Top collegiate free agents drawing NHL interest

By DJ Powers
Photo: Spencer Abbot is among the top undrafted collegiate players in the nation. (Photo courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

Each year, the NHL dips into the pool of undrafted collegiate players to bolster their systems. This season’s list comprises of six forwards, two defensemen and one goaltender. These players (unranked and listed in alphabetical order by last name) have, to varying degrees, attracted considerable NHL interest and could be coming to an NHL organization near you this off-season. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of February 27.

Spencer Abbott, LW
Senior, University of Maine

Spencer Abbott leads the nation in both points (56) and assists (37). And not surprisingly, he has become one of the top candidate’s for this year’s Hobey Baker Award as well. In addition to his point production, Abbott’s quickness and game-changing ability are among the assets that have put him squarely on the NHL radar. One team that has reportedly paid close attention to Abbott’s development at Maine this season is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Abbott currently plays on the left side of the nation’s most prolific line that includes fellow senior center Brian Flynn and pesky junior right wing Joey Diamond. The trio have accounted for a whopping 142 points thus far for the Black Bears this season.

Abbott’s best month on the season thus far came in December, when he posted 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in five games during the month en route to earning the National Player of the Month honor. Last season, Abbott set a new Maine school record for the quickest two goals when he posted a pair of power play tallies in a span of ten seconds versus Michigan State on October 15, 2010.

At 5’10, 175 lbs, Abbott is not a big player in college hockey, but he has become a big-time player. The attribute that has allowed Abbott to thrive is his tremendous quickness. He can move pucks quickly and dart almost seamlessly through traffic. Abbott’s great vision and sense of anticipation can be seen in his transitioning and his innate ability to set up and finish plays, including his own. Like his top line predecessor, Gustav Nyquist (DET), Abbott is quite adept at playing both wings.

Another attribute that makes Abbott so dangerous is how he uses his speed. He’s quick to getting to loose pucks. His ability to get up to speed quickly allows him to often beat opposing players to and get set up in prime scoring areas. What NHL scouts are discovering with Abbott is that makes things happen whenever he’s on the ice and he can be a game-changer too.

J.T. Brown, RW
Sophomore, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Among this season’s crop of undrafted forwards, the one that has become the most sought-after is feisty Bulldogs winger J.T. Brown. The dynamic Burnsville, MN native has gotten as many 25 NHL teams vying for his services, including the Minnesota Wild and the Philadelphia Flyers.

After a terrific freshman campaign last season, Brown has really picked up his game this season. He is third on the Bulldogs roster with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 32 games to date. His plus-27 currently leads the nation.

Brown possesses a great combination of speed, finishing ability and grit. And it is those attributes that have had NHL teams lining up to get closer looks at the sophomore sensation. Brown’s game-breaking speed is particularly noticeable in his relentless drives to the net and he is very good at make plays at high speeds.

One characteristic that makes Brown so dangerous is his play around the net. He has a knack for finding the "soft spots" and times his shots remarkably well. Brown also possesses a great shot and his ability to finish plays is excellent.

His blazing speed and tenacity makes him a very difficult player to contain. Brown has also demonstrated that he can be the perennial thorn in the opposition’s side as well. Despite being just 5’10 and 170lbs, Brown plays the game with absolutely no fear. The one knock on him however, is in taking too many unnecessary penalties. While his grittiness serves him quite well at Minnesota-Duluth, if Brown can temper it as his career moves forward, it will be an added benefit to his future pro team.

Jack Connolly, C
Senior, University of Minnesota-Duluth

One of the questions surrounding Jack Connolly after the 2010-11 season was how he would fare without his former linemates Mike Connolly (no relation) and Justin Fontaine (MIN). Jack Connolly has resoundingly answered that question by simply picking up from where he left off. The consistency that he showed last season has carried over into this season and that has once again made him a top candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. The local product currently ranks second in the nation in scoring with 54 points (18 goals, 34 assists) playing in all 34 games to date. This is Connolly’s second consecutive 50-plus point season.

While he may be only 5’8, 170 lbs, Connolly plays a lot bigger than his small stature. His offensive consistency, competitiveness and tremendous playmaking ability have certainly gotten the attention of numerous NHL teams. One team that has taken particular notice is the Minnesota Wild, whose development camp Connolly attended over the summer.

One of Connolly’s greatest attributes is his passing skills. He excels at making accurate passes and getting them to the best possible areas for his teammates. He possesses great vision and does a great job of finding open spaces, even through traffic.

