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  • NCAA free-agent market opening for business Print
    Futures Watch
    Written by Steve Wozniak   
    Sunday, 04 March 2012 04:17

    Now that the NHL’s trade deadline has passed, scouting departments and general managers turn their attention not to the draft, but to the upcoming free agency period that begins next week and rolls through mid-April.

    Steve WozniakAll those seniors in NCAA Division I that either escaped the radar of NHL Central Scouting or made remarkable improvements in their four years on campus will get a shot to prove themselves all over again in the outposts of the AHL and ECHL.

    So who did 30 NHL teams miss the boat on? And who will they now be scurrying to get under contract in an attempt to rectify scouting oversights? We take a look at the best seniors in college hockey who aren’t beholden to any team that drafted them.

    Jack Connolly, C, Minnesota-Duluth: When wingers Justin Fontaine and the unrelated Mike Connolly left Duluth after last season’s championship run, Jack Connolly could have been expected to struggle. Instead, he followed up that 59-point campaign with 54 points in his first 35 games this season, playing with a rotating cast of wingmen that has included J.T. Brown, Mike Seidel and Joe Basaraba.

    Connolly is a fierce and fast skater who can contribute as much on the forecheck as he can around the net and with his passes. Some skeptical scouts will point to his diminutive 5-foot-8, 160-pound frame as a red flag, but Connolly’s game is reminiscent of Martin St. Louis, another too-small-for-the-pros forward who had some success out of the University of Vermont.

    The Minnesota Wild invited Connolly to their prospect camp last summer, and would be the most likely team to offer him a deal after his season ends.

    Spencer Abbott, LW, Maine: Abbott didn’t make much of a splash when he first arrived in the rocky plains of Maine, tallying just 16 points in his freshman year. But he showed improvement, racking up 28 points in his sophomore year and another 40 last season. The departure of Gustav Nyquist to the Detroit Red Wings opened the door, though, for Abbott to step up and become the man for the Black Bears. He hasn’t disappointed. As teams head into the postseason, the NCAA scoring race is now a three-horse chase between Connolly, Abbott and Dallas Stars prospect Austin Smith of Colgate.

    Like Connolly, may be seen as a bit small for the NHL grind at 5-10 and 175 pounds. But his game is predicated on elusive speed. Abbott’s game may remind some of former Boston College star and current Buffalo Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe.

    Abbott, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, will likely attract the attention of Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who has, it would seem, a thing for late bloomers in the NCAA.

    Brian Flynn, C, Maine: Flynn has combined with Abbott to comprise the most prolific line in college hockey this season. Unlike Abbott, though, Flynn has been very consistent in his entire four-year career with the Black Bears. He is averaging over a point per game, posting at least 35 points in each of the last three seasons.

    Flynn, at 6-0 and 170 pounds, is more of the prototypical NHL prospect. He can generate offense, but is also responsible in his own end. As of Saturday, his plus-23 rating was tops on the Black Bears.

    The Lynnfield, Mass., native was invited to the Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect camp last summer, and will remain on that team’s radar after his season ends.Travis Oleksuk

    Travis Oleksuk, C, Minnesota-Duluth (pictured): Oleksuk also had a slow start to his career with the Bulldogs, posting just five assists in 18 games during an abbreviated freshman campaign. But last year was a bit of a coming-out party for the 6-0, 200-pound native of Thunder Bay, Ontario. His 33 points contributed greatly to his team’s NCAA title run, and he has at times this year outshined Connolly while playing alongside highly touted sophomore J.T. Brown. In fact, it’s Oleksuk and Brown who share the team lead with 21 goals.

    Oleksuk has great hands around the net and the size to push his way through traffic. He would project as an excellent power forward with top-six potential. Last summer, he took part in the Vancouver Canucks’ prospect camp.

    Cody Reichard, G, Miami: For four years, Miami coach Enrico Blasi has platooned Reichard with Connor Knapp, a Buffalo Sabres draftee. The reason is that neither goalie has separated himself from the other. For as good as Knapp has been, Reichard has hung with his creasemate save by save. In his first three years, Reichard never posted a goals-against average higher than 2.11 or a save percentage below .912.

    By comparison, this season is a bit of a step back for Reichard. His 8-7-2 record, 2.51 GAA and .898 save percentage look awfully pedestrian. And his 5-11, 165-pound frame may scare off some NHL scouts. But it was Reichard, not Knapp, who led his team to the NCAA championship game in his freshman year and back to the Frozen Four the next season.

    Reichard is not known to have been invited to any NHL prospect camp.

    Brady Lamb, D, Minnesota-Duluth: Lamb has spent his time in Duluth with a bit of an identity crisis. As a freshman, he played limited time and tallied just a goal and assist in 21 games. As a sophomore, he began pulling the trigger and establishing himself as an offensive-minded blueliner, finishing with 11 goals. In his junior season, Lamb began playing more of a stay-at-home game, letting the firepower up front take care of the scoring.

    This season, Lamb is back to firing his cannon at will, posting seven goals and 19 assists in his first 36 games. Lamb was named the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Outstanding Defenseman in 2008, but at age 20 was no longer draft-eligible.

    Now 24, the 6-1, 215-pound blueliner looks ready to take the next step. He joined the Boston Bruins for their prospect camp last summer and developed a relationship with Boston Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney. Expect him to end up in Beantown for training camp next season.

    Kelly Zajac, F, Union: Forwards from the ECAC conference develop a reputation once they reach the NHL. You won’t find any stars but a slew of third- and fourth-line grinders or buzz players. Just look at Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams (Harvard), Philadelphia’s Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown), Montreal’s Erik Cole (Clarkson) and New Jersey’s Brad Mills (Yale).

    Zajac has shown steady improvement in his time at Union, increasing his point total from 20 to 24 to 42 in his junior year. This season, he has 39 points in 34 games as the Dutchmen await their start in the ECAC playoffs.

    It wouldn’t be surprising to see the 5-10, 185-pound Winnipeg native follow his brothers Travis and Darcy into the New Jersey Devils system.

    Karl Stollery, D, Merrimack: Stollery has been no offensive slouch for the Warriors, averaging over 20 points per season. But for a 5-11, 170-pound blueliner, Stollery has surprisingly been an intimidating force, a small but fearless defender who gladly will bulldoze anyone that comes in his end.

    “He has a great base and is so powerful that he can take runs at bigger guys,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy told the Eagle-Tribune. “Stolls has a mean streak.”

    Stollery spent the summer of 2010 in the prospect camp for the Atlanta Thrashers turned Winnipeg Jets.

    Also on the market: forwards Brian O’Neill (Yale), Barry Almeida (Boston College), Chris Connolly (Boston University), Tyler Gron (Northern Michigan), Doug Jones (Dartmouth), Stevie Moses (New Hampshire), Jack Maclellan (Brown), T.J. Syner (UMass) and Michael Dorr (Minnesota State); defensemen Chad Billins (Ferris State) and Gabe Guentzel (Colordo College); and goalies Kenny Reiter (Minnesota-Duluth), Shawn Hunwick (Michigan), Taylor Nelson (Ferris State), Chris Noonan (Niagara), Cal Heeter (Ohio State) and Brooks Ostergard (Robert Morris).

    Photos by University of Minnesota-Duluth and Maine University

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    Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 March 2012 16:44