Let’s Go NCAA Free Agent Shopping: 2023

The Boston Bruins have been very active in the last two NHL trade deadlines and they’ve surrendered 10 draft picks in the next three drafts beginning with the 2023 Entry Draft. One sure fire way to replenish those players they will miss out on at the draft is through NCAA free agent signings.

The Bruins are always active in recruiting free agents and last year brought in Georgii Merkulov, Mark McLaughlin and Brandon Bussi. All three have paid dividends in their first seasons as professionals. With only 1 of the allowable 50 contract spots available to the Bruins, they could lose one of negotiating tools to help draw a player to Boston: the ability to burn a year off their entry level contract.

That’s what happened to McLaughlin last year. He signed his NHL contract and played games with the big club. But in Merkulov’s and Bussi’s case, their contracts didn’t begin until the following season, so all is not lost. McLaughlin was on our list last season as a potential target.

If you missed our Ontario Hockey League list, you can find it here.

Here is a look at 20 potential targets for 2023. In no particular order:

Jake Livingstone – Defence – Minnesota State

Okay, maybe I should have said “in no particular order except Livingstone” because he will be the most coveted player. He was also on our list last year but he wasn’t about to turn pro and it was almost a guarantee he was heading back to school for another year. 

Livingstone has been pursued by NHL teams for a few seasons now. He has great size at 6’3” and 205 pounds but has very good mobility to go along with it. Oh, and he’s a right shot. He has strong offensive instincts with 7 goals and 230 points in 36 games on the year. He is a BCHL alumni and spent 2 full seasons with Langley Rivermen where he notched 11 goals and 49 points in 52 games during his final campaign.

Hunter McKown – Right Wing – Colorado College

If you followed McKown through his time with the National Team Development Program, one would wonder whether he had any offence to his game at all.  It would be fair to ask the same question after his first season with Colorado College. But it finally came to the forefront a season ago when he scored 13 goals and 8 assists in 35 games. He stepped it up again this season scoring 19 goals and 6 assists in 34 games on a Colorado team that had difficulty putting the biscuit in the basket. He has twice as many goals as his next closest teammate.

But it’s his three zone play that will draw interest in the 6’1” – 205-pound center/winger. His effort is as strong without the puck as it is with and his defensive reads are excellent. He has the ability to provide a shut down role at the next level while providing a touch of offence.

McKown represented Team USA at last summer’s WJC U-20

UPDATE: Signed with Columbus Blue Jackets on March 20, 2023.

Nick Leivermann – Defence – Notre Dame

Leivermann is a 7th round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2017 and there have been a couple of whispers that he will not sign with the Avs and become an unrestricted free agent. However, the Avs hold his rights until August 15, 2023 and anything could happen.

The 5’11” – 185-pound defenceman has 6 goals and 14 assists in 29 games for Notre Dame and wears the C on his jersey. He is an excellent skater with excellent mobility, control and edgework. He maintains great gaps defensively with his skating and in the o-zone uses his mobility to creates with subtle moves. He’s one of the best puck handling defencemen on this list.

Nick Poisson – Center – Providence College

Poisson is a BCHL alumni having skated with Prince George for two seasons. In his final year he scored 21 goals and 47 points in 49 games before joining Providence College. He showed great progression from his first to second year where he had 35 points in 37 games. But his stats tumbled this season with just 20 in 35 games.

At 5’11” and 185-pounds, his greatest asset is his hockey smarts. They are high end. He reads and reacts quickly, finds open areas of the ice and despite his size, he gets to the dirty areas and shows no fear. At this point, his defensive game is adequate and remains a work in progress.

UPDATE: Announced he will returning to school on March 21, 2023

Ryan McAllister – Left Wing – Western Michigan

McAllister is an AJHL alumni after leaving the BCHL to join the Brooks bandits. In his final year in the A he scored 57 goals and a whopping 139 points in just 60 games (He added 10 goals and 29 points in 13 playoff games). I remember his time in the GOJHL as a 16-year-old and thinking at that time that this kid will one day play in the NHL.

