Interesting NCAA/CHL/European Free Agents and Ottawa’s Success with Them

I don’t expect Ottawa to sign any college or European free agents this year (it’s a tough sell since where are they going to play in the lineup?), but I wanted to look at the names being bandied about (here for multiple leagues, here just for the NCAA). Overall the Sens have an awful track record with such free agents (Zub is the obvious exception) and I’ll touch on that below. I’ve included Pronman’s ranking from his top-30 list in brackets and those included in the other article have a star (*); those since signed are in green:

Hardy Haman Aktell, LD, DOB 98 (1) – (4-108/16 Nsh; SHL 51-9-27-36) The analysis: “can make a good first pass and has a strong point shot. His skating will be a major limitation in the NHL, but I think he defends well enough to potentially overcome that and be a third-pair defenseman in the league.” Aktell was unranked when Nashville selected him and it seems like they picked him for the same untapped potential being discussed seven years later. Signed by Washington.
Jiri Smejkal, LW, DOB 96 (6) – (SHL 49-23-20-43) “Big, powerful winger with good skills who can help on both special teams. His skating is just OK and whether he will score in North America is a question.” A lack of offensive talent has never troubled the org, although at his age (27) I doubt he’d cross the pond for anything other than an guaranteed spot on the NHL roster. Signed by Ottawa.
Grigori Dronov, LD, DOB 98 (16) – (KHL 41-8-11-19) “Can move pucks well and is able to defend well at the KHL level. The big issue for him in the NHL will be his mobility.” I’m not sure the Sens have ever had this combination of good hands but questionable skating on the blueline–plenty of the latter, but they always have hands of stone as well.
Konstantin Okulov, RW, DOB 95 (17) – (KHL 60-18-36-54) “Has very good offensive skills and is a legit goal-scoring threat at the highest levels. His shot can beat quality goalies from the circles. Whether Okulov’s feet will hold up in the NHL is a question. I don’t think either his compete or skating really stand out.” A KHL veteran wound only cross the pond for a roster spot in the NHL and the Sens wouldn’t do that at this stage (at least with a forward).
Rickard Hugg, LW, DOB 99 (18) – (SHL 52-13-24-37) “Competes well and can score, but he’s 5-foot-11 and not a great skater.” The Sens have experimented with forwards who have good hands and can’t skate (Cole Schneider among others). I had him pegged as a fifth-round pick in 2017, but he went undrafted.
Valetti Pulli, LD, DOB 01 (23) – (Liiga 53-3-14-17) “Has some hockey sense, but his puck game is limited. I’ve seen worse feet on a big guy like him but I wouldn’t call his skating an asset either” He sounds a bit like Andrej Sustr (300+ NHL games) if he pans out. Size is a drug NHL GM’s can’t quit either.
Isac Brannstrom, LW, DOB 98 (30) – (SHL 47-13-16-29) “Very skilled and creative with the puck, and can run a pro power play effectively with his great vision. He works hard enough, but he’s not that big and unlike his brother [Erik], he’s not an amazing skater.” Again skating is rarely an issue for the Sens, but size is something they covet.

Owen Pederson, LW, DOB 02 (7) – (WHL 62-32-41-73) “Excellent puck skills and size, and can create a lot around the net which makes him intriguing for the pro game. Pederson’s skating has and continues to be an issue.” The org used to have a heavy western bias when it came to CHL FA’s and while it’s not as universal as it was, it’s easy to name a few signed or drafted recently (Parker Kelly, Zach Ostapchuk, and Mark Kastelic).
Christopher Sedoff, LD, DOB 02 (10) – (WHL 58-4-46-50) “The offense has been good. As an older WHL player it’s hard to tell whether the puck game is now real or a mirage from an older player in junior.” Signed by Vegas.
Kyle McDonald, RW, DOB 02 (19) – (OHL 42-34-18-52) “Big winger with excellent puck skills and a good track record of scoring goals in the OHL. His skating is quite heavy though and whether he can even be an average AHL skater is a question.” Signed by Dallas.
Logan Morrison, C, DOB 02 (25) – (OHL 54-38-50-88) “Very good skill and playmaking ability … His average-sized frame combined with a lack of speed and average off-the-puck play will make an NHL path difficult.” Sounds like Brannstrom above; the 67s link isn’t what it used to be (Ceci, Prince, and Cowick). Signed by Seattle.

