Laganiere, DeKeyser among ten NCAA free agents that could be NHL-bound

By DJ Powers

Ryan Walters - University of Nebraska-Omaha

Photo: University of Nebraska-Omaha forward Ryan Walters has turned a strong junior campaign into potential interest from NHL teams (courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

With the 2012-13 NCAA season winding down, NHL teams will soon be descending on the college hockey community in hopes of adding free agents to their organizations. This year, there are many outstanding available free agents for the taking.

Hockey’s Future takes a closer look at ten players (listed in alphabetical order by last name) that have gained considerable NHL interest and may soon be coming to an NHL organization near you. The group, all upperclassmen, is comprised of six forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of Mar. 5th.

Greg Carey, LW
Junior, St. Lawrence University

After leading (or co-leading) the Saints in scoring in his first two years, Greg Carey is on pace to make it three and eclipse the 50-point mark this season. He currently ranks second in the nation with 48 points and leads the nation with 26 goals, which includes his NCAA-leading 12 power-play goals in 34 games to date. He is part of the nation’s most prolific line combination that also includes senior Kyle Flanagan and junior Jeremy Wick. Carey’s most remarkable stat is that he has been held goalless in only 11 games so far this season. In St. Lawrence’s game versus Dartmouth on Feb. 23rd, Carey tied the school record for consecutive games (11) with a goal. Among the NHL teams that have shown an interest in Carey are the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Dallas Stars. He had a strong showing at the Maple Leafs' prospect camp this past summer and attended the Stars prospect camp in 2011.

Simply put, Carey is a goal-scorer that knows what to do with the puck when it’s on his stick. One of the things that makes Carey so dangerous with the puck is his wickedly quick shot and release. At times, he can make scoring goals look effortless and can score from just about anywhere. Carey is always a threat around the net, particularly in the slot, and is willing to pay the price in front, too. The Hamilton, ON native isn’t big (5’11”, 195 lbs.) in stature but he’s quick and elusive. Carey is a tough competitor that is willing to play the body when necessary. He possesses a junkyard dog-type of mentality when battling for pucks. Carey is an excellent skater with quick feet who transition's quite well. While he is noted more for his goal-scoring prowess, Carey is also an adept playmaker. He has great hands and puck-moving ability. Carey possesses great vision and does a very good job of reading and staying with plays. One area where Carey has improved over the course of his collegiate career is his defensive side. His excellent stick work allows him to effectively take away lanes and he has also shown a willingness to block shots.

Dan DeKeyser, D
Junior, Western Michigan University

Dan DeKeyser was the most coveted available collegiate free agent last season and that hasn’t changed this season. Among the teams heavily pursuing him are the Calgary Flames, the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning. DeKeyser opted to return to Western Michigan this season in large part due to the impending (and eventual) NHL lockout. His return has greatly benefited not only his Broncos team but his overall development, as well. To date, DeKeyser has played in 33 games, posting 15 points (two goals, 13 assists). He logs nearly 30 minutes of ice time per game playing alongside senior Luke Witkowski (TBL) as part of one of the nation’s most dominant defensive pairings.

The Clay Township, MI native has blossomed into one of college hockey’s top rearguards. And while he is a defensive defenseman, DeKeyser is by no means the stay-at-home type. He is very mobile, plays intelligently in all three zones, and can be seen jumping into plays when opportunities present themselves. At 6’3” and 198 pounds, DeKeyser has a good frame and one attribute that has had scouts clamoring to get glimpses of him is how well he uses that frame. DeKeyser uses his size, strength and tenacity quite effectively in wearing down opposing players and taking away time and space. This is particularly evident in his excellent play along the boards. DeKeyser is an agile skater with terrific feet and great balance. He moves equally well going north-south and east-west. His skating and feet also allow him to make smooth transitions and make the right plays. One attribute that sets DeKeyser apart from many other collegiate defensemen is his ability to control the tempo of the game. He sees the ice really well and possesses great hockey sense. His decision-making has continually improved with quicker and smarter reads and reactions. DeKeyser possesses a powerful shot and can get shots to the net. He has great hands and moves the puck exceedingly well, too.

