By: Dominic Tiano | Follow me on Twitter @dominictiano
The New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks, and your Boston Bruins are among the busiest NCAA free agent shoppers over the past decade and among the most successful, but none as successful as the Bruins. And for the upcoming 2022 free-agent class, they will be right there.
Yes, successful. Since March 25, 2012 (more on that date further down), no NHL team has been as successful as the Bruins have been in terms of games played by NCAA free agent signings. In fact, NCAA free agent signings by the Bruins have played in twice as many NHL games as the team closest to them.
There are no blue-chip prospects (your definition of blue-chip and mine probably differ) about to become free agents, but there are several quality players who could help a team in their middle-six forward positions or second pair defencemen. We’ll get to some of those players in just a little bit.
So, why bother if you’re not getting a top-notch player? Well, that’s how you build a team.
Not to be dismissed is a study done by TSN during the 2020-21 season. Their study showed that undrafted free agents comprised more players than through the draft, with the exceptions of rounds one and two. If you do your homework, you can have greater success with free agents than through rounds three to seven in the draft. And the Bruins do their homework.
Over the past several years, a player – or rather his agent – looks at things a little differently from years earlier. The order in which they look at it can be debated. One of the things they look at is where they have the easiest path to making it to the NHL. No one wants to come in and be stuck behind NHL players and then other prospects, so it is an area they look at strongly.
The other thing a player and his agent will look at (and in my opinion, the first thing they look at) is which potential team is going to let him burn a year off of his entry-level contract. Meaning, who is going to let him get into a couple of games so that his first year is burned, and he is that much closer to getting out of his entry-level contract. It has become such a bargaining chip that it could be the difference between a team being the bride or the bridesmaid.
The reason that it has become so valuable is that even though the player is a free agent, he is governed under the rules of an entry-level contract, and that means that everyone is offering the same money. Of course, there are performance bonuses at play as well, but they too are governed by entry-level contract rules and also have a maximum.
So, all the teams are on a level playing field, and you can’t be outbid, although you can structure performance bonuses differently. That is why allowing the player to play some games and burn his first year off has become such a bargaining chip for teams. And players look for that.
To be able to offer that, teams have to remain within the 50-contract limit. As of today, there aren’t any teams maxed out. Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, and Vegas Golden Knights are at 49 contracts. Trade deadline day in the NHL is on March 21, so all available contract spots for teams could change.
The other thing a team has to have available if they are going to allow a player to burn off a year, of course, is cap space. After March 21, there is no longer a 23-man roster limit in the NHL, and you can carry as many players as you’d like as long as you remain cap compliant. So, you could bring in a free agent, allow him to practice with the team, and then get him into a game to burn off that year.
I know there is a part of the fan base that will call it a loophole in the CBA that has to be fixed if/when the Bruins don’t get ‘their guy.’ But remember, the Bruins did just that on March 25, 2012 (the date mentioned above) when they signed a young Torey Krug out of Michigan State. The Bruins played Krug in two games that season and that burned his first year of his entry-level contract bringing him to RFA status at the end of the 2013-14 season instead of 2014-15.
But the Bruins aren’t in the habit of playing that game. They pinpoint their target and make their pitch (very convincingly), but they aren’t handing anything away.
Scott Fitzgerald, who’s the Bruins Chief College Scout, said it best: “We don’t want guys that want spots promised to them. You earn your ice time in Boston. It doesn’t matter what your name is or where you came from. You get what you earn.”
Along with Fitzgerald, Scouts Brett Harkins and Doug Leaverton are keeping a watchful eye on potential targets. Even General Manager Don Sweeney and Assistant General Manager Evan Gold have been seen taking some time in at games.
The Bruins are doing their due diligence, and if someone stands out, they’ll make their pitch.
There are two groups of players here. First, there is the unrestricted free agent who has never been drafted and has completed his final season in the NCAA (usually their 4th season). Second, there are those that have not completed their senior year but could become unrestricted free agents if they notify the NHL that they are no longer a bonafide student and has never been drafted.
I’ll begin with seniors who are unrestricted free agents (in no particular order):
Ethen Frank – Western Michigan University – Senior
Frank is a 5’11”, 185-pound center from Papillion NE.
Frank led the nation with 23 goals, six game-winning goals, and is third with nine powerplay goals. While he’s been a “steady” producer at the NCAA level, he just took it to another level this season. He’s also a plus skater with very good mobility and good speed. He can make life miserable in transition, he can gain the offensive zone with possession, or he can be one of the first to the puck if you dump and chase. He also plays the game with pace and tenacity. His skating, goal-scoring ability, and his tenacity will surely draw interest from a few teams.
Mark McLaughlin – Boston College – Senior
McLaughlin is a 6′, 205-pound center from North Billerica, MA. Attended Bruins development camp in 2021.
|2017-18||Cedar Rapids Roughriders||USHL||21||10||10||20|
|2018-19||Boston College||Hockey East||39||4||4||8|
|2019-20||Boston College||Hockey East||34||5||7||12|
|2020-21||Boston College||Hockey East||24||10||14||24|
|2021-22||Boston College||Hockey East||29||19||8||27|
Solid skating mechanics with a decent amount of speed. He’s a two-way player who understands the game in all three zones. He’s most dangerous offensively near the blue paint, especially burying second chance opportunities. I project him as a third-liner who can give you key defensive responsibilities and provide secondary offense.