[Prospect analysts have an obsession with the NCAA that I think is on full display with the lengthy list below]
Sam Malinski, RD, DOB 98 (2) – (32-8-18-26) “Excellent playmaking ability. …has the ability to run a pro power play with his vision and shot. His skating is solid too and he can create with his skill and feet.” Oddly, the Sens have never signed an offensively talented NCAA FA defenseman (it’s always been forwards).
Jake Livingstone, RD, DOB 99 (3*) – (38-8-27-35) “Doesn’t have a ton of offensive skill and his mobility is just OK. Livingston is a 6-foot-3, intelligent, two-way defenseman though.” Can’t skate, no hands, but he’s big? Dorion likely got weak at the knees just hearing that (Andreas Englund but he doesn’t cost a 2nd-round pick!). Signed by Nashville.
Austen Swankler, C, DOB 01 (4*) – (35-19-25-44) “He can create a lot with his offensive creativity. The big knock on Swankler was his skating, which used to be terrible. It’s still not an asset, but it’s improved notably.” This is very much in the wheelhouse of the early days when Ottawa was trying to find scoring in the NCAA.
Victor Ostman, G, DOB 00 (5) – (.918) “I find his reads and puck tracking can be somewhat inconsistent but I think there’s a lot of talent to bet on.” If this season has proven anything it’s that the Sens need more goaltending depth; their efforts to find that in the NCAA have been mixed.
Riese Gaber, RW, DOB 99 (8*) – (39-20-17-37) “Skating is excellent and … he gives an honest effort every night.” The Sens do value character/effort highly.
Hunter McKown, C, DOB 02 (9) – (38-21-7-28) “Overall compete can be inconsistent too and he’s probably not a pro center. The skill and scoring touch will be worth a team taking a gamble on.” Signed by Buffalo.
Luke Krys, RD, DOB 00 (11) – (30-2-14-16) “Skate and competes well … a lot better a defender than his [older] brother [Chad] was, but he doesn’t have near the offensive abilities and whether he can move pucks versus pros will be his challenge.” Lack of puck skills have never troubled the Sens as long as he’s gritty.
Travis Mitchell, LD, DOB 99 (12) – (32-6-12-18) “Competes well and could be a solid pro defender. His skating is fine for his size but not a major selling point. Whether he can move pucks versus men will be [his] main challenge.” As I’ve said above, puck skills on the blueline never seem like a heavy emphasis for the org (Macoy Erkamps, below, might have had the worst hands I’ve ever seen in the AHL). Signed by the Islanders.
Anton Malmstrom, LD, DOB 00 (13) – (33-3-3-6) “Can skate very well for a defender his size. … has very little to no puck game though and his hockey sense will be a major question at higher levels.” Sounds like Andreas Englund. Signed by St. Louis.
Cooper Black, G, DOB 01 (14) – (.899) “Closer to 6-foot-9. His technique is rather smooth given that large frame and he shows good hockey sense in net. Not surprisingly, his lower half is a little heavy and how quickly he can move will be his main challenge for the pro game, but Black still moves fairly well for a guy his size.” The Sens love size in net.
Collin Graf, RW, DOB 02 (15*) – (37-20-35-55) “His vision and his shot are major assets and inside the offensive zone…. He can play way too much on the perimeter, though, and his skating isn’t ideal for the pro game.” The Sens have rarely (if ever) signed a perimeter FA (albeit they traded for one in DeBrincat).
Jacob Bengtsson, LD, DOB 99 (20) – (36-1-22-23) “Offensive touch isn’t that great, but he can make a good outlet pass and shows instances of O-zone playmaking. Bengtsson’s skating will be his major issue for the NHL.” Nothing that would scare the Sens away.
Jaxon Nelson, C, DOB 00 (21) – (36-8-14-22) “Skating is fine for a 6-foot-4 guy…. He has decent skill. I don’t think he’ll be a big scorer versus men but there’s enough talent to his game to be intriguing for the next level.” He’s big, so Dorion’s hand is creeping towards his phone.
Akito Hirose, LD, DOB 99 (22) – (37-4-23-27) “Strong skater … has strong playmaking abilities … whether he can defend men will be a question. His skating will help him, but I wouldn’t call him the hardest to play against defenseman.” With the exception of Erkamps, the Sens have only signed blueliners who (at least in theory) are hard to play against. Signed by Vancouver.
Jason Polin, RW, DOB 99 (24*) – (38-29-17-46) “Good hands, and has scored a lot of goals the last two seasons in college. I do have some questions about how natural a play driver he is.” The Sens have signed a few players like this (watching Matthew Wedman (7-199/19 Fla) skate for Belleville causes me mental anguish). Signed by Colorado.
T. J. Hughes, C, DOB 01 (26) – (36-13-20-33) “Skilled and intelligent center … skating is just OK.” A reminder that skating doesn’t worry the org.
Ryan Siedem, RD, DOB 01 (27) – (33-1-16-17) “Skating has historically been his issue and it’s still not a strength, but given his frame and sense I can see someone taking a shot on him.” See above.
Max Sasson, C, DOB 00 (28*) – (37-15-27-42) “Works hard enough with his feet to potentially play a lower role on a team. The question with him will be offense.” The Sens like hard workers, so the possibility is there. Signed by Vancouver.
Ryan McAllister, LW, DOB 01 (29*) – (38-13-35-48) “A lot of skill and offensive creativity. He’s an undersized winger who’s a fine but not great skater and plays a lot on the perimeter.” Perimeter players are not commonly signed. Signed by Florida.
David Silye, C, DOB 99 (NR*) – (38-23-16-39) Described as a powerplay specialist. The Sens have never signed someone with that as their selling point (some people might argue about Stephane Da Costa, but he was supposed to be an everyday player).
Matt Brown, LW, DOB 99 (NR*) – (36-15-29-44) Another powerplay specialist (if not as potent as Silye above). See analysis above as well.
Yaniv Perets, G, DOB 00 (NR*) – (.929) Projected as a team’s third goaltender. At just 6’1, I’m not sure he fits into the Sens effort to sign only giants as goaltenders. Signed by Carolina.
Devon Levi, G, DOB 01 (NR*) – (7-212/20 Fla; .933) Projected as a backup, he was signed by Buffalo.