Eric Hartzell, G
Senior, Quinnipiac University

One of the best stories in the NCAA this season is the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Quinnipiac recently captured their first ECAC regular season title since joining the conference in 2005-06 and one reason behind the team’s success is senior netminder, Eric Hartzell. The White Bear Lake, MN native, the top goaltending candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, has started in 33 of the Bobcats’ 34 games to date and sports a 24-4-5 record that includes four shutouts. Hartzell’s 24 wins leads the nation and is also a new school single-season record. His 1.49 goals-against average ranks third nationally, while his .936 save percentage ranks seventh. He also ranks second in the nation with a .803 winning percentage. Hartzell’s most impressive stat is that he has allowed three or more goals in just four games so far this season. Not surprisingly, Hartzell’s stellar senior campaign has also caught the attention of several NHL teams. One team that has taken particular notice is the Philadelphia Flyers, whose prospect camp Hartzell attended this past summer.

Hartzell is a technically sound, 6’4”, 200-pound goaltender with a terrific glove. His large frame allows him to effectively economize his movements. Hartzell possesses very good reflexes, although he’s not overly quick in his lateral movements. His vastly improved ability to control rebounds and second and third chances have made him a more confident, consistent goaltender. That, in turn, has also made him a stabilizing presence on Quinnipiac’s back end. He has the ability to win games for his team and has shown that he can make the necessary saves at crucial times. Another aspect of Hartzell’s development that has contributed to his success is his approach to playing his position. He’s more methodical and has shown greater attention to detail. He is outstanding in his play down low and he covers his angles quite well. His reads and ability to track plays are also very good.

Eriah Hayes, RW
Senior, Minnesota State University-Mankato

Another great story coming out of the NCAA this season is Minnesota State-Mankato. The Mavericks are on pace to have their best season since joining the WCHA in 1999-2000. Among those leading the team is senior co-captain Eriah Hayes. The La Crescent, MN native currently leads Minnesota State-Mankato with 18 goals and ranks second on the team with 31 points in 34 games to date. His 11 power-play goals currently rank second nationally. Hayes began getting the attention of NHL teams two years ago and interest in the senior winger has grown since then. One team that could potentially land Hayes is the Chicago Blackhawks, whose prospect camp he has attended the last two summers.

Hayes is a rugged, hard-working, 6’4” and 210-pound power forward. Although Hayes is not afraid to mix things up, this season he has been able to strike a balance between his physicality and playing with discipline. He uses his size, strength and reach to great advantage, particularly in tight areas and is difficult to move off of the puck. One attribute that has had scouts really taking notice of Hayes is his shot. He possesses one of the hardest shots in all of college hockey and he shoots with great frequency. He also has great finishing ability. What separates Hayes from many other top scorers, particularly among those with big bodies, is how little energy he expends when creating or finishing plays. His skating and puck movements often times look effortless, and he effectively utilizes his given time and space. Hayes moves really well for a man his size and skates with long, powerful strides. His leadership and ability to set the tone of a game have been invaluable assets for Minnesota State-Mankato this season and they are qualities that Hayes could one day bring to his pro team.

Antoine Laganiere, RW
Senior, Yale University

Among the group of available free agent forwards this season, none has garnered as much NHL interest as Yale senior Antoine Laganiere. At least a dozen teams are vying for the Ile Cadieux, QC native’s services. Among the teams pursuing Laganiere is the Vancouver Canucks, whose prospect camp he attended in 2011. The Edmonton Oilers and the Pittsburgh Penguins are also among those showing interest. The senior winger attended both teams’ prospect camps last summer. Laganiere is currently third on the Bulldogs roster with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in 29 games to date. He co-leads Yale with two game-winners and ranks second with six power-play goals.

Laganiere is a 6’4”, 197-pound power forward who uses his frame exceedingly well in creating space and opportunities. Where this is particularly noticeable is in his strong play in the dirty areas, an attribute that has made scouts take notice, as well. Laganiere takes full advantage of his size, reach and tremendous strength in maintaining both puck control and his positioning. He is not one to shy away from the physical aspects of the game. He can deliver solid checks and is aggressive on the forecheck. He is also a competitor. One notable improvement Laganiere has made since arriving at Yale is in his skating. He is an excellent skater with great mobility and skates with long, powerful strides. His added strength has greatly enhanced his speed and agility. Laganiere possesses great hands and a blisteringly hard shot. He can make nice, crisp passes, and along with his outstanding vision, can utilize open spaces quite effectively. He also has great finishing ability. One of Laganiere’s best assets is his stick, which he uses equally well in both offensive and defensive situations.

