They’re the stray dogs of the NHL.
Unloved and unwanted at draft time—they hung around anyway—honing their games, improving their skills, growing in stature until, finally, someone took them in. And with training camps just over a month away, it won’t be long until they get their chance to prove that a player doesn't need a pedigree to earn a roster spot.
We examined the rosters of all 16 Eastern Conference teams and found nine undrafted players who have a real chance to make an impression this season.
Frank Vatrano, Bruins
Man, can this kid shoot the puck. In 34 games for Providence, Vatrano tallied 34 goals and 17 assists on his way to a share of the AHL’s Rookie of the Year honors. In Boston, he scored eight times despite limited minutes and inferior linemates, then followed that up with three goals and eight points in 10 games for team USA at the World Championships. On a club desperate for offense, he could slide into a top-six role—as long as the 2015 signing out of UMass-Amherst improves his play away from the puck.
Nikita Zaitsev, Maple Leafs
The Leafs won a multi-team bidding war for the 6’ 2”, 200-pounder who has been described as a smooth skater and offensively minded. The 24-year-old led CSKA Moscow defenders in scoring in each of his four seasons with the team, notching eight goals and 26 points in 46 games last season. A right-hand shot, he'll likely slot onto Toronto's second pair alongside Matt Hunwick. He also should see plenty of time on the power play, where his vision and playmaking skills will boost a unit that finished 29th last season.
Daniel Carr, Canadiens
At 6’ 0”, 190 pounds, Carr was deemed too small by NHL scouts (that bar keeps rising, doesn’t it?), but after scoring 79 goals and 78 assists in 160 games for Union College, the Habs gave the gritty winger a chance. He made an obvious impact in a 23-game call-up last season, tallying six goals—that’s a 21-goal pace over a full 82-game slate—but it wasn’t just his production that made an impression. It was Carr’s determination to earn his ice down low and his willingness to fire away once he got there. He could play a middle-six role this season, sliding in on the left side of Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais to provide energy and secondary scoring.
Tomas Nosek, Red Wings
With veteran Joakim Andersson returning to his native Sweden, and a new, two-year extension in hand, Nosek looks like a lock to win a bottom-six role out of camp. The 23-year-old brings size at 6’ 3”, 210 pounds, and a solid defensive skill set. He can chip in with some offense as well. In 70 games last season with AHL Grand Rapids, Nosek had 15 goals and 30 points. He won’t be a star, but could emerge as a valuable piece as the Wings look to extend their playoff appearance streak.
Dante Salituro, Blue Jackets
He almost made the club as a training camp invite last fall so after going undrafted again this year, the Jackets locked up the Ottawa 67s forward with a three-year entry level contract. Although this team appears to be set up front, a desire for fresh faces could open the door for the diminutive 19-year-old, who brings speed, smarts and a tireless work ethic. He also has a decent set of mitts as evidenced by 111 goals and 260 points over four OHL seasons.
Dryden Hunt, Panthers
Passed over three times in the draft, Hunt seems like an unlikely pick to click. But the 20-year-old, who signed a three-year ELC with the Panthers in March, has the look of a late bloomer. Hunt notched five hat tricks in an eight-game span on the way to a WHL-high 58 goals as an overager. He also added 58 assists for 116 points, second most in the WHL, en route to earning Player of the Year honors. With third-line scoring a key concern for the revamped Cats, Hunt could slide into a depth role to provide some offensive punch.
Dean Kukan, Blue Jackets
An undrafted player out of the Swedish league, Kukan made a strong impression during an eight-game NHL call-up as well as Lake Erie’s run to the Calder Cup. The 23-year-old defender posted an astonishing +11 rating in his final five games, showcasing the ability to make good decisions on both sides of the puck during his brief NHL run. He should slide onto the Jackets' third pair out of camp, but has the potential to become something more than a spare part.
Yohann Auvitu, Devils
The 27-year-old French native has a chance to make a real impact on the league’s most uncertain blue line. Auvitu spent the past six seasons skating in Finland’s elite league. Last year, he tallied six goals and 15 assists in 48 games for HIFK Helsinki, winning the Pekka Rautakallio Award as the top defenseman and earning recognition as a first-team All-Star. That’s no guarantee of NHL success, but it hints at a two-way reliability that could earn him regular minutes in the early going. Where he takes it from there is up to him.
Roman Lyubimov, Flyers
“He’s a big guy. He skates well, plays a solid two-way game,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said after signing the 24-year-old out of CSKA Moscow. No one’s expecting much offensively, but if Lyubimov uses his 6’ 2”, 207-pound body to drive the net and make his presence felt in the corners, he could become a fast favorite of the fans in Philly in a bottom-six role.