One of the common themes above is skating issues, which is something the Sens think they can overcome (and to be fair, they have made some awful skaters merely bad or even average).

Ottawa’s History with NCAA/CHL/European Free Agents

How have the Sens done with such players? Let’s take a look at the record (skaters with at least a season’s worth of NHL action are in green, as are goalies with 40 or more games; those who utterly failed are in red):
Jesse Winchester, NCAA (2008) – How quickly people forget the buzz that he was going to be the other winger with Spezza and Heatley when signed; 285-20-50-70, never scoring more than 18-points in a season (Curtis Lazar without using a 1st-round pick)
Bobby Butler, NCAA (2009) – Another supposed scoring winger; 130-20-29-49, now playing in the ECHL; he gets points for the Boston accent
Craig Schira, WHL (2009) – After three declining seasons in the org, he’s since spent his career in Europe (the SHL for the last 9 years)
Stephane da Costa, NCAA (2010) – Dynamic offensive forward who maybe could have found a home in the NHL, but there was much more money in the KHL (where he continues to play to this day); perhaps best known for getting hammered; 47-7-4-11
David Dziurzynski, BCHL (2010) – The man known as Dizzy, he was a big, grinding power forward; spent six straight seasons and part of another with the org (probably best known for being KO’d in the NHL); stopped playing pro after a few years in the ECHL; 26-3-3-6
Pat Cannone, NCAA (2011) – Three unremarkable seasons with the org; now retired; 3-0-0-0
Wacey Hamilton, WHL (2011) – A pest/energy player; spent three years with the org; now retired
Cole Schneider, NCAA (2012) – Another scoring winger; nearly five years with the org; still playing in the AHL; 6-0-1-1
Buddy Robinson, NCAA (2012) – Checking winger; nearly five years with the org; a useful minor pro who is still kicking around; 58-3-6-9
Andrew Hammond, NCAA (2013) – We all know and love the Hamburglar; over four years with the org; currently in the KHL; 67 games played and a worthy third-goaltender
Ludwig Karlsson, NCAA (2013) – One disappointing season with the org; now retired
Garrett Thompson, NCAA (2013) – One disappointing season with the org; now retired
Troy Rutkowski, WHL (2013) – Was unable to be an AHL regular through three seasons; currently playing in Europe
Matt O’Connor, NCAA (2015) – Goaltender of the future when signed; two seasons with the org and now playing in Europe; 1 NHL game
Macoy Erkamps, WHL (2015) – Two seasons with the org where he was unable to be a regular player; now playing in Europe; the worst signed defensemen I’ve ever seen play for the org