Another of Connolly’s best skills is his ability to cycle the puck. This is particularly evident in his play along the boards and in the corners. He demonstrates great patience in maintaining control when pressured, which is enhanced by his excellent stick work. Those attributes, along with his remarkable strength and competitiveness, make Connolly a difficult player to contain and move off of the puck.

His ability to make players around him better has proven to be an invaluable asset to the success of his Minnesota-Duluth squad. And this can be seen in the improved play of some of his linemates this season, including sophomore Joe Basaraba (FLA) and junior Mike Seidel.

Dan DeKeyser, D
Sophomore, Western Michigan University

With 30 NHL teams pursuing him, Dan DeKeyser has become the hottest commodity on the collegiate free agent market this season. And it’s not hard to see why. Two NHL teams that have shown some of the greatest interest in the Broncos rearguard are the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Clay Township, MI native began making a name for himself with Western Michigan last season as an excellent mobile, puck-moving defenseman. This season, he has taken his development to a whole new level and that has had NHL teams clamoring to get glimpses of him.

DeKeyser’s combination of size (6’3, 190 lbs), great feet and terrific shot has made NHL teams take notice. His skating is very good, but it is his footwork that separates DeKeyser from many collegiate defensemen and it’s really something to marvel at. He moves exceedingly well both in the defensive and offensive zones. The 10 or so pounds that he added over the summer has simply enhanced that attribute, making DeKeyser not only a stronger skater, but also heightening his fundamentally sound positional play as well. Where this is particularly evident is in his ability to contain players and limiting spaces on the ice.

Another attribute that has gotten the attention of NHL teams is DeKeyser’s shot. He possesses a very powerful and remarkably accurate shot. It isn’t often that his shots miss the net. While he can score goals himself, DeKeyser’s shots aren’t always to score but rather to create rebounds that can be difficult to control.

DeKeyser can be seen playing on the Broncos’ top defensive pairing, alongside junior Luke Witkowski (TB). He logs upwards of 25-30 minutes per game, playing in all situations. He has played in all 36 games for Western Michigan to date, posting 13 points (five goals, eight assists). DeKeyser’s plus-11 currently ranks third on the Broncos roster.

DeKeyser projects to be more of a two-way defenseman due to his great offensive ability and equally stellar defensive ability.

Brian Flynn, C
Senior, University of Maine

If there’s one undrafted collegian that could potentially become a top scorer at the pro level, it’s Brian Flynn. Since arriving in Orono four years ago, Flynn has been one of Maine’s top point producers. And while the Lynnfield, MA native is an outstanding playmaker; it is his ability to score goals that is among the attributes getting the attention of several NHL teams, including the Philadelphia Flyers. Flynn attended the Flyers’ prospect camp over the summer.

Flynn currently ranks second on the Black Bears roster with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) playing in all 33 games to date. His plus-23 leads Maine and is tied for second nationally. Flynn centers the Black Bears’ explosive top line that includes national top scorer Spencer Abbott and junior Joey Diamond. Back on February 17 versus UMass, he became just the 17th player in the program’s history to reach the 150-point career mark. Most recently, Flynn was named a semi-finalist for the annual Walter Brown Award, which recognizes the top American-born collegiate player playing in New England.

At 6’1, 185 lbs, Flynn is the biggest of Maine’s top line players. He has excellent finishing ability and great net presence. Two characteristics that separate Flynn from many other collegiate point producers are his ability to position himself for the best possible scoring opportunities and capitalizing on rebounds. These attributes are especially noticeable is on the Maine power play, where seven of Flynn’s 17 goals have come this season. He has also shown a knack for scoring timely goals as well.

Another of Flynn’s attributes that has NHL scouts taking notice is his terrific stick work. He utilizes his stick-handling skills quite well, both offensively and defensively. As the Black Bears’ top centerman, Flynn also excels in face-offs, winning well over 50 percent of his draws. He possesses a very good shot and can get pucks off quickly and smartly.

While Flynn isn’t an overly physical player, he has added some grit to his game. That has made him more effective in battling for pucks and in the defensive end. It’s unlikely that Flynn will ever become a physical force at the pro level, but he certainly has the potential to become a dominant offensive force.

Torey Krug, D
Junior, Michigan State University

Despite being just 5’9, 180 lbs, Krug has received a ton of NHL interest. At the conclusion of last season, several NHL teams made the Spartans captain a contract offer and that’s likely to happen again at the end of this season. One team that Krug could potentially sign with is the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been eyeing the diminutive defenseman since last season.