Bobby Trivigno – University of Massachusetts – Senior
Trivigno is a 5’8″, 160-pound center/LW from Setauket, NY. Attended Penguins development camp in 2019. Was to take part in Rangers development camp in 2021, but NCAA rules would not allow students to leave school to take part.
|2017-18||Waterloo Black Hawks||USHL||58||16||27||43|
|2018-19||UMass – Amherst||Hockey East||39||13||15||28|
|2019-20||UMass – Amherst||Hockey East||34||9||11||20|
|2020-21||UMass – Amherst||Hockey East||29||11||23||34|
|2021-22||UMass – Amherst||Hockey East||31||17||25||42|
Trivigno is a huge New York Rangers fan, and the Rangers were pretty high on him a year ago. But there’s a new GM in town in New York, and there may be a different mindset there.
Trivigno will certainly draw some interest around the NHL that includes the Bruins. How much interest the Bruins have, I don’t know, but Trivigno would be a move in the opposite direction in terms of size. He also plays the game with pace, has a willingness to take on defenders one-on-one, and is tenacious when it comes to hounding the puck and creating turnovers. He’s one of the better offensive players in this class.
Taylor Ward – University of Nebraska Omaha – Senior
Ward is a 6’2″, 205-pound RW from Kelowna, BC. Attended Oilers development camp in 2019.
Ward’s production has improved in each of his four seasons with Nebraska-Omaha. He has good size and a willingness to use it, and he moves well. He was particularly successful playing Junior A in Canada before heading to college. Again, he’s a depth piece with third-line upside who won’t hurt you defensively but contribute secondary scoring.
Nick Blankenburg – University of Michigan – Senior
Blankenburg is a 5’9″, 175-pound right defenceman from Washington, MI. He turned down multiple NHL contract offers last season to return to college for his final year.
|2018-19||University of Michigan||Big-10||34||2||8||10|
|2019-20||University of Michigan||Big-10||35||4||12||16|
|2020-21||University of Michigan||Big-10||26||5||8||13|
|2021-22||University of Michigan||Big-10||30||13||9||22|
At 5’9″, Blankenburg is on the small side. However, Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, and Jack Ahcan (all 5’9″) are evidence that it has never prevented the Bruins from taking a shot at the “smaller” defenceman when it comes to NCAA free agent acquisitions even though more recent trends suggest otherwise.
Blankenburg has beaten the odds at every level after continuously being told he is too small. Heck, he spent three seasons at the University of Michigan paying his own way until this season rolled around, and he finally received a scholarship. He was rewarded this season by being named captain of one of the most talented NCAA teams ever assembled.
Like Bruins prospect Mason Lohrei, Blankenburg is a converted forward who has been playing defense since 2016. Blankenburg is an elite-level skater with elite offensive instincts and a booming shot from the point. Will it be enough to overcome some defensive deficiencies, though?
Maxim Andreev (Andreyev)– Cornell University – Senior
Andreev is a 6’, 185-pound center/left wing from Moskva, RUS. Attended Devils development camp in 2018.
|2017-18||Central Flying Aces||USHL||56||12||31||43|
Yes, he is Russian, and we know how well the Bruins do with Russian players, don’t we? But he isn’t your typical Russian. After a superb Under-17 season with Moscow, Andreev moved to North America a year before his draft season. And at every level, he has been an offensive catalyst.
I’m not suggesting the Bruins will have an interest or that they would sign him, only that they should have a discussion. But what interests me is that he plays a heavy game, is great on the dot, and that he possesses good vision and playmaking skills. He’s not a true goal scorer, and I think he projects as a playmaker. He won’t be a number one center or even a number two, but he has the tools to be a solid number three. The fact that he’s very coachable is a plus.
Gustaf Westlund – Ohio State University – Senior
Westlund is a 6′, 185-pound center born in Paris, France but grew up in Sweden. Attended Panthers development camp in 2018. He also attended the Golden Knights development camp in 2019 (the same camp Lohrei was invited to).
Westlund had a couple of successful seasons in the USHL, and it translated well into his first two seasons at Ohio State. But the last couple of seasons has seen a drop in production.
Westlund is a smooth skater with a long powerful stride and has a good first step as well as a top gear. He’s a playmaker first with good vision and playmaking skills, but he has a wicked wrist shot as well. He never really reached his potential in college, but you have to have faith that he still can if you’re signing him to a contract. As a teammate of Lohrei’s at Ohio State, we know the Bruins have had a good opportunity to see him. You might want to keep one eye open here.
