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Five intriguing NCAA free agents

A preview of the 2018-19 college free agent class

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The New York Rangers are no strangers to making college free agent signings — both drafted and undrafted. Neal Pionk, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, John Gilmour, and Vinni Lettieri were all signed by the Rangers as college free agents. Of that group, both Pionk and Lettieri were undrafted.

The Rangers aren’t alone. Over the last few years Alex Iafallo, Zach Aston-Reese, Alex Kerfoot, Will Butcher, and Justin Kloos have made an impact in the AHL or NHL for the teams that signed them out of college. Of course, not every NCAA free agent signing is a success story. But college free agents are still regarded as a valuable talent pool, especially for teams like the Rangers — who went four consecutive drafts (2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016) without a first round draft pick — that are looking to bolster their farm system and find talent outside of the draft.

Today, we’re going to look at five of the most intriguing free agents in NCAA D-I hockey.

Taro Hirose | LW

  • Age: 22
  • School: Michigan State

As is the case with a lot of the prospects we’ll be looking at today, Hirose is on the smaller side. But his 5-foot-10 frame hasn’t stopped him from putting up some outstanding numbers at Michigan State. It’s also worth noting that it’s a rare thing for a Canadian player to lead the nation in scoring at the college level, but that is what Hirose is doing this year with the Spartans.

Hirose, who models his game after Johnny Gaudreau, has displayed great speed, vision, and hands at the collegiate level. Through the first 24 games of the 2018-19 season, he has piled up 40 points and is averaging 1.74 points per-game. For some context: Ryan Poehling, the 25th overall pick of the 2017 Draft (Montreal) has 19 points in 20 games with St. Cloud State in his junior season.

In case you were wondering, Michigan State doesn’t have any NHL prospects who are contributing in a big way this year. The engine of their offense is undoubtedly Hirose.

The native Calgarian has produced consistently at even strength this year — 28 of his first 40 points this season were scored at evens. But what really separates Hirosi’s production from the rest of the pack is his primary assists. He has 18 primary assists this season, which is the same number of primary assists he finished with in 36 games last year. Hirose is definitely more of a playmaker than a shooter — and he does make some brilliant passes — but there’s a lot more to Hirose’s game than his knack for setting up teammates.

According to some, Hirose got lost in the shuffle at times when he attended the Red Wings Development Camp last June, but TSN’s Kristen Shilton and others thought he stood out in a big way at the Leafs Camp in 2017. She wasn’t alone; Hirose was the subject of a feature article for The Athletic that summer. How he will fare playing against big, physical defenders is definitely something to consider, but Hirose looks like an NHL-talent that’s just waiting for a team to give him a chance.

If Chris Drury and Jeff Gorton don’t have an interview lined up with Hirose already, they definitely should consider making one.

Joe Duszak | D

Age: 21

School: Mercyhurst University

Duszak, a Long Island-native, checks off pretty much every box when it comes to what we expect from a big college free agent signing. The 5-foot-10 right-handed defenseman was the 2016 USPHL (United States Premier Hockey League) Defenseman of the Year and is currently the highest-scoring rear guard in the nation. As you might expect, Duszak — who converted to his current position in his first midget season — is frequently labeled as an offensive blueliner.

We can’t talk about Duszak without spending a significant amount of time discussing his production. He has 11 goals and 22 assists this year and 12 of those assists are primary. He’s already eclipsed his production as a sophomore, and is currently leading his team in goals and assists. His 3.26 SOG/GP also leads the way for Mercyhurst, which speaks volumes about his role and value to the Lakers’ offense — so too does his seven-point lead over Mercyhurst’s second-highest scoring skater.

It’s worth noting that Duszak also leads Mercyhurst in the minus department, although that is a poor way to measure defensive performance. As one might expect, he’s the Lakers’ horse and is on the ice battling against the opposition’s best players. A cursory look at some film revealed that he struggles in net-front battles, especially on the penalty kill. But that is not altogether surprising considering his frame.

Rick Gotkin, Mercyhurst’s head coach, thinks that his star defenseman succeeds in all three zones. “He’s always been a good scorer,” Gotkin told Chris Lerch of USCHO in a recent interview, “but he’s become a very reliable defenseman. He’s a super competitive kid who loves to play hockey. He’s got a great instinct for the game. He sees the ice well. He’s become a great 200-foot player.”

Duszak played beneath current Hartford Wolf Pack assistant coach Joe Mormina in his freshman season at Mercyhurst, so the Rangers should know quite a bit about him. However, Duszak attended the New York Islanders 2016 Mini-Camp and he’s a Long Island kid. Like Hirose, he’s on the radar of a lot of teams.

Bobo Carpenter | C

  • Age: 22
  • School: Boston University

Corey Pronman mentioned Carpenter as a college free agent who make an impact in the NHL last March. However, he didn’t sign last spring, and is back in BU playing in his senior season.

Carpenter was ranked 119th by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters before the 2014 Draft. He and his family sat through the entire draft in Philadelphia without hearing his name called. Since that bitter disappointment, he’s earned a reputation for absolutely working his tail off and more than a few NHL teams have taken notice.

Most analysts agree that Carpenter’s biggest weakness is his skating. He’s worked on that aspect of his game a lot in recent years and it shows, but there’s still some work to be done there.

His father, former NHLer Bobby Carpenter, shared his thoughts on why his son wasn’t drafted with Mollie Walker of the New York Post in July.

“There are kids that walk later than others, there are kids that walk earlier,” Bobby said. “I think in Bobo’s draft year, he might’ve been 5-foot-9 and maybe 170 pounds. So he wasn’t a strong man yet and I think that’s why he slipped through the draft.”