Drew LeBlanc, C
R-Senior, St. Cloud State University

St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc was off to a great start in what was supposed to be his senior year last season before a horrendous leg injury versus Wisconsin on Nov. 5th, 2011 abruptly ended his season and forced him to red-shirt. Now healthy, LeBlanc has emerged as college hockey’s best comeback story and a prime candidate for this season’s Hobey Baker Award. The Hermantown, MN native has been the catalyst behind an outstanding Huskies squad that currently sits atop the WCHA standings. LeBlanc leads the nation with 33 assists and is tied for third with 44 points in 34 games to date. Despite his injury-shortened year last season, NHL interest in LeBlanc hasn’t diminished. The Chicago Blackhawks, who had tendered an offer to the red-shirted senior after his stellar 2010-11 campaign, is still in the picture. The Minnesota Wild, whose prospect camp LeBlanc attended last summer, also continue to show interest.

LeBlanc is a 6’0”, 195-pound playmaking center that plays an intelligent two-way game. He also possesses some of the best hands in all of college hockey. His superb passing skills and great vision allow him to make plays that few other collegians can make. And it’s an attribute that hasn’t been lost on scouts, either. LeBlanc’s decision-making is excellent. He makes few mistakes and thinks the game remarkably well. He also has the ability to make those around him better. Although LeBlanc is known more for his playmaking ability, he has shown a knack for scoring timely goals, as well. One attribute that sets LeBlanc apart from many other collegiate players is his ability to create time and space for his teammates. He can control the tempo of the game and, with his tremendous patience with the puck, can allow teammates the time get into the best possible positions. LeBlanc is an excellent skater that moves exceedingly well with the puck. While he isn’t exceedingly fast, LeBlanc does have good speed, acceleration and can transition quickly. LeBlanc, who is one of St. Cloud State’s co-captains, also possesses strong leadership qualities.

Rylan Schwartz, C
Senior, Colorado College

One of the questions surrounding Rylan Schwartz coming into this season was how effective he could be without his younger sibling, Jaden. Schwartz has resoundingly answered that question with a strong senior campaign that currently has him among the top point producers in the NCAA and squarely on the NHL's radar, as well. Among the teams already eyeing Schwartz are the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, whose prospect camps he attended in the summer of 2012 and 2011, respectively. The Wilcox, SK native leads the Tigers with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) in 33 games to date. His 42 points has exceeded his total from last season. Schwartz currently centers Colorado College’s dynamic top line that includes junior Alex Krushelnyski and sophomore Charlie Taft.

Schwartz is a center on the small side (5’10”, 205 lbs.) that is equally adept at both setting up and finishing plays. He has established himself as not only the Tigers’ top face-off man and playmaker but also as a clutch goal scorer. He possesses great vision, hands, and can make some of the nicest tape-to-tape passes that you’ll ever see. One notable aspect of Schwartz’s development is how well he uses his strength; he is remarkably strong on his skates, which has greatly benefited his ability to protect and move with the puck. It has also enhanced his skating, adding power and more speed. Schwartz’s excellent stick work is among his best assets and one that has had NHL scouts taking notice. He utilizes his stick effectively in all three zones and it’s especially evident in Colorado College’s transition game. Another area where Schwartz has developed quite nicely is on the defensive side. He has outstanding defensive zone awareness and has become an effective penalty killer for the Tigers. While Schwartz isn’t an overly physical player, he is a fierce competitor that does plays with a bit of grit.

Andrej Sustr, D
Junior, University of Nebraska-Omaha

Along with Western Michigan’s Dan DeKeyser, Nebraska-Omaha rearguard Andrej Sustr is the hottest commodity on the collegiate free agent market this season. The 6’8”, 225-pound native of Plzen, Czech Republic has had the attention of NHL scouts from almost the moment he arrived in Omaha nearly three years ago. But when his skill set began to catch up with his enormous size last season, interest in Sustr skyrocketed. There are now at least 20 teams hoping to land the prized junior defenseman. Among the teams showing strong interest are the Detroit Red Wings, the Los Angeles Kings, the Ottawa Senators, and the Vancouver Canucks. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose prospect camps Sustr attended last summer, are also in the mix. Sustr currently leads the Mavericks in defensive scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 34 games to date. Sustr has played nearly the entire season alongside 6’6” sophomore Jaycob Megna (ANA), comprising the nation’s biggest defensive tandem.

