At the tail end of the NHL regular season, after the trade deadline has passed, teams are presented one last opportunity to shore up any gaps in their roster before the playoffs begin. As the NCAA, KHL, and CHL seasons come to a close, free agents within each of these leagues have the chance to sign a contract with an NHL team.
The Rangers have gone this route in the past, often signing multiple college free agents each year, and this season is no different. Drury was able to sign standout college players Bobby Trivigno and Brandon Scanlin, both to two-year contracts. Something unique about this season, though, is that the Rangers have actually done a decent job plugging any holes in their roster at this year’s trade deadline. In the past, the Blueshirts were often without their top picks in previous draft years, leaving their system and prospect pipeline barren. While they were still able to sign two top college players this year, the team doesn’t have as much of a dire need to inject youth and skill into their system. However, any team would be remiss to not take the chance to acquire potential impact players without giving up any assets, but with the current depth on the team and in their system most signings of this nature will go directly to Hartford to play for the Wolf Pack.
Taking all of the above into account we’re going to review some of the top free agents (still available) that the Rangers have, at the very least, a shot in the dark at signing. This means this list won’t include a few expected names, such as Andrei Kuzmenko, who will be looking for a top-six role in the NHL, and Dryden McKay, who is more than likely to sign with a team where he has a chance to start in net, among others.
Ben Meyers, C, University of Minnesota
Meyers could easily sign with a team where he can play on an NHL roster right away, but he’s been so good this year that every team in the league should at least be having a conversation about him. Since he was a freshman, the young center has been a standout player for the Golden Gophers, but it was particularly this year where he took an extra step. With 17 goals and 24 assists, Meyers led his team in both goals scored and total points and was recently named one of the top three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. Captain of the Golden Gophers, he played his way onto the United States Olympic team and excelled on the international stage in Beijing.
While many theorize the former finalist of the Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award—given to the top high school hockey player in the state—may sign with his local NHL team, Meyers’ name is sure to be discussed in most NHL front offices. We’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see where he ends up, as he is a primary reason the Golden Gophers have advanced to the Frozen Four and their season has yet to end.
Jake Livingstone, D, Minnesota State University
Skating in at 6’3”, Livingstone already has the size to play in the NHL. Scoring 9 goals and 21 assists, the right-handed defender led all defensemen on his team in both goals scored and total points this year. While most scouts would never admit Livingstone’s skating is a true strength of his, for a big man, the young defenseman is more mobile than one might think. His dependable defensive positioning and active stick have been noticeable throughout his entire NCAA career. Just last month Livingstone was voted defenseman of the year in the CCHA conference. We’ll find out where he signs in the next couple of weeks as Livingstone has helped propel the Mavericks to the Frozen Four.
Ethen Frank, RW, Western Michigan University
One thing to note is that Frank was granted an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it was by far his most productive one yet. The fifth-year player led the entire NCAA with 26 goals scored. He’s a smooth skater who can rip the puck and poses as a scoring threat from almost anywhere in the offensive zone. While a consistent terror around the net, it’s not even his goal-scoring prowess that the Hobey Baker nominee is most known for amongst his teammates. Jake Nelson of the Western Herald quotes Frank saying “I want to better everybody, I want everyone to be happy. I’m always trying to do everything I can to make sure everybody in the locker room and my friends are happy and enjoy being around me…I just think passing it forward and being a good person goes a long way.” A personality like this can fit in and be impactful almost anywhere. As Western Michigan was just eliminated from the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament, Frank is now free to sign with any NHL team.
Zach Metsa, D, Quinnipiac University
The only NCAA defenseman with more points this season is New Jersey Devils 2021 fourth overall draft pick Luke Hughes. Though undersized at 5’9”, Metsa plays a cerebral game and was able to make space for his teammates all year long. He led his team in points with 37 this year, but his game doesn’t only involve offense, he was recently announced as the Best Defensive Defenseman in the ECAC. Metsa was a big reason the Bobcats almost made it to the Frozen Four this year, but they came up a bit short against a stacked Michigan University team. Eligible to sign now, the small defenseman has accomplished more than enough in his college career to garner attention from multiple suitors.
Update: Metsa has since committed to a fifth year at Quinnipiac effectively taking his name out of the pool of NCAA free agents. However, he is still a player most teams will be watching closely, especially as his final year ends in 2023.
Niko Ojamäki , RW, Vityaz Podolsk
Ojamäki led the KHL in goals this past season and is known for his powerful shot that he’s displayed on the international stage multiple times. He was a member of the Finnish Gold Medal team in Beijing and is currently a free agent. The Rangers have a severe lack of Finnish players on their roster, with Kaapo Kakko being the only one. Signing another Finnish player, especially one with a nose for the net, could have multiple benefits, such as adding depth to their system and even perhaps helping Kakko become a bit more comfortable playing in New York City by having someone in the locker room who speaks his native language. That being said, if Ojamäki signs with an NHL team it’s possible he would be assigned to start with the team’s AHL affiliate, but he could quickly work his way back to the big league by continuing his torrential pace of scoring goals.
Make it 23 goals for KHL's top goal scorer Niko Ojamaki !— KHL (@khl_eng) December 2, 2021
After just 35 games, he tied Vityaz' record for most goals in single season set by Justin Danforth (23 G in 58 GP). pic.twitter.com/hlVu4wyoFr
Stats via Elite Prospects