Today, Carpenter is listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, but he’s definitely strong for his frame. At BU, he’s excelled at getting to the areas where goalscorers score goals. And scoring goals is probably what Bobo does best. David Quinn, Carpenter’s coach for his first three seasons as a Terrier, has described his release as “incredible.” He’s also an outspoken fan of his character and leadership capabilities.

This season Carpenter is proving he can produce without Jordan Greenway (Minnesota’s second round pick in 2015) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa’s fourth overall pick in 2018) in BU’s lineup. It won’t be easy for Carpenter to match the 20 goals he scored last season, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. Through 20 games this season he leads the Terriers with 10 goals and averages 3.95 SOG/GP. He’s currently third on BU in scoring behind Predators’ prospect Dante Fabbro and Flyers’ prospect Joel Farabee. Carpenter also leads all BU forwards in blocked shots and face-off percentage by a wide margin.

Over the years Carpenter has been invited to prospect camps for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders, and the New Jersey Devils. Sean Shapiro also reported that the Dallas Stars have been keeping a close eye on him — so he’s definitely not a hidden gem. With all of that that being said, his connection to Quinn almost certainly puts him on the Rangers’ radar. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player that fits the bill of being a “David Quinn guy” more than Carpenter.

The concerns for BU’s captain making the jump to the pro game are centered around his play away from the puck, his size, and his skating. He has impressed at a few of his camp invites, but it’s still unclear whether or not he’d be able to keep up with the pace of the pro game.

Carpenter, who turns 23 in August, would be something of a project for any team that signs him, but he’s already shown an ability to dramatically improve his game.

Nico Sturm | C

  • Age: 23
  • School: Clarkson University

Sturm attended the Ottawa Senators development camp before the 2018-19 season and was invited to the Winnipeg Jets camp in 2017. The big German center is leading the Clarkson Golden Knights in scoring this year, but he’s best known for his play away from the puck.

Sturm is considered one of the best defensive forwards in college hockey.

Casey Jones, Clarkson’s head coach, is not shy about singing Sturm’s praises. “He is really committed to a 200-foot game, which is really nice,” Jones told Josh Seguin of College Hockey News. “It is really easy to hold everyone else accountable when your best player plays that 200-foot game. The thing about him is that he wins faceoffs, he blocks shots and he bites pucks. He does everything and it makes it easier for the others to follow him.”

The 6-foot-3 Sturm is hard to miss when he’s on the ice. He has good straight line speed for his size and rarely takes penalties despite his tenacious approach to defense. He’s physical, but not reckless and is a nightmare matchup for most teams when he’s parked in front of the net on the power play.

There’s also a good chance that Sturm has more to show in regards to his offensive upside. In his sophomore season he finished second on the Golden Knights in scoring with 37 points in 40 games, but his 16 primary assists led the team. Sheldon Rempal, who led Clarkson in scoring last year, signed with the Los Angeles Kings on Mar. 31, 2018 and is having a great year in the AHL.

Sturm has only recently stepped into a more featured role in Clarkson’s offense and the early returns have been encouraging. He’s currently ninth in the nation among underclassmen in scoring and is fifth in even strength points. The fact that 21 of Sturm’s 26 points this season have been scored at even strength shows that he’s creating offense despite being the player other teams know they need to shut down. That is exactly what you want to see from a big, talented center.

The biggest strike against Sturm is probably his age. He’ll be 24 in May, but that shouldn’t prevent him from getting offered a deal from an NHL team. There’s a lot to like about his game.

Josh Wilkins | W

  • Age: 21
  • School: Providence College

Wilkins, a North Carolina native, is another undrafted collegiate player who’s been getting a lot of attention from NHL teams in the last few years. Back in 2016-17, he became the first freshman at Providence College to reach 30 points in a season in 20 years. And in the summer of 2016, he turned a lot of heads at the Hurricanes Development Camp.

Unfortunately for Wilkins, he was unable to accept five NHL camp invitations he received in 2017 due to a shoulder injury. And, surprisingly, he turned down an invite to Vegas’ camp last summer. But make no mistake, he is still a player to watch.

Wilkins is a 5-foot-11 winger who has a knack for making big plays. He has scored 88 points in his first 101 games of NCAA D-I hockey, including a team-leading 26 points in 22 games this year. The shifty winger is currently on pace to crush his production from last year, which is all the more impressive because Providence’s two top scorers from last year’s team are no longer with the team.

He and Golden Knights’ draft pick Jack Dugan (142nd overall, 2017 Draft) are the most productive players in the last 20 years of Friars hockey.

Most of the scouting reports on Wilkins rave about his stick skills. He certainly has quick hands and knows how to finish, but he’s not Providence’s top triggerman. That designation belongs to Kasper Björkqvist — the Penguins’ second round pick in the 2016 Draft — and the undrafted Scott Conway. More often than not, Wilkins is the one making plays to give them chances to rifle the puck on net.

Wilkins likes to have the puck on his stick and it appears that he’s quite proficient at creating chances for his linemates at even strength — 23 of his last 33 assists have been picked up at evens. Another indication of his ability to create offense is that 38 of his last 57 points have been primary. He’s a big reason why the Friars have routinely outshot their opponents over the last two seasons.

Like most undrafted college free agent forwards with great numbers, Wilkins is small, and for some, that counts as a strike against him. But he recently put the hockey world on notice with a 13-game scoring streak that ended on Jan. 19 at Boston College. Someone is bound to give this kid a shot.