NCAA DI Men's Hockey

Top Undrafted College Free Agents For The NHL: Collin Graf Leads List

Top Undrafted College Free Agents For The NHL: Collin Graf Leads List

Quinnipiac's Collin Graf and Jacob Quillan are among undrafted free agents in college hockey that NHL teams will be pursuing aggressively this spring.

Mar 1, 2024 by Chris Peters
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The men鈥檚 college hockey season is coming closer to its conclusion, which means another season is just about to begin. No, not the postseason. It鈥檚 just about to be college free agent season.

As programs see their years come to a close, the next step for some of their best undrafted players will be to see what the market looks like for their services.

Every year, NHL teams dedicate resources to tracking college, junior and European players that went undrafted in order to find some diamonds in the rough. College free agents in particular often sign in greater number each spring as they鈥檙e a bit older and closer to what they鈥檒l ultimately be as professionals.

The NHL is littered with undrafted free agents that have found a way to make an impact at the NHL level. Chris Tanev, who was one of the most highly-sought after targets of this NHL trade deadline, entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of RIT. Frank Vatrano, currently among the top 25 goal scorers in the NHL this season, was an undrafted free agent signee out of UMass. And those are just a few recent examples.

The truth about college free agents is that most don鈥檛 pan out. But the risk associated with acquiring these talents is so low that NHL teams are more than willing to give players they think have a certain toolkit, athletic profile and/or pedigree that is worth giving a chance to. Sometimes you end up with a Tanev, but most times you end up with a player that will be, at best, AHL depth. Either way, your organization has something to gain.

This year鈥檚 free agent class is not especially deep. We don鈥檛 have as many of those players that dozens of teams will fight over to recruit. Oftentimes, the players that make it don鈥檛 come from the top of the free agent class. 

But to give you an idea of the kinds of players teams are looking at, I wanted to put together a list of who I think are some of the very best free agents teams could target. It is also important to remember that many of these players have the option to return to school and may exercise that option as several UFAs did last year.

Let鈥檚 take a look at whose phones will be ringing this spring.

Top Undrafted Free Agents In College Hockey

Collin Graf, C/W, Quinnipiac

The top prize on the college free agent market, Graf is going to be pursued by plenty of NHL clubs as soon as his season is over. No player in NCAA hockey has scored more than Collin Graf over the last two seasons. He has 102 points over 68 games in his last two collegiate seasons, both with Quinnipiac after transferring from Union. A bit of a late bloomer physically and in his play, Graf is now a 21-year-old, 6-foot-1, 190-plus pound forward with high-level hockey sense, high-end vision and a proven ability to score.

Graf also has championship pedigree as a core piece of last year鈥檚 national championship team for the Bobcats. He was a Hobey Baker finalist and All-American and likely will earn both designations again this season.

On top of his on-ice prowess, Graf is still just 21 years old. There鈥檚 some developmental runway that teams are going to enjoy working with. Coming from the NCDC ranks right into college, he never really was in the mix to be drafted, but it鈥檚 impossible to ignore what Graf has accomplished over the last two years. Of the college free agents, he appears to have the best chance to become an NHL regular and could even grow into an impactful forward that provides scoring at the NHL level.

Jacob Quillan, C, Quinnipiac

A heart-and-soul player who can score, Quillan was the hero of last year鈥檚 national championship game, scoring the goal that gave Quinnipiac its first ever title. Quillan is an aggressive, quick player who fights for his offense, but also has the skill to finish. Quillan鈥檚 goal total is down this year, but his points are up with 38 points in 32 games. The Nova Scotia native just turned 22 and really seems to be elevating his game after his star turn last season.

Victor Ostman, G, Maine

Ostman had a lot of interest last season and opted to return to Maine. The Black Bears have been resurgent this season, but it seems to be in spite of sub-par goaltending. Ostman鈥檚 numbers have tanked a bit this season. Still, he鈥檚 a 6-foot-4 goaltender with good mechanics and 85 games of NCAA experience over the last four years. I鈥檓 not as concerned with Ostman鈥檚 dip in terms of teams still wanting to get him under NHL contract and work with him. He鈥檚 23 and could benefit from time in either the ECHL and AHL to get himself back on track.

