NCAA free agency: A look at which players may be on the Montreal Canadiens’ radar

The Canadiens can bolster their defensive depth by looking south of the border.

Now that the NHL trade deadline is behind us and the madness surrounding building a team for the present is over, the next event on every general manager’s calendar will be addressing the future by looking at the NCAA free agent market. It’s an annual opportunity to pluck the best undrafted players whose collegitate careers have come to an end.

Last year, several players were signed during this period, most notably Troy Stecher by the Vancouver Canucks out of North Dakota, and Providence College’s Brandon Tanev joining the Winnipeg Jets, both of whom made the jump to the NHL this season and made an immediate impact. Drake Caggiula also jumped straight to the NHL by signing with the Edmonton Oilers once his season with North Dakota came to an end.

The Montreal Canadiens did not sit around idly either, picking up Charlie Lindgren out of St. Cloud State and Tom Parisi out of Providence College, with Lindgren making his NHL debut before the season was done, picking up a win. Both are making huge strides for the St. John’s IceCaps this season.

Canadiens sign defenceman Tom Parisi to two-year deal. Here's what he brings to the table:
#Habs sign NCAA standout goaltender Charlie Lindgren from St. Cloud State

This year the Washington Capitals have broken the ice already, signing Mason Mitchell out of the University of Anchorage-Alaska and Kristofers Bindulis from Lake Superior State University to entry-level contracts.

As teams begin relying more and more on building through drafting and development, the NCAA free-agent pool is an opportunity to add to the system without needing to sacrifice any assets.

Looking at this year’s selection, SB Nation’s College Hockey blog compiled a list of top free agents available:

  • Zach Aston-Reese, LW, Northeastern
  • Daniel Brickley, LD, Minnesota State
  • Mike Vecchione, C, Union
  • Neal Pionk, RD, Minnesota-Duluth
  • Blake Winiecki, C, St. Cloud State
  • John Stevens, C, Northeastern
  • Peyton Jones, G, Penn State
  • Mitch Hults, C, Lake Superior State
  • CJ Smith, LW, UMass Lowell
  • Adam Johnson, C/RW, Minnesota-Duluth/

Looking at this list and comparing it to the Montreal Canadiens’ organizational needs, obviously obtaining an offensively-gifted prospect should be a top priority. The two best available forwards are Zach Aston-Reese and Mike Vecchione.

Zach Aston-Reese is having yet another whale of a season with Northeastern, with 30 goals and 32 assists in 36 games, and is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award. Northeastern is currently deep into a playoff push, so his signing with an NHL team (a foregone conclusion) should not be expected until Northeastern’s season is over. In the past he attended development camps for the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils, but he remains free to shop his services around.

As for Mike Vecchione, the strong favourite to actually win the Hobey Baker, he had reportedly already turned down NHL offers in the past in order to complete his college degree. Although not imposing in stature, Vecchione is considered the best complete two-way forward on this list, excelling on faceoffs and regularly putting up points. He scored 26 goals and added 32 assists in 34 games for Union College. He has attended NHL development camp with the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers in the past.

If Marc Bergevin values physical attributes over pure skill, then perhaps Lake Superior State’s Mitch Hults will be of interest as he combines an imposing 6’2” frame with very strong skating skills and a nasty disposition. As a sophomore, he is already playing centre on the top line, as well as lots of time on both special teams units. Hults has previously been tied to the New York Islanders, joining their development camp this past summer, but leaving without a contract.

With the Canadiens’ defensive prospect pool having some big names at the top but lacking depth, Daniel Brickley will perhaps be of interest as the top defenceman available this year, playing for Minnesota State. The 6’3” Goliath has been previously scouted by the Buffalo Sabres at their development camp.

As for NCAA free agents who joined the last Montreal Canadiens development camp, the list includes Frankie DiChiara (Yale), Karson Kuhlman (University of Minnesota-Duluth), Scott Dornbrock (Miami University), Tariq Hammond (Denver University), and Luke Ripley (Notre Dame). None of these players appear on the SB Nation College Hockey list of top free agents, however it is quite clear that the organization is looking to bolster their defensive depth with a specific physical attribute: height. Hammond is 6’2”, Dornbrock is 6’3”, and Ripley 6’5”.

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