With 42 of the 58 Division I hockey teams done for the year, the annual NHL free-agent frenzy among college players has begun, albeit to a mild degree so far. As of Tuesday morning, only 10 players have made the jump to a pro career, led by a trio from Minnesota.
Senior Golden Gophers defenseman Cade Fairchild [above] signed with the St. Louis Blues after leading all Minnesota blueliners this season with 24 points (six goals, 18 assists). Fairchild was selected by the Blues in the fourth round of the 2007 NHL Draft. In his four years in the Twin Cities, Fairchild tallied 93 points and has developed into a nice two-way defenseman. While he hasn’t been as prolific, his style has some similarities to that of fellow former Gopher Alex Goligoski.
Joining Fairchild on the way out of town was junior defenseman Aaron Ness and senior forward Mike Hoeffel. Ness signed with the New York Islanders after being taken by the team in the second round of the 2008 draft. Ness is undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but his speed and great passing make him an asset at the point on a power play. Hoeffel signed with the New Jersey Devils, who took him in the second round of the 2007 draft. In his four years at Minnesota, Hoeffel has been very consistent, averaging a dozen goals and 10 assists per season. He is more of a grinder than a pure offensive talent, and his ability to be physical along the boards and in the corners should mesh well with New Jersey’s system.
The Devils also ended up grabbing Alaska junior defenseman Joe Sova, who has been an aberration among the defensively tight Nanooks with his puck-moving skills at the blueline. Sova tallied 24 points in each of his last two seasons, but has also used his 6-3, 190-pound body to challenge speedy forwards in his own end.
The first player to jump to the pros this spring was Princeton senior defenseman Taylor Fedun, who signed as a free agent with his hometown Edmonton Oilers. Fedun has his best offensive season this year, posting 10 goals and 12 assists. Despite that, the stout Fedun is seen as more of a physical, stay-at-home defenseman who led his team in plus/minus even in his freshman season. On the downside, Fedun has been prone to taking a lot of penalties, because despite his 6-1, 210-pound frame, he lacks the speed to keep up with opposing forwards.
The Oilers also signed senior forward Tanner House out of Maine. Like Fedun, House is an Alberta native. Unlike Fedun, House has put together a career of strong offensive numbers, averaging over a point per game in his last two campaigns for the Black Bears. At 6-1 and 195 pounds, House can play as a power forward and muscle his way around the front of the net.
Wisconsin defenseman Jake Gardiner signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gardiner was originally taken by Anaheim in the first round of the 2008 draft, but was included with Joffrey Lupul in the trade that sent Francois Beauchemin to the Duck Pond. Gardiner was the best two-way defenseman in college hockey this season. He had always been a very smart and positionally sound defenseman in his own zone, doing a great job of cutting into passing and shooting lanes. This season, he was given a little more freedom to freelance on offense, and responded with a career-best 41 points, including 10 goals.
The Philadelphia Flyers signed undrafted Brown senior winger Harry Zolnierczyk and assigned him to the AHL Adirondack Phantoms. After two uneventful seasons, Zolnierczyk exploded for 33 and 31 points in his junior and senior campaigns, respectively. Unfortunately, he also exploded for 78 and 128 penalty minutes in those two years (in college hockey – where fighting isn't allowed). It’s no surprise that after signing, Zolnierczyk told The (Glens Falls, N.Y.) Post-Star “I like that kind of hard-nosed style game and I kind of can't wait to join in."
The Flyers also signed St. Cloud State junior defenseman Oliver Lauridsen, a native of Gentofte, Denmark, whom they took in the seventh round of the 2009 draft. While Lauridsen hasn’t been an offensive giant – he never scored more than 12 points in a season – he has been a physical giant … literally. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Lauridsen is a huge force to clear bodies in front of the crease. He doesn’t have the offensive skills or brutal shots of larger defensemen like Zdeno Chara or Tyler Myers, so will draw comparisons instead to Montreal’s Hal Gill.
The Ottawa Senators signed Michigan State sophomore center Derek Grant, whom they took in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. Grant was more of a goal-scoring machine with the Langley Chiefs of the BCHL, but at Michigan State has used his good hands and excellent vision to become more of a playmaker. His game may be similar to Erik Condra, who has made a nice impact as a rookie with the Senators this spring.
Big Ten Update
Nothing much came of the expected news on a Big Ten hockey conference, other than an announcement of considering a proposal to suggest the possibility at the meeting of Big Ten presidents later this year. This is essentially NCAA bureaucrat speak for “This is a good idea, it makes total sense and will make us a lot more money, but wish us luck convincing people who still think the BCS is a brilliant idea.”
The proposed conference would include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, once the Nittany Lions join Division I in a couple years. This wouldn’t cause nearly the same drama that came of last season’s realignment due to the CHA folding. If the Big Ten forms its own conference, the WCHA would drop to 10 teams and still have powerhouses in North Dakota and Denver. The CCHA would drop to a manageable eight teams, with powers Notre Dame and Miami still in the fray.
Of the five current Big Ten programs in Division I hockey, only one, Michigan, earned a berth in this year's NCAA Tournament.