Riese Gaber, C, North Dakota

Gaber has a pristine reputation in hockey circles because of his work ethic, his approach and the fact that he can flat out play. Despite a 5-foot-8 frame, Gaber鈥檚 motor is always churning which makes him harder to play against. He鈥檚 noticeable in every game with his sparkplug style. On top of that, he has three straight seasons of 30 or more points at the collegiate level and two seasons of 50-point production in the USHL. There鈥檚 a track record there. At 24, he may find his options a little more limited than they may have been after his breakout sophomore season, but North Dakota鈥檚 captain had some unfinished business to take care of first and the Fighting Hawks are very much in the mix for the NCAA title.

Luke Krys, D, Providence

NHL teams were pursuing Krys last season after three strong years at Brown University. Krys opted to transfer to Providence in the offseason and get another year of high-level college hockey under his belt in Hockey East. He鈥檚 a 6-foot-2, right-shot blueliner who has good two-way capabilities. The 23-year-old should have at least a few teams at the ready with an NHL contract for him when Providence wraps their season.

Christian Fitzgerald, C, Wisconsin

I really liked Fitzgerald at Minnesota State last season. His offensive output has dipped significantly at Wisconsin, which leads me to believe he has at least another year in school in him before making the jump. That said, he plays a hard-nosed style and has that mix of compete and skill that can get him a contract and endear himself to his organization quickly. He鈥檚 just 21 and I think the market will strengthen for him with one more year and increased production in the NCAA. But I could also see an NHL team taking a look at his overall body of work and still wanting to get him under contract this spring.

Josh Eernisse, RW, Michigan 

The numbers don鈥檛 jump out at you, but as a 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound forward with some jump, NHL teams can see a role and fit for Eernisse. It鈥檚 why some teams started approaching him about signing last year when he was at St. Thomas. The role he plays at Michigan could be the kind of fit at the next level as he鈥檚 probably more down-the-lineup muscle and more for matchups. Players that can fit a role have a lot of value and interest on the free agent market, especially when their frame matches that of 鈥淏ig Ern.鈥

Jaxon Nelson, C, Minnesota

Teams had been on Nelson since his sophomore season at Minnesota. Now in his fifth year as a Gopher the market may have thinned a bit on Nelson. He鈥檚 a 6-foot-4 right-shot center, so I have a hard time seeing him not getting an NHL deal, but the offensive game hasn鈥檛 necessarily progressed for him in a way that suggests NHL upside. He has good enough defensive instincts, physicality and strength to be a disruptive player.

Dylan Wendt, RW, Western Michigan

A 23-year-old junior that is enjoying his best NCAA season, Wendt is garnering interest thanks in large part to his significant uptick in goals. The 6-foot-1 winger has 21 goals so far this season after posting 22 total points as a sophomore last season. Western Michigan has been a fairly reliable producer of NHL free agent talent over the last few years. In all likelihood, Wendt is a bit of a longer-shot prospect with a chance to provide scoring depth at the NHL level, but it's hard not to look at the explosive offense he's shown this year and not want to see what the next step he can take is.

Carter Wilkie, RW, RIT

A 6-foot-2, right-shot winger, Wilkie has been a most reliable source of offense for the Tigers over the last three seasons. The BCHL product has put up 30 or more points in each of his three NCAA seasons with RIT. The 23-year-old still has eligibility left and may yet finish things out, but if NHL teams are going to pounce, which is no guarantee at this point, this could be the year to make a move.

Liam McLinskey, C/W, Holy Cross

After a breakout run during the 2023 Atlantic Hockey playoffs, McLinskey turned heads with his size and offensive touch. A 6-foot-3 forward with some strength and soft hands for a bigger guy, McLinskey's breakout has continued into his junior campaign. A transfer from Quinnipiac, McLinskey has 40 points in 34 games with Holy Cross this season. He has points in each of his last 10 games, including goals in six of those games.

