By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
NHL teams employ a variety of prospects. Team scouts are responsible for researching and assessing prospects throughout the world to determine a player’s draft position. Prospects who are highly scouted and considered the best of the best are selected at high draft positions. Others, however, endure more work in making an NHL roster because they are not drafted. These players are considered undrafted free agents (“UDFA”). Boston Bruins’ prospect Cooper Zech falls into this category.
The life of an undrafted free agent is predicated on calls from NHL teams looking to expand their rosters. A typical UDFA will play four years of college hockey or junior hockey in America or Canada. They’ll wait for tryout invitations after their eligible draft year(s) to show teams what they may have missed. A variety of reasons will affect a player’s draft position: progression of their development, strength, or size. The latter is the leading reason why most players go undrafted.
Most notable free agents who have been told they were too small for the NHL include Martin St. Louis, Adam Oates, Connor Sheary, and current Bruins player, Torey Krug. Oates and St. Louis have been inducted into the NHL’s Hall of Fame. St. Louis polished off his career with a Stanley Cup win in 2004, Sheary has two Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh, and Krug is eyeing a large payday next off-season. Cooper Zech’s initial pre-draft impression wasn’t any different. He had consistently been told his 5’9, 170-pound stature was too small for an NHL defenseman. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the left-handed shot defenseman from pursuing his dreams.
Cooper Zech started his unconventional road to the NHL with the North American Hockey League (NAHL). The NAHL is the only Tier II junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey, and acts as an alternative to the Tier I United States Hockey League (USHL). The USHL features young stars who have their sights set on an NHL roster and have been told by general managers they need more developmental time. These players are typically drafted, including current emerging star Bruins defenseman, Charlie McAvoy. Similar to the NHL draft, some players are not fortunate enough to play in the USHL, which creates an opportunity for the NAHL.
Zach Zech, Cooper’s older brother, played for the NAHL’s Odessa Jackalopes. With the help of his older brother, Cooper was given a try-out and the 17-year old Michigan native made his first junior hockey team in 2015.
Zech played two seasons in Odessa, notching 57 points. He left after 41 games in 2016-17 to play in the USHL with the Muskegon Lumberjacks for a 25-game stint. He moved on to a full season in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) with the Wenatchee Wild in the 2017-18 season. This particular season was huge for Zech’s development. He led all BCHL defenseman in points for the season (69 points) and playoffs (23 points). He was awarded BCHL’s Best Defensemen in 2018 and was an integral part of the Wild’s first BCHL championship.
Cooper Zech takes home the BCHL Best Defenceman Award this year. A Ferris State commit, 69 points in 58 games. Averaged an assist per game during the regular season.— Cawlidge Hawkey Ins. (@CHInsider) March 12, 2018
Following his admirable year with the Wild, Zech looked for an opportunity to sign with an NHL team. NHL teams hold development camps to evaluate their prospects before the season kicks off and allows teams to invite undrafted prospects for a tryout. Coaches and management evaluate what areas of the game each prospect needs to work on, and shares that with the player to help in their development process.
The Washington Capitals became the first NHL team to invite Zech to their development camp, months after his season in the BCHL ended. He attended the Capitals’ camp, where his skill was recognized. He took part in 3-on-3 tournaments and even signed some autographs.
Unfortunately, like most UDFA’s who attend camps, he left Washington without a contract. He verbally committed to the Ferris State Bulldogs in the Western Conference Hockey Association (WCHA) for the 2018-19 season. He continued his torrid success at Ferris State, earning WCHA’s Rookie of the Year. He led all WCHA freshmen in points with 28 and became the first freshman to lead the Bulldogs in scoring since the 1987-88 season. His .78 points per game by a freshmen blue-liner led the entire nation.
Ferris State Freshman Cooper Zech Named WCHA Rookie Of The Year https://t.co/jPUJNxtezx— Ferris Athletics (@ferrisathletics) March 19, 2019
Zech’s remarkable pre-NHL journey did not go unnoticed. Following his season at Ferris State, the Boston Bruins offered him a two-year AHL contract. An AHL contract is a deal between the player and the AHL team, not the NHL club. The difference between Cooper and a player like Zach Senyshyn who’s on an NHL entry-level contract and can play in the AHL, meaning he’s not on an AHL contract. Therefore, if the Bruins ever want to call up Zech, they would have to sign him to an NHL deal.
Zech joined the Providence Bruins for 12 regular season and 4 playoff games in 2019. He racked up 6 points in these 16 games, two of which were scored in the playoffs. Most notably, Zech scored a game-tying goal, which was eerily similar to Krug’s goal against the Minnesota Wild in a comeback 5-4 OT victory on November 23, 2019. Zech has often been compared to Krug, not only for his size but for his offensive ability and power play prowess.
Check out Zech’s goal!!! pic.twitter.com/lhZVYHsWIo— Providence Bruins (@AHLBruins) April 20, 2019
He entered the 2019 off-season looking to make an impression at the Bruins development camp and pre-season games. In his NHL debut preseason game against Philadelphia, Zech registered five shots on goal, a hit and a block in 17:35 minutes of ice time. He also appeared on the Bruins power-play unit. The Bruins cut Zech during their training camp, sending him down to Providence for the year to continue his development. He hasn’t skipped a beat this season, racking up 6 points in 17 games, while also receiving the recognition he’s deserved by the Bruins’ media.
Cooper Zech is one of the more crafty and elusive defenders I’ve seen in Providence. When carrying the puck up the ice, he has a knack for taking the space, drawing the attacker and then making a subtle, smart play with the puck. His shiftiness is quite hard to defend. #NHLBruins— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) December 8, 2019
The Bruins will have to wait to figure out what they truly have in Cooper Zech and if it can translate to the NHL. He has been compared to players like Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, mostly due to size but also for his elusive defense and power playability. He has a knack for the net and has only once in his storied career registered a negative plus/minus season. He’s been a bright spot on the Providence Bruins roster and his coaches have noticed. Jay Leach, current Providence Bruins Head Coach, praised Zech during a brief post-game interview with The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa. “His ability to make something out of nothing was there. And as always, his ability to compete and be the hockey player was always there.”
The Bruins have a plethora of defensemen vying for a spot on the roster. They also need to figure out how to financially include Krug in their future plans. Once next season hits and Zech is at the end of his AHL contract, it would not be surprising if the Bruins offer Cooper his first NHL-entry deal.
Check out the new Black N’ Gold Hockey Podcast episode 158 that we recorded on 12-15-19 below! You can find our show on many worldwide platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
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