(Source: NBC Sports) – We’ve stated before in this space that Brian Burke has never been afraid to deliver some interesting, comical one-liners when expressing his opinion. Asked this week for his take on how teams had been lining up to woo college free agent Jimmy Vesey, “If you look at the college free agents, they have made a dramatically insignificant contribution to our league,” Burke, the Flames president of hockey operations, recently told TSN. “Tyler Bozak might be the best one. Of the 100 or 150 that have signed, most have very little impact. I think this player (Vesey) is going to play and make a difference. I think he’s going to be a good player. But if you look at that group and the money the league has spent on those players and their contribution, it is a pimple on an elephant’s butt.”
First things first; terrible joke by Brian Burke. If you’re known as a witty guy you gotta be witty with all your quotes. There’s no room for cheese. Burke needed to throw “ass” in there instead of “butt” to really deliver and instead went amateur hour on us. Clean up your material, Burke.
Secondly, although he’s not totally wrong in his statement, Vesey was a college free agent by choice. He was drafted (in 2012 by Nashville) so he has been seen as a legit NHL prospect for four years now. This isn’t some 22-year-old late bloomer well past his draft year just now coming into his own.
The only thing Burke is wrong about is the most successful college free agent to play in the NHL was Martin St. Louis, not Tyler Bozak. St. Louis is a sure fire Hall of Fame NHLer. During Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto he himself signed then college free agent Bozak so that is likely why his praise for that signing is so high. But now we’ve seen a player like Conor Sheary significantly contribute to the recent Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup win. And also current Bruins Torey Krug and Frank Vatrano are enjoying collegiate free agent success in the NHL too. Who knows, when it’s all said and done these players may have careers just as successful as Bozak’s.
But to the main point of Burke’s comments, he’s mostly correct. I personally know guys and acquaintances who played NCAA hockey then signed NHL free agent deals and they probably make up the majority of the “pimples” he’s referring to. They typically sign after their senior season and play a few, or maybe one, NHL regular season game before the playoffs begin. They get a quick taste of big boy hockey before bouncing around the AHL and ECHL. Most keep the dream alive a few more years while making some good coin wrapping up their careers in Europe. These players do cost NHL teams money and don’t really give much of a return on it.
Where you could argue with Burke is that those drafted don’t exactly fair a ton better either. When you look at the graph below from “The NHL Draft Is A Giant Lottery” it covers the percentage of players from 1995-2005 drafts and how many actually contributed to the NHL. Once you get out of the third round of the draft about 75% or more of players drafted don’t even make a dent in the league. And the busts cost you more than just money a college free agent would, they cost the asset of the draft pick used to select them.
It’s worth noting a lot of the successful college free agents have entered the NHL very recently. It won’t be a surprise when Edmonton’s newest addition this summer, Drake Caggiula (University of North Dakota), joins the list of successful collegiate free agent stories as well. The NCAA game is getting better every year. In the NHL fighting is down, skill and speed is up, and that’s just what the NCAA sells packaged in pro style systems. It’s why Drake Cuggiula’s former coach at North Dakota, Dave Hakstol, got hired as the Philadelphia Flyers head coach last summer and guided them to a surprising playoff appearance. Just looking at the state of American hockey as its native born players dominated the first round of the 2016 NHL draft it’s no coincidence the quality of NCAA hockey is on a rising trajectory. There will certainly be more “hidden” free agent gems to come.
Most importantly though is college free agent deals, successful or not, don’t cripple NHL franchises just like entry-level deals for late round draft picks don’t. They’re worth pursuing. It’s teams handing out horrible contracts to one hit wonders like Ryane Clowe, David Clarkson, Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland that burn. Yes, they have contributed in small windows of their careers but not identifying their true value when you know the player is far worse. The money spent on them arguably could have been flushed down the toilet and given the same contribution back and that money would have been enough to pay for all of a teams entry-level deals for the next ten years. That includes both draft picks and college free agents.
No one bats an eye when a guy like Alexander Semin gets a $1 million bucks to coast through a dozen or so games in Montreal just to see if he could resurrect his career. It’s “low risk, high reward” and if it doesn’t work out you can buy him out and wash your hands. Instead the Habs get tenfold out of a coachable Daniel Carr, an undrafted NCAA National Champion they signed as a free agent out of Union College in 2014 who just inked a two-year extension to stay Montreal.
So on its own I agree with Burke’s comment. Most college free agents do not make the desired contribution to the team that signs them as often as we’d hope. But in context of how you build your roster, through drafting, trading, and free agency, it is completely worth the risk. It is far less damaging to your franchise to have misses on college free agents who aren’t financial burdens then blowing millions on one-hit wonder NHL free agents and significant draft busts. But again, teams have to take those risks.
If we were to operate with the thinking that most of those players are pimples on an elephant’s butt then we might as well get rid of the last three rounds of the NHL draft as well.