The Livonia, MI native is a quick, puck-moving defenseman who is blessed with tremendous offensive instincts. Two attributes that have really caught the attention of NHL teams are Krug’s ability to move pucks quickly and his decision-making. He sees the ice and anticipates remarkably well. It isn’t often that Krug makes errant passes. His great poise and patience with the puck allows him to pick his spots and move the puck with ease, even when pressured.

Krug’s excellent skating ability makes him very good in transition. He uses his small stature and low center of gravity advantageously in finding open spaces, especially in high traffic areas.

Another asset that has had NHL teams really taking notice of Krug is his offensive prowess, which can be seen in his terrific statistical numbers. His superb puck-moving ability along with his creativity allows him to score and set up plays in a variety of ways. Where this is particularly evident is on the Michigan State power play that Krug quarterbacks.

Krug is serving as the Spartans’ team captain for the second consecutive year. His leadership, particularly on the blue line, has been invaluable to Michigan State. Krug currently leads the Spartans with 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) in 35 games. He also co-leads the CCHA in scoring with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 28 conference games as well.

While his size may deter some NHL teams, his excellent skill set and consistently solid all-around game will make Krug a risk well worth taking for others.

Jack MacLellan, C
Senior, Brown University

The past two seasons have seen two of Brown’s top forwards sign with NHL teams. The first was Aaron Volpatti with the Vancouver Canucks in 2010. The second was Harry Zolnierczyk with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011. The player who could potentially follow them at the conclusion of this season is Jack MacLellan. The Calgary, AB native has either led or co-led Brown in scoring the last two seasons and he’s doing it again this season. So it should come as no surprise that Maclellan has generated quite a bit of NHL interest. Among those closely watching him are the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators.

MacLellan has played in 27 games thus far this season, posting 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists). He missed the Bears’ final two regular season games due to an injury. Maclellan leads Brown in several categories including plus/minus (plus-five), power play goals (eight), and game-winning goals (four). What may be the most remarkable stat of all is the fact that MacLellan alone has accounted for about one-fifth of the team’s entire goal-scoring production thus far this season.

MacLellan is a small (5’11, 175 lbs), quick center that has developed into one of the most dynamic playmakers coming out of the ECAC in recent years. Simply put, he can make things happen whenever the puck on his stick. For a small player, MacLellan is remarkably strong on his skates and tough to move off the puck. He also utilizes his strength quite effectively in protecting the puck as well.

One attribute of MacLellan’s that has had NHL scouts really taking notice is his ability to play in limited/tight spaces. He doesn’t need a lot of room to work his magic. Where this has been particularly evident has been in his play in high traffic areas. His great stick, offensive instincts and passing ability allows him to be very creative and quick in getting pucks either on net or to his teammates. MacLellan follows and anticipates plays really well. If he isn’t setting up plays, MacLellan is finishing them. He possesses a quick shot and release, and can get pucks to the net.

Chris Rawlings, G
Junior, Northeastern University

At 6’5, 207 lbs, it’s hard to miss Chris Rawlings between Northeastern’s pipes. The North Delta, BC native began getting the attention of NHL scouts two seasons ago. Since then, many NHL teams have kept a close watch on the towering junior netminder, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Dallas Stars, and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Blue Jackets and the Flyers both made Rawlings a contract offer at the conclusion of last season.

While the Huskies have struggled with consistently stringing together wins this season, Rawlings has been rock solid in goal, even in the team’s losses. He has appeared in 30 of Northeastern’s 32 games to date, posting a 12-13-5 record that includes one shutout and a .919 save percentage. Rawlings, who sees an average of roughly 31 shots per game, has also been one of college hockey’s busiest goaltenders this season as well.

Rawlings is a hybrid-style netminder that possesses tremendous athleticism. He has good economy of movement and doesn’t get rattled easily. In addition to his enormous frame, NHL scouts have also been impressed with Rawlings’ ability to single-handedly win or keep his teams in games. Throughout his career at Northeastern, Rawlings has demonstrated that he can come up big in crucial situations as well.

One notable improvement that Rawlings has made in his development this season is in footwork. He maintains considerably better balance and his quicker ability to shift his weight has improved his lateral movement, making it much smoother. Another area where Rawlings has improved is in controlling his rebounds. This is particularly evident in goalmouth scrambles, where he limits second and third chances.

