time of year are long shots at best.

But there have been some gems who succeeded after being given a second look, including Hall of Famers Adam Oates (who went from RPI to the Red Wings in 1985) and Ed Belfour (North Dakota to Chicago, ’87). Chris Kunitz had been overlooked by scouts until a sensational 79-point season when he was a 23-year-old senior at Ferris State convinced the Ducks that he might have a future after all. Tyler Bozak, the Maple Leafs No. 1 center, signed with Toronto in 2009 after scoring 23 points in just 19 games as a sophomore at Denver. Andy Greene, now in his ninth season with the Devils, was scooped up in 2006 after four years at Miami.

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Ben Scrivens was a three-year starter at Cornell and was a Hobey Baker finalist after his spectacular senior season (21-9-4 with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage). The Maple Leafs won the bidding war for his services, wooing Scrivens with the chance to study under goaltending guru Francois Allaire. He’s since moved on, first to the Kings and then to the Oilers. During a 3–0 win over the Sharks last season, the Edmonton goalie set a record for most saves in a regular-season shutout (59).

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While Scrivens’s college career was auspicious, Cam Talbot’s at Alabama-Huntsville was decidedly low key. It wasn’t until he rebounded from a pair of lousy seasons as a 23-year-old junior that he garnered any real notice. Talbot played in all 33 games in 2009–10, and set a school record for saves with 1,042. Along the way he posted a 2.61 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage for a team that went 12-18-3.

Where Talbot really made his mark with scouts was his ability to battle through adversity. He had five games with at least 40 saves that season, including a 43-stop gem against Niagara that sealed a 3–2 overtime win in the championship game of the College Hockey America tournament. That was enough to convince the Rangers to sign Talbot to an entry-level deal. He made his NHL debut a year later, but only established himself this season after he stepped in for injured starter Henrik Lundqvist and led New York to the top of the NHL standings.

Talbot is not the only recent college free-agent success story wearing Broadway Blue. Kevin Hayes used a CBA loophole to earn free agency after being drafted in the first round by the Blackhawks in 2010. Liking his chances to make an immediate jump to the NHL in New York, he signed with the Rangers last summer.

As with Talbot, things have worked out pretty well. At 6' 5" and 225 pounds, Hayes has given New York the big, strong center presence it needed to replace Brian Boyle. And after a slow start, Hayes has cranked up the offense in 2015, scoring 22 points in 36 games—excellent production for a rookie playing a depth role.

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But the most intriguing college UFA of recent years might be Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser. Coming out of Western Michigan two years ago, DeKeyser was viewed as a solid defenseman with two-way potential, someone who in time could become a reliable second-pairing option.

Amazing, then, to see what he’s become. On pace to score 30 points in just his second season, his offensive game already is far ahead of expectations. But where he really shines is with his play on the other side of the puck. DeKeyser’s defensive game is still a work in progress but he’s made stunning progress. He’s already a top-four staple on a team that demands consistency from its blueliners, and is earning significant minutes on the penalty kill. In tight games, he’s the player that Mike Babcock trusts most to protect a lead, and when the smartest coach in hockey places that kind of faith in a player, it speaks volumes.

It’s that kind of success that drives teams to open up their wallets this time every year. There might not be a Hayes or a DeKeyser or a Hammond in this year’s class but better to take a chance than to miss out on a potential star for the second time.