This is a spinoff of my “Let’s Go NCAA Free Agent Shopping” from March 5, 2022
As you may already be aware of, the Ontario Hockey League is my domain and I thought it might be a good idea to see if there are some potential OHL free agents worthy of an NHL contract or at least get a look.
To be eligible for the draft, a player must be 18 years of age on or before September 15 of their draft year. If they go undrafted, they will re-enter the draft. If a player is not older than 20 years of age on or before December 31 in the draft year, they also re-enter the draft if undrafted.
There are two exceptions with the first applying to European players. There is no age limit to Europeans in the draft. In fact, the only way they can play in the NHL is if they are drafted. The second applies to undrafted North American players (more on that further down).
It’s a (OHL) well the Bruins have dipped into twice under the watchful eye of General Manager Don Sweeney. They signed undrafted free agent netminder Kyle Keyser and defenceman Brady Lyle who have both been developing in the American Hockey League (Personally, I had Lyle ranked 23rd among OHL players and Keyser 3rd among OHL goalies in 2017).
The scouting department is an area that Sweeney has upgraded over the years. Gone are the pre-Sweeney days where you only had one scout trying to do all the leg work in the OHL.
In are Bob Wetick and Matt Ryan. Sweeney also added Andrew Dickson who is based in Ontario but helps cover Eastern Canada so their coverage of the OHL is better than it has been in years.
I have a lot of respect for Wetick and his knowledge of the OHL is superb. He’s also respected around the league. He began scouting the Toronto area for Michigan State University. From there he moved on to OHL’s Central Scouting for two years. He followed that up with 3 seasons as a scout for the Kitchener Rangers before spending the next 16 years as Director of Scouting for the Battalion and moving onto the Bruins. But enough about that.
When you’ve been as competitive as the Bruins have been over the past ten-plus years, you’re always picking near the bottom of the draft. You are also trading away picks and prospects to try and reach your goal of winning the Stanley Cup. They need to supplement their prospect pool and finding and targeting free agent prospects is one way of doing just that – whether they come from the NCAA, OHL, Europe or the rest of the CHL.
I mentioned this in my NCAA article, but it is worth repeating in the event some of you did not read that:
A study by TSN during the 2020-21 season showed that undrafted free agents comprised more players than through the draft with the exceptions of rounds one and two. If you do your homework, you can have greater success with free agents than through rounds three to seven in the draft.
As you know, the OHL lost an entire season last year due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Because of that lost season, scouts couldn’t get a read on a lot of players and that resulted in the worst OHL draft result ever. So, what’s preventing them from being drafted the second time around? Well, it’s such a good and deep draft that it’s guaranteed some will drop. You just have to be ready to pounce.
Thanks to the CBA and the NHL-CHL agreement, you don’t have to focus on players that have gone undrafted twice or even three times as free agents. If a player is undrafted and remains eligible for the following year’s draft, that player can be signed to an entry level contract prior to him playing his first CHL game in the following season. This is precisely what the Bruins did when they signed Keyser on October 3, 2017. There is of course an exception (it wouldn’t be a CBA if there wasn’t an exception): If the player signed a tryout agreement after the draft and prior to the start of the CHL season and, that tryout agreement was registered with the league, then a team has until the start of the NHL season, not the CHL season to sign that player.
The Bruins have 26 open contract spots for next season with some of their own players that will need contracts so, they have some maneuverability. I don’t know what their intentions are, but I’m sure they are keeping a watchful eye on players.
We have already seen the Florida Panthers jump in and sign free agent goaltender Mack Guzda on February 7. The Toronto Maple Leafs were very interested and it’s been reported that 6 teams were vying for his services. Guzda was too old to re-enter the draft and therefore, could sign as a free agent at any time.
Jet Greaves was my second ranked OHL goaltender at the 2019 draft, also signed an entry level contract as a free agent. Greaves signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets just two weeks after Guzda inked his deal.
The list of free agents is lengthy and I am not going to list them all. However, I will list those I believe should, at the very least, get some consideration. That doesn’t mean I would be willing to hand them a contract today, but a look at prospect camp or maybe an AHL deal like they did with Lyle should be considered. If you’re interested in what I wrote about Greaves back in 2019, you can find that here.
In no particular order (Stats for this season are projected stats):
COLE MACKAY – SAULT STE MARIE GREYHOUNDS – RIGHT WING/CENTER
|2017-18||Sault Ste Marie||42||5||9||14|
|2018-19||Sault Ste Marie||65||27||34||61|
|2019-20||Sault Ste Marie||64||25||26||51|
|2020-21||Sault Ste Marie||0||0||0||0|
|2021-22||Sault Ste Marie||61||27||44||71|
In 2019, MacKay was ranked 96th among North American Skaters by NHL Central Scouting on their final rankings. In my final OHL draft rankings, I ranked MacKay 17th among OHL skaters which in that draft would have put him in the same area as Central Scouting. This is what I wrote about MacKay in 2019.
