With the NCAA hockey season winding down and the CHL playoffs now underway, the NHL prospect and free agent signing season is now in full swing. Several players have come to terms over the past week, with those signings being covered in a pair of articles split between the NHL’s Eastern and Western Conference clubs.
In the East, the Carolina Hurricanes were the busiest team in terms of signed players, adding one free agent and two prospects at the pro level. The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers also signed a prospect from the college or junior ranks.
Hurricanes strengthen depth in goal and at defense
The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t blessed with a deep pool of prospects, particularly at the pro level, so it is no surprise that the team was active in the prospect signing department this past week.
The first of those signings was NCAA free agent goaltender, Rasmus Tirronen. The Espoo, Finland native competed for Merrimack College the past three seasons (he did not play in his freshman season) before signing a one-year deal with the Hurricanes that begins in the 2015-16 season.
While Merrimack finished towards the bottom of the Hockey East standings this season, it wasn’t due to any poor play from Tirronen. His .929 save percentage ranked 13th overall among NCAA goaltenders, while his 2.30 goals-against average and 12 wins had him in the mid-range of those categories.
At 6’3” and 200 pounds, Tirronen is the type of big-bodied goaltender that is currently the rage among NHL talent mavens. The 24-year-old Tirronen is a bit older than other goaltending prospects in the Hurricanes’ system, so he may have a leg up in eventually landing a spot on the NHL club. He is likely to begin his pro career in the AHL, however, given that the Hurricanes have Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin under contract next season.
In addition to adding a new goaltender to their organizational depth, Hurricanes’ general manager Ron Francis signed goaltending prospect Alex Nedeljkovic to a three-year, entry-level deal. The Parma, OH native has competed for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL the past three seasons, and was a second round pick for the Hurricanes at the 2014 NHL Draft.
While Tirronen fills more of the net than the 6′, 192-pound Nedeljkovic, Nedeljkovic relies more on quickness and his penchant to battle for pucks to make a save. He was the OHL Goaltender of the Year in 2013-14 and is a finalist again this season. In 142 games for the Whalers since the 2012-13 season, Nedeljkovic has posted a cumulative 2.88 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He has won 65 games in his OHL career while posting eight shutouts.
The third of the Hurricanes’ three signings from the past week was University of New Hampshire defenseman, Brett Pesce. The Tarrytown, NY native just completed his junior season for the Wildcats before signing a three-year, entry-level contract. Pesce was a third round selection for the Hurricanes at the 2013 NHL Draft.
Pesce is a defender with the ability to move the puck and create some offense. In 31 games this season for the Wildcats, Pesce scored three goals and added 13 assists for 16 points to go along with a +10 rating. For his NCAA career, Pesce scored 11 goals and added 32 assists for 43 points in 110 games.
Both Nedeljkovic and Pesce will report to the Charlotte Checkers for the remainder of the 2014-15 season. Pesce will almost certainly begin the 2015-16 season there, but Nedeljkovic could return to the OHL next season to play for the Flint Firebirds, the new OHL team that was formerly the Plymouth Whalers.
Bruins, Panthers, Lightning sign drafted forward prospects
While the Hurricanes were the busiest of the Eastern Conference teams this past week, three other teams had prospects turn pro.
The Tampa Bay Lightning signed one of their top offensive prospects, inking forward Brayden Point to a three-year, entry-level deal that begins in 2015-16. Point also signed an ATO contract for the remainder of this season, and has already appeared in one AHL game for the Syracuse Crunch.
Point played for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL the past three seasons, producing 236 points (99G, 137A) in 204 games for that club. The Calgary, AB native also was an important contributor to Canada’s gold medal effort at the 2015 World Junior Championship, posting two goals and two assists in seven games at that tournament.
Standing 5’10” and weighing 165 pounds, Point is not mistaken for a being a power forward candidate. But despite his slight build, he doesn’t shy away from from playing a gritty game. That, combined with Point’s playmaking ability, makes him an intriguing prospect for the Lightning.
The Boston Bruins brought one of their forward prospects on board last week, signing forward Colton Hargrove to a three-year, entry-level deal. The Dallas, TX native recently completed his junior season at Western Michigan University, forgoing his senior season to turn pro. Hargrove was a seventh round pick for the Bruins at the 2012 NHL Draft.
Hargrove had his best NCAA season in 2014-15, posting 14 goals and 14 assists to go along with 80 penalty minutes. For his college career, Hargrove scored 34 goals and chipped in 28 assists for 62 points in 105 games.
The 6’2”, 216-pound Hargrove is considered to be a potential power forward who can be a force around the opponent’s net. While having shown some definite improvement over the past two seasons, Hargrove will continue refining his game with the Providence Bruins of the AHL.
The other Eastern Conference club to ink a forward prospect this past week was the Florida Panthers, who came to terms with Kyle Rau on an entry-level deal. He was chosen by the Panthers in the third round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
The Eden Prairie, MN native was a consistent offensive threat over his four seasons at the University of Minnesota. In 160 career games with Minnesota, Rau scored 67 goals and added 97 assists for 164 points. He captained the Gophers the past two seasons, and was twice named to the Big Ten Second All-Star Team.
While not big in stature (5’8”, 172 lbs.), Rau is definitely skilled. He combines a good work ethic with quick feet to make plays at both ends of the ice, but his offensive game is ahead of his defensive side at this point in his career.
Rau signed an ATO, so he will get his pro career started this season with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL.
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