Jeremy Welsh, C/W
Junior, Union College

Union College recently captured their second consecutive Cleary Cup as the ECAC’s regular season champion and one reason behind their success can be attributed to the stellar play of junior power forward Jeremy Welsh. The Bayfield, ONT native began getting the attention of numerous NHL teams last season. Since then, they have kept a close watch on Welsh. He has been on the Chicago Blackhawks‘ radar having attended their prospects camp last summer and the New York Rangers are among the other teams that have also reportedly expressed interest in Welsh.

Welsh currently leads the Dutchmen with 22 goals and ranks second on the team with 35 points in 33 games to date. His nine power play goals co-lead Union College. Welsh began his collegiate career as a winger, but he has played center for the last two seasons and plays equally well at both positions. His ability to move pucks quickly and success on face-offs (roughly 60% thus far) have made Welsh a very effective centerman. This season, he centers one of the best lines in the ECAC that includes sophomores Daniel Carr and Josh Jooris.

Welsh is a player that has the ability to dominant a game. He has size (6’3, 210 lbs); a pro-style shot, great net presence, and can finish plays exceedingly well. And it is those attributes that have gotten the attention of NHL teams. What makes Welsh so dangerous is his ability to capitalize on rebounds and deflections, where many of his goals have been scored. He utilizes his size, strength and reach to great advantage, particularly in tight areas.

One notable improvement that Welsh has made in his development is in utilizing his large frame to gain separation. He uses his size, strength, and reach quite effectively in being able to not only gain or maintain puck possession, but also in creating space for himself and his teammates.

While Welsh hasn’t quite generated the buzz that some other players around college hockey have, his excellent skill set and contributions to Union College’s success have made it very difficult for NHL teams to ignore him. Whichever team ultimately signs Welsh will get a player that possesses a tremendous upside whose pro potential is just beginning to be realized.

Mark Zengerle, C
Sophomore, University of Wisconsin

Mark Zengerle may not be drawing as much attention as defensive teammate Justin Schultz (ANA), but he’s been equally impressive this season. The Rochester, NY native has become one of the WCHA’s best and most consistent playmaking centers, and the numbers he has put up thus far reflect that. Zengerle currently leads the Badgers in points (44) and assists (33) playing in all 32 games to date. His 33 assists currently rank third nationally and he’s averaging better than one assist per game. While his numbers have caught the attention of a growing number of NHL teams, it’s how he’s getting it done that has them really taking notice. Among the teams who have taken an interest in Zengerle is the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose prospects camp he attended over the summer.

Zengerle possesses really nice hands and has the ability gets pucks to teammates consistently. It is these two attributes that have not only made him so successful, but has made NHL teams take a closer look at the sophomore center. What makes Zengerle such as a superb playmaker is his tremendous patience and ability to find open spaces. His passes are crisp with great precision. This is evident on both the Badgers’ power play and even strength situations. He has also become one of the WCHA’s best players on face-offs as well, winning roughly 55 percent of his draws.

Another attribute that has NHL teams taking notice of Zengerle is in how he uses his terrific skating ability. Because of his excellent foot speed, he not only transitions well, but he can often beat opposing players to loose pucks and open spaces as well.

One area where Zengerle has made nice strides in is shooting the puck. He possesses a remarkably accurate shot and the shots that he has taken this season are of higher quality than those of last season. While Zengerle will likely continue to rack up more assists than goals as his career moves forward, his ability to score goals shouldn’t be underestimated.

Other notables:

Eriah Hayes, RW, Junior, Minnesota State University-Mankato – A power forward with size (6’4, 210 lbs) that thrives in the physical game. He has gotten the attention of a handful of NHL teams including the Chicago Blackhawks, whose prospect camp he attended over the summer.

Cal Heeter, G, Senior, the Ohio State University
– A steady, athletic netminder with size (6’4, 195 lbs) that has been a key to the Buckeyes’ success this season. The Chicago Blackhawks are among the NHL teams showing interest in Heeter.

Travis Oleksuk, C/W, Senior, University of Minnesota-Duluth
– A speedy, puck-moving forward that leads the Bulldogs with 22 goals. The Vancouver Canucks are among a number of NHL teams that have expressed interest in Oleksuk.

Kelly Zajac, C, Senior, Union College
– A quick, excellent playmaking center that leads the Dutchmen with 30 points. The New Jersey Devils are among the teams that have shown interest in Zajac. His brothers Travis and Darcy are currently part of the Devils organization.

Scott Zurevinski, C/W, Senior, Quinnipiac University
– A 6’2, 215 lbs power forward that has developed into one of college hockey’s best checking wingers. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks are among the NHL teams that have expressed interest in Zurevinski.