Jordan Murray, USports (2016) – Blueliner spent three seasons with the org (putting up decent AHL numbers) and now plays in Europe
Ryan Scarfo, NCAA (2017) – Traded almost immediately; now plying his trade in the ECHL
Aaron Luchuk, OHL (2017) – Big CHL scorer bombed out; after a couple of ECHL seasons he’s now playing in Europe
Boston Leier, USports (2017) – Played one season with the team; now retired
Andrew Sturtz, NCAA (2018) – Part of one season; now in the ECHL
Jonathan Aspirot, QMJHL (2019) – In his fourth season with the org with his production unchanged; while a solid AHL-contributor, I’m not sure what the org thinks they got out of giving him an ELC
Parker Kelly, WHL (2019) – An energy player; this is his fourth year with the org and he’s essentially the 13th forward (so Curtis Lazar without using a 1st-round pick); 97-9-8-17
Olle Alsing, SHL (2019) – Part of one season with the org; back in Sweden; 4-0-0-0
Chris Clapperton, USports (2019) – One season; now retired
Max Veronneau, NCAA (2019) – Most of one season; currently struggling in San Jose’s org after dominating in Sweden
Artem Zub, KHL (2020) – Diamond in the rough–the org hit a homerun; 169-12-33-45
Xavier Bernard, QMJHL (2021) – Season and a half before being jettisoned

What constitutes success when dealing with such players? ELCs aren’t being signed to create good AHL pros–the intent is to be useful to the NHL lineup, even if they aren’t regulars. I accept that it’s impossible for all signings (or even 50%) to work out, but unlike with the draft, these are usually older players, so scouts ought to have had far more time to assess what they are getting.

Artem Zub – They found a regular, top-four blueliner for free, which is incredible–top marks for that (especially given the orgs general disinterest in players who play in Russia)
Andrew Hammond – Not just for his remarkable run, but for being a solid third goaltender for various orgs
Jesse Winchester – An unremarkable regular fourth-liner on a mediocre-to-bad Ottawa team (missing the playoffs two of his four seasons and losing in the first round in the others); he’s a success, but at the bottom of what that term could mean

Parker Kelly – For me the jury is still out–the Sens have so many players like him who have more talent I wouldn’t be surprised to see him out of the org sooner than later
Buddy Robinson – While not an NHL-regular, he’s good enough to be a call-up and there’s some value in that
Stephane da Costa – We’ll never know if he could have been something more, but unlike Butler there are signs that his NHL potential was never fully realized
Bobby Butler – More than 100 games in the NHL, but all of that was early in his career when there were hopes he could show more and instead he fizzled out badly

Broadly that’s 7 out of 27 players, which is not great (25%), but the more important number is how many have played two or more full NHL seasons and it’s just 2 (Zub and Winchester); that’s a 7% success ratio (akin to picking in the 7th round of the draft, cf). You’d expect better with so much more time to assess the players (as much as a 1st-round pick gets, and the org has done much better in that scenario, cf).

We can also see some trends in where the org has looked for free agents and what kind of player they were:
NCAA: 13 (5-13) – From 2019 onward the Sens have only signed one college FA
CHL: 9 (1-9) – No noticeable change
USport: 3 (0-3) – The Canadian university experiment lasted from 2016-19
Europe: 2 (1-2) – The only two signings are from 2019-20
Offense (3-11*): Winchester, Butler, da Costa, Cannone, Schneider, Thompson, Murray, Scarfo, Luchuk, Sturtz, Veronneau
Grit/Character (3-14): Schira, Dziurzynski, Hamilton, Robinson, Karlsson, Rutkowski, Erkamps, Leier, Aspirot, Kelly, Alsing, Clapperton, Zub, Bernard
*None could translate their offense to the NHL

Lest we forget, Trent Mann said back in 2018 that the org didn’t want to gamble on skill anymore and that’s largely been true since his tenure (Veronneau would be the starkest exception). I think the small number of players from Europe is more about Ottawa as a destination than disinterest from the org–certainly signing a player from Russia is something Bryan Murray gave up on after a number of failures (Kaigorodov comes to mind). The massive decline in NCAA signings I assume is related to how rarely they’ve turned out–the days of top players falling through the cracks seems largely gone. As for the CHL, it’s difficult to imagine a league that’s more heavily scouted, so I wouldn’t expect the success rate to be high (and most of those signings have been for depth anyway). I’m not sure what was behind the USport effort, but nothing came of it and clearly the Sens have given up on that route. The type of players has changed with Mann looking for character, energy, pest, and defensive players as prospects.

This article was written by Peter Levi