Top 10 NCAA free agents to watch in the NHL

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It’s college, baby.

The market for undrafted free agents is open for business, with teams looking to inking pro-ready players after additional development time. The goal is to create inexpensive depth that can, in theory, kick in immediately.

Cam Talbot, Troy Stecher and Nate Schmidt are a few that come to mind who managed to have solid NHL careers after retiring from the NCAA. These players are latecomers – those who might have been on the radar during their draft years but weren’t fully developed, or others who really started to shine once they hit college. The chance of any of these players becoming a top-six standout, for example, is very low, but you can find some solidly priced hidden gems this way.

There aren’t any big stars this year, but these are 10 players teams will be looking to target as NCAA teams wrap up their seasons:

Jake Livingstone, D, 23 (Minnesota State)

Teams love big defenders, which also helps when they have some offensive literacy. Livingstone is 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, making him a large and intimidating presence on Mankato’s blue line. He also put up decent points with 30 points in 36 games, his second consecutive 30-point campaign. The junior turns 24 in April, so he’s definitely older which could help him transition into a low-end role quite quickly. Livingstone is the best UFA in class right now, depending on who you talk to.

Ryan McAllister, RA, 21 (West Michigan)

McAllister challenged Adam Fantilli for the top spot in the NCAA scoring race for a time. He’s now eighth with 45 points in 36 games, but there’s a five-point gap between second and 10th, so it’s close. The 21-year-old took the long road to the NCAA, starting in Jr. B in 2018-19 before spending three years in British Columbia and Alberta. McAllister had 57 goals and 139 points with the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits last year and wasted no time making an impact with WMU as a rookie. He’s an older freshman, and some extra seasoning wouldn’t hurt, but there will be significant interest in the winger.

Jason Polin, RA, 23 (West Michigan)

The 23-year-old Western Michigan captain is having a great season, scoring 45 points as a senior alongside McAllister. He’s always been a goal-focused winger, racking up 59 of his 94 career points thanks to great clearance and a flair for the net. He has good speed, is an excellent puck handler and knows how to get the puck past the goaltenders. Away from the scoresheet, scouts noticed his 200-foot game was much more consistent than in years past. He has good potential as an energetic bottom-six striker who can step in and play a bigger role in pinch situations.

Sam Malinski, D, 24 (Cornell University)

Malinski’s name has been popping up everywhere lately, and for good reason. Compared to most NCAA-class UFA players, Malinski has to be the most well-rounded defender, one who excels as a shooter, passer and, most importantly, a defender. Keep in mind that Cornell sat out of 2020-21 due to COVID-19, so he’s had to spend a lot of time catching up the past two years. The result is a heightened work ethic, good mobility and attacking numbers to go for it. As a skilled right-handed defender, Malinski should be able to find work this year.

Akito Hirose, D, 23 (Minnesota State)

The younger brother of Detroit’s Taro Hirose, who was also a notable college free agent at one point, Akito had another great season at Mankato. His name has been circulating for at least three years as a potential free agent due to his hockey sense, top-notch skating, and puck-moving abilities. It’s the way he thinks about the game that sets him apart, for me – he’s deceptive and fast. His games in his own zone concern me a bit, but I like the fact that he has become more physical this year to at least contribute more to his overall game.

Hunter McKown, C, 20 (College of Colorado)

Count me among the many surprised to see McKown not being hooked by an NHL team during his eligibility. He’s so gifted, scoring a handful of goalscoring goals throughout the year. McKown has shown solid improvements in the consistency of his game and his overall skill level doesn’t get enough credit. That’s partly because he took on a more defensive role with the USNTDP and only started to feel comfortable as a scorer last year, when 13 of his 21 points were goals. This year, score 19 goals in 34 games. McKown is a deep-scoring forward with good defensive-zone play and a solid frame – teams like him.

Parker Ford, C, 21 (Providence College)

The 22-year-old has shown steady improvement year after year with Providence and leads a team with nine NHL prospects in scoring with 25 points in 35 games this year. What Ford lacks in offense and top-end size, he makes up for in other elements of his game. He’s quick on his feet and gives opponents headaches with how much he tries to force errors. In a nutshell, Ford is « competitive » and someone who should be able to find work on a fourth line somewhere.

Justin Hryckowian, C, 22 (Northeastern University)

Attending development camp in Washington last year, Hryckowian worked well with Vancouver Canucks prospect Aidan McDonough to create a solid punch at Northeastern. The 2022 Hockey East champion was named to the All-Rookie Team last year but has also improved his consistency, spatial awareness and defensive play this year. Scouts love his ability to win faceoffs in key moments and his fast hands. He would be solid depth if signed, but he still has two years of college eligibility.

Victor Ostman, G, 22 (University of Maine)

When it comes to goalkeepers, size matters. Ostman is 6-foot-4, so he’s got it all covered. He has a solid .919 save percentage and five shutouts this season while lifting Maine from the bottom of the standings. The 22-year-old junior wasn’t on anyone’s radar when he came to North America, but he had good numbers with Chicago Steel in 2019-20. Since then, it’s been about finding consistency and getting a ton of shots. He should have a solid professional career.

Austen Swankler, C, 21 (Bowling Green)

Swankler’s journey to the NCAA was extremely unique. He played a full season with the Erie Otters of the OHL, but was still cleared by the NCAA to play American college hockey, which is not usually allowed. According to Mark Divver of the New England Hockey Journal, the NCAA made a mistake in admitting Swankler, but decided not to reverse their decision. Swankler has become quite the prospect, recording 19 goals and 44 points in 35 games as a sophomore. He still has two years of eligibility left, so teams don’t need to make a decision just yet — some scouts want to see other skating improvements, for example. But offensively, especially as a puck handler under pressure, Swankler’s level of talent has been noticed this season.

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