Here is a list of players who have not been drafted that could file their papers with the NHL stating they are no longer a bonafide student, thus making them unrestricted free agents:
Parker Ford – Providence College – Junior
Ford is a 5’9″, 185-pound Center/RW from Wakefield, RI. Attended Bruins development camp in 2021.
|2017-18||S C Musketeers||USHL||51||8||14||22|
|2018-19||S C Musketeers||USHL||56||19||24||43|
|2019-20||Providence College||Hockey East||31||9||13||22|
|2020-21||Providence College||Hockey East||25||7||12||19|
|2021-22||Providence College||Hockey East||36||13||13||26|
Despite the size, you have to be very impressed with Ford’s willingness to get physically engaged. When you talk about a player that plays with pace, Ford is precisely that. I don’t think he will be a big point producer at the NHL level, but he can provide defensive responsibility, energy, and some secondary offense. I know in talking to plenty of Bruins fans, everyone wants this kid in Boston. But those fans need to keep reality in check. I don’t think he will be the player they expect. That’s not a knock on Ford but on some of the unrealistic expectations I am hearing.
Akito Hirose – Minnesota State University – Sophomore
Hirose is a 6′, 170-pound left defenceman from Calgary AB
|2016-17||Salmon Arms Silverbacks||BCHL||55||5||27||32|
|2017-18||Salmon Arms Silverbacks||BCHL||52||4||25||29|
|2019-20||Salmon Arms Silverbacks||BCHL||57||9||42||51|
Brannon McManus – University of Nebraska-Omaha – Graduate
McManus is a 5’11”, 185-pound center/right wing from Newport Beach CA
|2017-18||University of Minnesota||Big-10||36||7||2||9|
|2018-19||University of Minnesota||Big-10||36||14||12||26|
|2019-20||University of Minnesota||Big-10||37||9||18||27|
|2020-21||University of Minnesota||Big-10||27||9||16||25|
Ben Meyers – University of Minnesota – Junior*
Meyers is a 5’11”, 195-pound Center/LW from Delano, MN. Attended Bruins development camp in 2021.
|2016-17||Delano High School||USHS||25||46||53||99|
|2019-20||University of Minnesota||Big-10||37||10||16||26|
|2020-21||University of Minnesota||Big-10||31||12||16||28|
|2021-22||University of Minnesota||Big-10||29||15||19||34|
Meyers will probably be the most sought-after player on this list should he decide to turn pro. He had multiple offers a year ago but decided the best option for him was to return to the University of Minnesota. And that decision paid off as he will undoubtedly have more offers this time around. He is also the one player on this list that could play this season in the right situation and burn that year off his ELC.
Meyers has always been known to be a playmaker first, but he has an NHL shot today, and he can certainly beat goaltenders with it, which has made him a dual-threat. He is a strong skater with the lower body strength that makes him difficult to knock off the puck despite his size. I believe he has the best chance of being a second liner in this group.
Travis Mitchell – Cornell University – Junior
Mitchell is a 6’3″, 200-pound left defenceman from South Lyon, MI. Attended Bruins development camp in 2021.
The knock-on Mitchell entering the USHL was his skating. But to me he looks like he has put in the effort and made some necessary improvements. It did not go unnoticed by the Bruins either as Jammie Langenbrunner was impressed with his mobility for a big guy at last year’s development camp.
The 2020-21 season was a lost one for Mitchell due to the COVID-19 pandemic so his development to a bit of a hit. Still, he did a lot of off ice training that helped him fill out his frame. Mitchell is a north-south player you can count on for some physicality, solid defensive play, making a good first pass out of his zone and even setting up his teammates from the oppositions blue line. He projects as a bottom pair defenceman.
Brandon Scanlin – University of Nebraska Omaha – Junior
Scanlin is a 6’4″, 215-pound left defenceman from Hamilton ON. Attended Bruins development camp in 2021.
If Scanlin decides to turn pro, then the Bruins better be at their best in negotiating with he and his agent because he is going to be right there with Meyer’s answering a lot of phone calls as soon as his season ends.
Scanlin certainly looks the part of an NHL defenceman with his size, two-way game and ability to contribute on offence while also getting the pat on the back to go out and defend a lead. Going back to his Junior A days in Alberta, it was evident that Scanlin could provide offence from the blue line. But it wasn’t until he got to Nebraska-Omaha where he truly began to develop into the two-way defenceman he is today. I remember watching him play Junior B Hockey for the Brantford 99’ers some 7 years ago and thought then he would play in the NHL one day. Well, that day is nearly here and I project him as a second pairing blueliner.
Jake Livingstone Minnesota State – Sophomore
Livingstone is a 6’3″, 205-pound right defenceman from Creston BC
Now, I am pretty sure that Livingstone is going to return to college, and he is only a sophomore, but he has been garnering attention from scouts around the NHL and deservedly so. But I am adding him to this list as I believe the 6’3, 205 pound right shot defenceman needs to get a look at this summers Development Camp. He will turn 23 in April so getting him to camp a year early can only help the Bruins to sign him when he does decide to turn pro. But then again, I could be fooled and he could decide to turn pro. He deserves some discussion at the very least.