The pace of NHL prospect signings has picked up over the past few days. Included among those newly-minted pros are two high-profile NCAA free agents, a Russian free agent, and a handful of previously drafted players.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets made the most noise with two signings apiece, including a pair of free agents to the Leafs and a junior duo turning pro in the Jets’ organization. All told, the Western Conference teams accounted for four signings, while the Eastern teams inked three players.
Rebuilding Leafs add scoring potential to forward ranks
The Toronto Maple Leafs added forward depth to their prospect pool with the signing of two free agents, one from the NCAA ranks and the other from Russia.
The first addition came in the form of Russian right winger Nikita Soshnikov, a 21-year-old who competed for Atlant Mytishchi of the KHL. In 57 games for that club, Soshnikov netted 14 goals and added 18 assists for 32 points. It was his first full season in the KHL after playing in 33 games for Atlant in 2013-14. Soshnikov is a deft puckhandler with good speed who has shown a willingness to go to the more heavily trafficked areas to make plays, albeit on a larger ice surface.
Soshnikov signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Leafs. While it is likely that he’ll begin the 2015-16 season with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, the lure of possibly landing a spot on the NHL roster of a rebuilding club was a definite draw for the talented winger.
After landing the largely unheralded Russian, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis turned his attention to a more hotly-contested free agent from the NCAA ranks with the signing of Penn State University right wing, Casey Bailey. The Anchorage, AK native had been the target of a few teams, including Leafs’ division (and rebuilding) rival, the Buffalo Sabres. In the end, the Leafs were able to entice the big winger with a two-year deal that will see one year of it burned in 2014-15.
Bailey, the first Nittany Lion to sign an NHL contract and the first player to score a goal at the D1 level for Penn State, is a budding power forward with a good shot who he isn’t afraid to use that shot. At 6’3″ and 205 pounds, Bailey has the heft to work down low and in the corners, but his shot is deadly and accurate enough that he isn’t limited to scoring from inside the faceoff dots. Bailey led Penn State in scoring in 2014-15, scoring 22 goals and 18 assists for 40 points in 37 games. His goal total is tied for sixth in the nation, while his 211 shots leads the nation in that category.
As is the case with Soshnikov, Bailey should get the chance to make a Leafs’ squad that is likely to be in full rebuild mode at the conclusion of the 2015 NHL playoffs.
Panthers add to goaltending depth
With Roberto Luongo holding down the fort for now and some interesting but untested goaltending prospects currently competing outside the NHL, the Florida Panthers dipped into the college ranks to sign free agent goalie Colin Stevens of Union College to an entry-level deal. Stevens recently wrapped up a college career with the Dutchmen that included a Natonal Championship in 2014.
Stevens had taken part in the Panthers development camp last summer and was on their radar throughout the 2014-15 season. In 31 games for Union, Stevens posted a 2.31 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage along with a 16-15-0 record.
At 6’2″ and 185 pounds, Stevens is not the behemoth that some teams seem to favor in goal these days. Instead, he is a goaltender that plays a sound positional game and is willing to battle for pucks in tight. He will head to San Antonio to get in some time with the Rampage this season, and is likely to land in Portland, ME next season when the Panthers shift their AHL affiliation to the Pirates.
Jets bring a couple draftees into the fold
While Toronto was busy adding depth to their prospect pool, the Winnipeg Jets signed players already drafted into the organization.
The first prospect to sign on the dotted line was defenseman Jan Kostalek of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic. The Praha, Czech Republic native is in his third season with the Oceanic, the top team in the QMJHL this season. In 57 games this season, Kostalek has scored seven goals and added 36 assists for 43 points, the highest point total of his QMJHL career. His point total ties him for 10th among QMJHL defensemen. Kostalek was chosen by Winnipeg in the fourth round, 114th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Kostalek is a two-way defender with average size (6’1″, 185 lbs.) who relies on his smarts and a good hockey IQ when he is most effective. He won’t put players through the boards, but instead will advance the puck smartly while keeping his end of the ice tidy.
The Jets also brought a forward on board in the form of Jimmy Lodge, a right wing who played for the Mississauga Steelheads and Saginaw Spirit of the OHL in 2014-15. Lodge began the season with the Spirit, but was dealt to the Steelheads early in the season. He appeared in 58 games between the two teams, scoring 28 goals and 35 assists for 63 points.
Chosen by the Jets in the third round, 84th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft, Lodge is a versatile player in that he can play center or the wing. At 6’1″ and 172 pounds, the Downington, PA native is a bit scrawny to be considered a potential power forward at this time, but he does combine some offensive skill with a good work ethic.
Lodge signed a three-year, entry-level deal and is likely to begin his pro career in the AHL.
Flames reel in top NCAA defensive free agent
While the Leafs managed to land a top NCAA forward free agent, the Calgary Flames were busy signing a top free agent defenseman from the college ranks. Western Michigan University junior Kenney Morrison elected to forgo his senior season to begin his pro career by coming to terms with the Flames on a two-year, entry-level deal.
The Lloydminster, AB native had drawn some interest from NHL teams a year ago, but elected to return to the Broncos for another season. The decision did nothing to hurt his standing as a desirable potential signee, with the Flames being only too happy to sign the big defender.
WMU has been a bit of a defenseman factory in recent years, with Morrison being the latest to sign with an NHL club. At 6’3″ and 208 pounds, not only is Morrison a big defender, but his stock in trade is his big shot from the point. Despite that powerful shot, Morrison’s goal totals aren’t eye-popping – he scored just five in 37 games in 2014-15 – but he has improved his defensive game steadily over the course of his three NCAA seasons to become a more well-rounded player.
Morrison will play for the Adirondack Flames of the AHL on a tryout deal before his contract kicks in next season.
Blackhawks get their Irish up, sign Notre Dame forward to deal
With former University of Notre Dame forward T.J. Tynan moving on to the Columbus Blue Jackets after the 2013-14 season, an opportunity was presented to sophomore forward Vince Hinostroza. The Barlett, IL native took that opportunity and ran with it, right into a three-year, entry-level NHL deal with his hometown team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Hinostroza turned in a very good freshman season for the Fighting Irish, posting 32 points (8G, 24A) in 34 games. He upped the ante in 2014-15, leading Notre Dame in scoring with 44 points (11G, 33A) in 42 games. Hinostroza’s strong performance did not go unnoticed as he was named to the All-Hockey East First Team.
Great speed and hands and a good motor are the qualities that make Hinostroza stand out. Not unlike Tynan, Hinostroza is a small-ish (5’9″, 175 lbs.) center who leans heavily towards the playmaking side of the offensive ledger.
Hinostroza was chosen by the Blackhawks in the sixth round, 169th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft. It seems likely that he’ll begin his pro career with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
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