It’s obvious that NHL teams had enough concerns about his skating that they passed him by. However, MacKay thinks the game at such a high level that he is an offensive threat almost every time he steps on the ice. His ability to read and react quickly is amazing. He has an NHL shot and release but also possesses the vision and playmaking skills.
If you can get past the skating issue and think you can help bring him along in that area, then you have to work on the lack of physical maturity since his draft year. He’s listed today at the exact same at 5’11” and 185 pounds that he was in February 2019 so there has been zero growth in 3 years.
If you feel you can help improve those two areas and are intrigued enough by the skillset, then he may be worth a look.
MacKay attended the Seattle Kraken training camp as an invite in 2021.
ZACHARY PAPUTSAKIS – OSHAWA GENERALS – GOALTENDER
|2018-19||Kimball Union (USHS)||17||14-2-1||1.81||.923|
When the Bruins drafted Jack Studnicka 53rd overall in 2017, they also had a book on Keyser who, as already mentioned, signed him to a free agent contract that October. Fast forward to today and we know the Bruins development staff are keeping an eye on 2021 draft pick Brett Harrison so, of course they’ve seen plenty of Paputsakis. And they have to like what they’ve seen so far.
After getting injured in the third game of the season, Paputsakis would miss the next 5 weeks with that injury. It took him a couple of games of feeling the puck to get back into a rhythm and since then he and his partner Patrick Leaver (2022 Draft eligible) have formed the top 1A-1B tandem in the OHL.
With a November 2001 birthdate, Paputsakis was first eligible for the NHL Entry Draft in 2020. In that draft I had him ranked one spot below Guzda who was a draft re-entry. With the lost 2020-2021 season, Paputsakis didn’t play and of course went undrafted in 2021. Because he turns 21 before December 31 this year, he is not eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and with Guzda off the market, he is the top free agent goaltender available from the OHL – at least in my opinion.
At 6’3” and 196 pounds, he has the size NHL Scouts drool over. He is an athletic netminder who moves extremely well in his crease, although he can “overshoot” his mark. He tracks the puck well (his size helps) and controls he rebounds and as Jack likes to say makes a “positional save”. In tight he takes away the bottom of the net easily, but he also remains big in his crease while attempting to take away the upper portion.
Paputsakis attended the Ottawa Senators development camp in 2021 and their AHL affiliate Belleville Bulls regular training camp in 2021 as an invite.
TYE KARTYE – SAULT STE MARIE GREYHOUNDS – WING/CENTER
|2018-19||Sault St Marie||64||4||20||24|
|2019-20||Sault Ste Marie||64||25||28||53|
|2020-21||Sault Ste Marie||0||0||0||0|
|2021-22||Sault Ste Marie||63||45||34||79|
Full disclosure: When I did my 2019 draft rankings, Kartye didn’t make my list of top-40 OHL players for the draft. In 2020, he made my list at number 50. Obviously, he went undrafted. The issue with Kartye back then was that he was a below average skater. But its something he has worked extremely hard to improve with the help of the Greyhounds over the past couple of years. It’s going to continue to be a work in progress and I wonder how much more he could improve with a pro team guiding the way. But at this point, the improvement has been noticeable.
Kartye attended the Seattle Kraken training camp in 2021 as an invite.
* Has since signed with Seattle Kraken
NATHAN STAIOS – HAMILTON BULLDOGS – DEFENCE
Back in 2019, I ranked Staios 36th among OHL players and that put him just on the outside looking in at the draft. He is the son of former Bruins Steve Staios. He logs huge minutes for the OHL’s number one team with sights set on an OHL Championship. He’s come a long way since 2019. Despite his lack of size, he competes as hard as anyone in his own zone. He exits his zone in transition effectively with a good pass, but has the ability to skate it out. He controls the offensive blueline as the top dog on the Hamilton powerplay. I believe his ability to read what is in front of him is underrated as he is more than capable of setting up his teammates.
I had Staios one spot below Navrin Mutter, who just signed a three-year deal with the Nashville Predators. But in Staios’ case, I believe an AHL deal is in the cards.
Staios attended the St Louis Blues development camp in 2021 as an invite.
DANIEL D’AMATO -ERIE OTTERS – WINGER
I had not ranked D’Amato in any of my draft rankings mostly due to what I believed was a skating issue. But give credit where credit is due, D’Amato put in the hard work and continues to do so where it isn’t the issue it once was. His speed is now actually quite impressive as is his strength on his skates and his edgework. He is the poster child for those that don’t believe skating can improve. D’Amato is a 200-foot player who works hard in his own zone, coming back on the backcheck and disrupts plays through the neutral zone. He plays an all-around game and plays it with pace.