Ryan Bischel, G, Notre Dame

A reliable goaltender who has been the full-time starter for the Irish over each of the last two seasons amid a five-year NCAA career. Bischel may be more likely to find AHL contracts than an NHL deal, but the 24-year-old has displayed a level of consistency in a high-scoring Big Ten conference that is hard to find.

Jacob Bengtsson, D, Boston College

Despite a modest market for his services last year, Bengtsson opted to transfer from Lake Superior State to Boston College. His numbers have dipped, but he has played a solid two-way role for BC. He鈥檚 a 6-foot-3 blueliner that can defend and make the odd play. I think there may be more teams coming his way with AHL contracts at this point, but there鈥檚 some upside to explore there.

Underclassmen To Watch

NHL teams have been more eager to beat the market on players and have targeted some freshmen and sophomores. Those players can sometimes be tougher to sign as they may not feel ready, or want to stay in school for a bit longer to figure things out. Here are some freshmen and sophomores that are likely to garner interest, but are not guaranteed to sign deals this spring.

T.J. Hughes, C/W, Michigan

Another highly-productive, impactful season at Michigan could lead to opportunity for Hughes who has shown an ability to play with some jump and tenacity on top of his production. A former 66-goal scorer with the Brooks Bandits, Hughes caught some positive attention last year and that should remain. His Brooks running mate Ryan McAllister jumped on a pro deal with Florida last season after just one year of college. Hughes sticking it out for a second year showed he was no flash in the pan and has some pro attributes worth exploring more.

Cooper Black, G, Dartmouth College

A massive human at 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, Black was on the NHL radar last year after putting together a respectable season at Dartmouth. His numbers are even better this year and the Big Green has ascended to the top half of ECAC somewhat surprisingly. Because of his size and his improved play year-over-year, you can see a lot of NHL teams lining up to see what else they can get out of him. The 22-year-old is just a sophomore and Ivy Leaguers are harder to pry away from school early, especially if they鈥檙e not a sure-thing to reach the NHL. Black has nothing but good options available to him.

John Prokop, D, Union

Prokop may yet decide on another year of school, but he has two seasons of high-end production while playing big minutes for Union. He鈥檚 averaged over a point per game and is leading Union with 32 points in 31 games this season. The 22-year-old sophomore is a 6-foot-3, left-shot blueliner whose offensive game has come a long way in college after a few years of sub-par production in the USHL. Defensively, there鈥檚 still more work to be done, but moving pucks as he has and finding the net puts him on the radar.

Jack Williams, RW, Northeastern

A massive breakout in his sophomore season, Williams is starting to get more scouts鈥 eyes on him. After posting 17 points last season as a freshman, he鈥檚 up to 34 in 29 games with Northeastern. The 21-year-old winger has developed a nice scoring touch and has shown an ability to take over shifts and make a lot of plays. He can opt to return to school and I don鈥檛 think the market will soften if he does decide on that.

Josh Nadeau, C/W, Maine

A playmaker with high-end hockey sense, Josh Nadeau has passed through multiple drafts but is making his mark as a freshman at Maine. His younger brother Bradly was a first-round pick of Carolina last year. I have no indication either Nadeau brother is thinking of leaving after just one year, but Josh Nadeau still should garner some attention given that he鈥檚 proven himself as a legitimate playmaker who can produce at the collegiate level.

Ben Steeves, RW, Minnesota Duluth

UMD has really struggled this year collectively, but Steeves has been a bright spot over the last two seasons. He鈥檚 a two-time 20-goal scorer and also won a Clark Cup with Sioux City as one of its core players before embarking on his NCAA career. Steeves lacks NHL size, but he has a good competitive drive and he is a proven scorer at the collegiate level. At 21 years old, there鈥檚 some runway for him to find his place as a pro. He could return to UMD, which has some higher-profile recruits coming in, but there should be at least some interest in the undersized scorer.

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