As the NCAA hockey tournament winds down, free agents of all types appear on the open market. Some of them are undrafted free agents, some of them are multi-undrafted free agents and some are previously drafted players who spurn their drafting team to seek free agency.
The Rangers have been extremely active in this part of free agency of late.
Two years ago the Rangers locked down players like Union captain and puck-moving defenseman Mat Bodie, Vermont center Chris McCarthy and RPI forward Ryan Haggerty. For what it's worth, Haggerty was thought to be the gem of the 2014 NCAA free agency crop. He never played an NHL game with the Rangers, and was eventually moved to Chicago for current backup goaltender Antti Raanta.
None of the three of those players every played an NHL regular season game with the Rangers, which isn't really a big deal. The entire point of dipping into the NCAA undrafted free agency pool is to take a risk on a guy who might turn into something (like Martin St. Louis). Bodie has been a steady presence and a solid player in the AHL, and signed a one-year extension last summer. Haggerty netted the Rangers Raanta, which is spectacular asset management; especially when you consider Haggerty has yet to play in an NHL game for Chicago either.
The jump from undrafted NCAA free agent to the NHL is a tough one, and while players like St. Louis exist; they're the exception not the rule.
Things do take a bit of a different turn with drafted players who utilize the loophole to refuse signing their ELC by the NHL's deadline and thus becoming a free agent out of college.
The biggest success for the Rangers in this regard was, of course, grabbing Kevin Hayes two summers ago, when the former first round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks refused to sign his ELC and selected the Rangers in free agency. Hayes has had two very solid years with the New York Rangers, but that hasn't stopped him from being scratched, benched, called lazy and playing every shift looking over his shoulder to see when Oscar Lindberg is getting into the lineup. Forget the media-driven narratives that are far from the truth -- every team has a media presence -- but the above probably flashes a few warning signs to potential NCAA FAs that the grass might not be greener in New York.
This year's "Kevin Hayes" if you will is Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey, who was a third round (66th overall) pick by the Nashville Predators. Vesey has 58 points (32 goals) in 37 games last year and followed that up with 46 points in 33 games this year.
The Rangers haven't really been linked to any of the NCAA free agents who are hitting the open waters -- Vesey being the belle of the ball this year. Part of that might be the Rangers lack of interest in the players, but that would be somewhat surprising considering most every contract in the system is up for renewal (and most won't be kept) and the Rangers have such a dearth of prospects in they system as is. Aside from the players at the very top, the Rangers don't have a lot of prospects who are worth anything to the big club.
That means penetrating the NCAA free agency pool should be -- and has been -- an important factor to re-stocking the farm. Remember, the Rangers have been without a first round draft pick for the past three years and will most likely be without one this year as well. That means the Rangers need to do everything in their power to reach on some of these kids to help bolster their system.
I think it's a fair question to wonder whether or not the Rangers are still an attractive opportunity when all 30 NHL teams are bidding for a player's services. Alain Vigneault has a history of heavily favoring veterans over youth he doesn't yet trust, as seen by the Lindberg/Hayes carousel to see who is a healthy scratch, Dylan McIlrath not being able to crack the lineup despite massive defensive issues and general ice time/usage for some of the younger players on the team.
This sort of came to light after Pavel Buchnevich signed a one-year extension to stay in the KHL last year citing not wanting to be jerked around from the AHL to the NHL as a part of his development. Part of that probably has to do with him thinking he might not have been good enough to crack the NHL lineup, but some of it also had to do with him witnessing how the Rangers were handling the likes of J.T. Miller (at the time) and wanting to avoid that future. Adam Herman has a great write up on the Buchnevich situation here, since his KHL season ended on Monday.
The point isn't to say the Rangers have poisoned any opportunity for these types of players. The Rangers still play in the World's Most Famous Arena, call the biggest city of the world their home, are an original six franchise soaked in history and have been very successful the past few years. But players are self aware, and the Rangers treatment of some youth might absolutely play a role for some players -- even if it doesn't for all of them.
Remember, just because a player might not be as in tune with something like that doesn't mean an agent wouldn't be. It's their job to know. And not that the Rangers should ever coach around the ideology of maybe adding an NCAA free agent, but you have to fill in all the color when talking about something like this.
With that being said, the Rangers have still had some success in the field. And two players who could have spurned the Rangers re-signed with Cristoval "Boo" Nieves (more here) and Steve Fogarty (more here) both signing a two-year ELC Monday.
It's hard not to assume the Rangers might not present as good of an opportunity, though. Especially with a heavy veteran presence in a lineup that doesn't deviate much from what it is and has serious issues against the cap. Some players might look at that and see an opportunity soon to open to them. Others might not like the chaos and might go elsewhere.
At the end of the day it's up to the player themselves. And I'm not too sure the Rangers have painted the best picture of themselves in that regard.