But the AJHL isn’t the NCAA. However, as a freshman with Western Michigan, McAllister scored 10 goals and 45 points in 36 games. Undrafted, the 5’10” and 183-pound winger had some interest from NHL teams after his AJHL season. McAllister is a freshman and is sure to get some NHL offers again once his season ends. It’s up to him if he wants to turn pro.

Akito Hirose – Defence – Minnesota State

Hirose was on our list a season ago and he was also on some NHL lists, having received multiple offers. But he wanted to return to Minnesota State and he did.

The 6’0” and 170-pound blueliner is a superb skater with high hockey IQ, excellent vision and creativity and excellent offensive abilities. He is another BCHL alumni having spent 4 seasons with Salmon Arm Silverbacks, the last season as captain. He finished his last season with 9 goals and 51 points in 57 games.

Hirose has spent 3 seasons with Minnesota where he saw his offensive production improve each year. But it’s his growth and improvement defensively that stands out. However, it’s still a work in progress and if a team decides to take a chance on him, they will need some patience.

Jaxon Nelson – Center – Minnesota

When you play for the nations best team you are bound to draw some interest just because of the number of eyes watching. And the thing that stands out the most is the frame – at 6’4” and 220-pounds. Centers that big don’t grow on trees.

Nelson is in his senior year and I have some concerns. His defensive game is adequate but he lacks in the offensive department – just 7 goals and 21 points in 34 games this season. Some put it on his lower end hockey IQ but I think if he can improve on his skating, he could carve out a pro career.

Brendan Furry – Left Wing Minnesota State

Furry is a USHL alumni where he spent two seasons, the last one split between the Omaha Lancers and the Tri-City Storm. In 52 games he had 21 goals and 36 assists before joining Minnesota State. He had a good Freshman season but as a sophomore he really stood out scoring 13 goals and 31 assists in 44 games. His 44 points were tied for 9th in the nation and his 31 helpers were tied for 2nd. But with 8-16-24 totals in 36 games this season, his numbers took a hit.

The 6’1”, 198-pound center is a solid two-way player who works his tail off at both ends of the rink. He is one of the hardest workers in the NCAA and leads by example, wearing the C on his jersey. His game has been AHL ready for most of this season and I would not be surprised to see him skating in the AHL as soon as his season is over with Minnesota.

Jack Randl – Left Wing – Nebraska-Omaha

When you talk about the path taken, you certainly have to look at Randl. He spent 2 seasons with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL before moving onto the University of Michigan for one season. He then went back to Omaha and Captained the Lancers with a point per game pace before moving onto the NCAA again with Nebraska-Omaha.

The 5’10”, 174 pound winger has seen his production increase steadily over three seasons with UNO. He’s an excellent skater with good agility and speed. He has an NHL shot but has some feistiness and willingness to drive to the net with the puck or to clean up the garbage in front of the net. His 18 goals on the season are 8th most in the nation.

Zach Metsa – Defence – Quinnipiac

Metsa is an alumni of the BCHL/USHL where he put up steady numbers as a defenceman. He is now in his fifth season with Quinnipiac where his best season was one year ago where he had 10 goals and 27 assists in 42 games. He currently has 7 goals and 21 assists in 34 games.

The 5’9”, 181-pound blueliner’s best assets are his skating and hockey IQ. He possesses the ability to be a one-man breakout either with quick tape-to-tape passes out of his zone or skating it out himself. Many will shy away from Metsa because of perceived size issue, but I believe he is incredibly strong for that size.  

Ian Shane – Goaltender – Cornell

Okay, at 6’0” and 168-pounds, Shane doesn’t have the ideal size coveted by NHL teams. And not everyone can turn into Juuse Saros. Just look at Bruins prospect Michael DiPietro: A standout junior goaltender still trying to find his way professionally.  

But Shane has skill and he has had success at the college level. The sophomore has the 3rd best goals-against-average in the nation at 1.82. If you go back one season to his freshman year at Cornell, he had the 4th best goals-against-average in the nation at 1.72 and the 4th best save-percentage at .933.

Shane certainly has the drive, determination and the skill set. I don’t know that everyone will look past the size factor. But he has the option to return to school and continue to prove others wrong.