While his gigantic frame is certainly one attribute that NHL teams like about Sustr, what has impressed them even more is how effectively he uses it. Sustr takes full advantage of his size, strength and wingspan in moving opposing players off pucks and taking away their time and space. He has good gap control and does an excellent job in containment, as well. Sustr is also a player that doesn’t shy away from playing the body, showing that he can dish out some of the most punishing hits in college hockey. Two of Sustr’s best assets are his stick and his shot. He uses his excellent stick work exceedingly well at both ends of the ice, whether it is in creating turnovers or distributing the puck. His cannon-like shot has improved in both accuracy and velocity over the course of his collegiate career. Another area where Sustr has really developed is his skating. He’s not the prettiest skater, but he moves remarkably well for such a big man. Sustr has also shown marked improvement in his agility and balance.

Shayne Taker, D
Junior, University of Notre Dame

Shayne Taker (pronounced “tacker”) is part of Notre Dame’s excellent and very mobile defensive corps. At 6’4” and 201 pounds, he is one of the Fighting Irish’s biggest rearguards. He and senior defensive partner Sam Calabrese have played together all season in both even strength and power-play situations. The Surrey, BC native has played in all 36 games to date, posting 13 points (one goal, 12 assists). Taker’s lone goal so far, a power-play tally, came back on Dec. 15th versus Bowling Green. His 13 points is nearly double what he posted last season. Taker began gaining NHL interest last season, and a number of teams continue to eye the junior defenseman. One of them is the Vancouver Canucks, whose prospect camp Taker attended this past summer.

Taker is an excellent skating, puck-moving defenseman. He plays a solid two-way game, but where he has really begun to blossom is on offense. This season, he sees regular time on Notre Dame’s power-play and can be seen jumping up into plays, as well. His growing offensive side hasn’t come at the expense of his outstanding defensive side, either. Taker has shown more confidence and patience with the puck and he’s making better decisions. That has resulted in smarter puck movement, especially in his outlet passes. Taker possesses a hard shot that has developed more velocity thanks to his added physical strength. One of Taker’s best attributes and one scouts have taken notice of is his skating. He is very mobile with good speed and acceleration. His noticeably improved feet have significantly enhanced his transitioning, while making his strides smoother. Taker is a fierce competitor that also brings a physical element to his game. While he’s not afraid to mix things up, Taker has also shown that he can play with discipline.

Ryan Walters, LW
Junior, University of Nebraska-Omaha

This time last season, Nebraska-Omaha winger Ryan Walters was barely on the NHL scouting radar. But that’s all changed for the Rosemount, MN native this season. Walters is in the midst of his best season as a Maverick and is a top candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. Walters currently leads the nation with 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) in 34 games to date. His 49 points are nearly double his total from last season. He also co-leads the nation with a plus-24 rating. Walters has been one of the nation’s most consistent point-producers, having been held pointless in just seven games so far this season. He has played much of the season alongside sophomore Josh Archibald (PIT), giving Nebraska-Omaha one of the nation’s most lethal scoring duos.

Walters is the quintessential late bloomer. His game has grown and developed through hard work, greater attention to detail, and playing to his strengths. At 6’0”, 196 pounds, Walters isn’t overly big but he uses his physical strength quite effectively at both ends of the ice. One notable area that has gotten the attention of scouts is the improvement of Walters’ puck skills, particularly where accuracy is concerned. He has developed a keen sense of being able to put the puck right where he wants it more consistently. That, coupled with his great vision, allows Walters to be equally dangerous in both finishing and setting up plays. He moves remarkably well in traffic and his ability to cycle the puck is also quite good. Although Walters doesn’t possess blazing speed, he is an excellent skater with very good feet that transitions very well. Another area of Walters’ game that has developed nicely is his defensive side. He has blossomed into an effective penalty killer for Nebraska-Omaha and he uses his stick exceedingly well in stripping pucks and taking away lanes.

Other notables: Mike Boivin, D – Senior, Colorado College; Austin Czarnik, F – Sophomore, Miami University; Kyle Flanagan, F – Senior, St. Lawrence University; Giancarlo Iuorio, F – Senior, Niagara University; Pat Mullane, F – Senior, Boston College; Nate Schmidt, D – Junior, University of Minnesota; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D – Sophomore, University of New Hampshire