A few months ago I put together a post on unrestricted free agents that will be available after the NCAA Hockey season ends. (You can view the original post here)
Unrestricted free agents from the college ranks serve as a 'second chance'. For teams like the Devils who have struggled in recent years during the entry draft, signing the right college players can fill gaps in your organization that should have been filled during the draft. For a number of reasons, players like John Madden, Andy Greene, and Matt Taormina went undrafted and were available for anyone to sign after they graduated college. Some players, like Taormina, sign a professional tryout contract with an AHL or ECHL club. Others, like Bobby Butler of Ottawa, get signed to a entry level contract with a nice signing bonus. (contract details here)
While the Devils do have a number of tough RFA/UFA decisions to make in the off-season, that shouldn't prevent them from being active in the market of players that become available from the college ranks. After the jump I list some of the players I had mentioned that will be available in a month or two (or sooner) that I think the Devils should take a chance on.
Of course as I write this, Taylor Fedun has already signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Fedun was playing locally in Princeton and I am surprised the Devils never had him at one of their development camps.
Fedun's signing is a reminder on how quickly a college player can be signed once his season ends. Last year, Bobby Butler's college season ended on March 26th and 3 days later he was signed by the Senators.
Who will be the next player to sign? It's likely to be Chase Polacek whose team just lost to Colgate in the ECAC quarterfinals. He might be holding out in the event that RPI earns a bid to the Frozen Four, but I would think that is unlikely to happen.
There should also be a few signings early next week as teams are eliminated from their respective conference playoffs and don't have viable shots at the Frozen Four tournament. Names to look out for next are Tommy Grant of Alaska-Anchorage and Matt Read of Bemidji State.
There are a number of talented players that will be available once their college season ends but to me the game changer is Chay Genoway, a defenseman from North Dakota (Genoway's statistics are below).
Granted a second senior season by the NCAA due to a vicious hit that resulted in a concussion and knocked him out of commission for the majority of last year, Genoway bounced back to put up 26 points in the 29 games he played in this year. Genoway recently has returned to action after missing time due to a lower body injury and you should hear his name plenty of times in the next month during the WCHA playoffs and the Frozen Four tournament.
Despite the time missed he still is the Sioux's leading scorer among defensemen and is tied for second among all players with 14 power play points. He has 76 shots on goal so far this year (2.6 per game) and 27 of those shots have come on the power play. Both shot totals lead the team among defenseman.
Some concerns associated with Genoway include his size (listed at 5'9 and 177 lbs) and his injury history. Plus, he is older than the typical college senior at age 24, so many feel he doesn't have more room to develop. Since he has shown no ill-effects from the injury that ended his season last year your main concern would then be his size and if his body can take the toll of an AHL/NHL season. Every player is different and I refuse to say a player isn't going to be a viable option because of his size. Look at top 2011 draft prospect Rocco Grimaldi. He's 5'6! With his skating ability Genoway should be able to compete at the NHL level.
That said, there are no concerns about his on-ice ability. Having played initially at Shattuck-St. Mary's High School (where Zach Parise played) and then for the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, Genoway has been a mainstay on the blueline for the Fighting Sioux. He skates well, can quarterback a power play and plays solid in his own end. In fact, most of the commentary I have read on him praises his defensive abilities more than most of his other qualities.
I have said this before, but it is worth repeating. The day the Sioux season ends, I would have Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and even Darcy Zajac calling him non-stop to sell him on playing in New Jersey.
Is he worth the 'risk'? Well what exactly is the risk? A 3 year entry level contract committment of $160,000 a year (AHL salary plus a likely signing bonus) is certainly worth the opportunity to sign a player with Genoway's talents. (If he is NHL-bound he would probably have cap hit/earnings of roughly $1MM.)
If he doesn't work out he provides a good asset to the organization at the AHL level. Concerned about the $160,000 a year commitment? That's actually less than the Devils wasted on Andrew Peters contract last year. Plus, a signing of a player like Genoway -if it works out-helps lessen the blow from not having a first round pick in 2007.
To me the upside is worth the nominal risk. While I wouldn't mind the Devils signing a Paul Thompson or Tommy Grant, I think their focus should be on Genoway.
Here is a highlight video that was put together in support of Genoway’s Hobey Baker Award candidacy.
The Devils should also look at some of the collegiante goaltenders (listed above) whose college careers are ending. With Jeff Frazee's inconsistent play at Albany and the Vesa Toskala clones that play for Trenton, the Devils need some fresh goaltenders in their system. It's likely that you can sign any of the above goalies to a minor league contract to play in the ECHL and work their way up from there. A goalie who has played through the tough competition that the NCAA provides might even be able to step in and be a backup at the AHL level. A goaltender signing would also provide competition to Maxime Clermont who would be eligible to start playing in the Devils organization next year (technically he could play this year if he was signed).
The names above are just some to keep your eyes on. The only one who was ever ranked by Central Scouting was John Muse who was ranked 22nd in the North American Goaltender draft rankings of 2007. They represent accomplished goalies (with NHL size) in the NCAA ranks who are playing for top tier programs. Whether it's from the group above or somewhere else, the Devils do need to refresh the goaltending depth in the organization.
As you can tell I really would like for the Devils to sign Genoway. But if they don't sign him, they need to be active in this new market of players that will become available. If you watched last night's Devils and Ottawa Senators game you saw how often Bobby Butler was mentioned by the announcers. The Devils need this type of talent infusion to their organization to make up for lackluster drafts. Weak drafts have started to catch up to the Devils but they can make amends on those poor selections by taking a chance on some of the top talent in the NCAA.
I know that David Conte has scouted North Dakota games to check out Devils prospect Derek Rodwell, so if he believes Genoway has NHL talent, it has been communicated to the organization. If Conte believe this (and I am sure he does), then I implore the Devils to sign him. The risk is minimal. His career path and his scholastic accolades seem to make him a perfect 'Devil' type of player. So, Lou Lamoriello if you are reading this (which I doubt that you are) let's bring another Fighting Sioux player to New Jersey. The Devils have already struck gold with Sioux alumni Parise and Zajac. Why not one more? Ever hear of the saying that good things come in threes?