D’Amato attended the Vegas Golden Knights development camp and main camp in 2021 as an invite and signed a PTO that allowed him to get some games in with Vegas’ farm club.
MITCHELL RUSSELL – NORTH BAY BATTALION -CENTER/WING
Just like D’Amato, Russell needed to put in the work to improve his skating and he has done so. He can play physical; he can play with pace. He is one of the most consistent point producers in the OHL who has never had more that a 2-game pointless streak this season and he’s only had 3 – two-game pointless streaks. If he is not the most improved player in the OHL, I need someone to point out who is. He’s a late bloomer who has also put in the hard work. He will get some looks.
LOUKA HENAULT – WINDSOR SPITFIRES – DEFENCE
Prior to the 2019 draft, I ranked Henault 37th among OHL players and in that particular draft class would leave him outside of the draft looking in, one spot below Staios. This is what I had to say about Henault at the time.
With former Bruins Marc Savard as his head coach, they can seek out some inside information here if they are interested. Not much has changed for Henault since his 2018-2019 draft season. He is still as steady as he was then, good at everything but doesn’t excel in any one area. His best weapons at the opposition blue line are his playmaking and his shot. I still don’t like that he’s taking less than 2 shots per game.
Henault attended Columbus’ Rookie camp in 2019. He also attended Anaheim’s rookie camp and then their main camp last season and then their AHL squad in San Diego before being returned to the OHL.
Here is a list of players entering their third drafts and are either ranked very late by NHL Central Scouting or not at all. These are players to keep an eye on at the draft or beyond.
LUCAS EDMONDS – KINGSTON FRONTENACS – RIGHT WING
This is Edmonds fourth draft and I am not going to say much about him because I (and many in the hockey world) would be in total shock if he were to go undrafted. He’s finally getting the attention. That said, if he were to miss the cut, I will personally send Don Sweeney countless hours of video of him. Yes, he is 21 years of age, but the age rule doesn’t apply since he played in Europe for his first 3 drafts, the European rule applies.
Yes, the Frontenacs have the potential number one overall pick in Shane Wright on their squad, but if you want to make the case that Edmonds has been the offensive catalyst on the squad, you won’t get much of an argument from me.
JAMES HARDIE – MISSISSAUGA STEELHEADS – LEFT WING
When I did my 2020 OHL draft rankings, I had Hardie ranked 31st among OHL players which would have put him in the 6th round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. NHL Central Scouting ranked him 163rd overall. Now it’s anyone’s guess what might happen with him. He is ranked 204th among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings so, when you add in goaltenders and Europeans that means he misses the cut.
Hardie is precisely the type of player you look for in later rounds. You’re not exactly sure what his upside is, but there was enough shown to draw some interest for me. Hardie re-entered the draft for 2021, but the lost OHL season virtually killed any opportunity of being drafted.
This is what I wrote about Hardie on May 2020 prior to the draft.
Hardie attended the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp in 2021 as an invite.
LOGAN MORRISON – HAMILTON BULLDOGS – CENTER
This is what I wrote about Morrison in May of 2020. At that time, I ranked Morrison 35th among OHL players eligible for the NHL Entry Draft, one spot below Robert Calisti who just signed a two-year AHL deal with the Florida Panthers. That 35 spot would have put him as a 7th round pick.
Every aspect of Morrison’s game has shown improvement including faceoffs where he is one of the more dominant faceoff men in the league. At this point, in his third and final year of draft eligibility, Morrison is not ranked by NHL Central Scouting on their midterm rankings. Come June’s draft he’ll still be just 19 years of age and he’s been on an absolute tear of late. Personally, I would have spent the 7th round pick back in 2020 on him. Morrison also re-entered the NHL Entry Draft in 2021 but with the lost season who knew that he was capable of this?
Morrison attended the Los Angeles Kings development camp and training camp in 2021 as an invite.
Some others to watch that are not on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, or ranked so low they wouldn’t get drafted, that will get looks if not drafted: Gavin White (defence – Hamilton Bulldogs); Avery Hayes (right wing – Hamilton Bulldogs); Brenden Sirizzotti (right wing – Niagara IceDogs); Nolan Dann (left wing – Sarnia Sting); Nolan Burke (center – Sarnia Sting); Ryan Abraham (center – Windsor Spitfires); Matthew Maggio (right wing – Windsor Spitfires).
This list is obviously premature, but the draft junkies out there may want to compare where these players are when Central Scouting releases their final list and then see if anyone selects them in the Entry Draft. And finally, if not selected, see who invites them to camp.