Sam Malinski – Defence – Cornell

The 5’11”, 190-pound Malinski has had a very good career with Cornell. As a freshman, he notched 4 goals and 12 assists in 24 games. He then missed the 2020-2021 season because of the pandemic and followed that up with two seasons of 23 and 26 points in 32 and 30 games respectively. He’s wearing the C on his jersey this year at Cornell.

There was some interest in Malinski a year ago but there should be more this season. He is an excellent skater with great technique and some good speed. But he has the puck skills to go along with them. He’s also a right shot and we know how hard they are to find.

Collin Graf – Right Wing – Quinnipiac

There is nothing to suggest that the still 20-year-old Graf is going to turn pro once his season is done, but he’s going to get offers. He spent his first year in the NCAA with Union College where he had 11 goals and 22 points in 37 games. This season, he moved on to Quinnipiac and it paid off. He has 19 goals (6th in the nation), 33 assists (2nd in the nation) and 52 points (2nd in the nation) in 35 games.

The 6’0”, 181-pound winger has superb hands, excellent vision and excellent playmaking skills from the wing. I think what stands out most though is his hockey IQ, He knows where to get to on the ice and where the goals are scored from and he gets there, reading the play develop before it happens. But he makes those same reads to set up teammates. If someone can convince him to leave school early, this could be a great signing because he’ll probably draw even more attention a year from now.

Victor Ostman – Goaltender – Maine

Maine has produced some quality NHL goaltending over the years that includes current Bruins netminder Jeremy Swayman. Ostman could very well be that next one.

Maine has been an improved team in parts thanks to Ostman’s netminding. He has a 14-12-4 record on the year with a 2.21 goals-against-average (12th in the nation) and .918 save-percentage (16th in the nation) with 5 shutouts (4th in the nation).

At 6’4”, 205-pounds, he has the size NHL teams drool over. There is still plenty of developing to do for the 22-year-old native of Sweden and there aren’t many goaltenders in the UFA class, especially to challenge him so, an NHL team may see the value in trying to get him to leave school early and speed up that development with pro coaching.

UPDATE: Announced he will be returning to school on March 15, 2023.

Parker Ford – Center – Providence College

Ford attended Bruins development camp a couple of summers ago. Last year, he had an NHL contract in his back pocket. All he had to do was put pen to paper. He instead decided to return to Providence College for his senior year. Ford is just shy of matching his career high of 14 goals and 27 assists he set last season.

Ford is a USHL alumni, having played two seasons with the Sioux City Musketeers and was an Alternate Captain in his second season where he scored 19 goals and 43 points in 56 games. He represented Team USA at the 2020 WJC U-20 but was held off the scoresheet in 5 games.

Ford is a two-way forward with some sandpaper who you can use in tough matchups. He will draw some attention again this season from NHL clubs and you can count the Bruins as being one of them.

Colton Huard – Defence – New Hampshire

I am pretty confident in saying that the 6’4”, 201-pound defenceman doesn’t hold as much value as some of the other blueliners on this list. He moves pretty well for a big man, but lacks strength on his feet. Not something you would associate with a big blueliner.

Huard is a two-year graduate of the USHL, his last one with the Chicago Steel where he had 3 goals and 18 assists in 53 games. He put up decent numbers in his first two seasons in the NCAA with New Hampshire – 3 goals, 19 points in 35 games this season. He doesn’t get top pairing minutes but he does get the prime powerplay time. He has shown he is very effective at holding and walking the blueline with the ability to set up teammates. He also possesses a very good shot from the point. But he has areas f his game to work on.

Jacob Bengtsson – Defence – Lake Superior State

There has been prior interest in the 6’3”, 203-pound blueliner who came over from the J20 SuperElit league in Sweden (same league as Bruins prospects Oskar Jellvik and Dans Locmelis) to join the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL for two seasons before joining Lake Superior.

Bengtsson is in his third NCAA season. As a sophomore last season, he notched 3 goals and 24 assists in 36 games but dipped to 1 goal and 22 helpers this season for a squad that struggled on many nights. His size will draw interest and the fact he moves very well for his size is a plus. I’m sure a few teams will show some interest but I don’t see many lining up.

UPDATE: Entered transfer portal March 14, 2023

Riese Gaber – Left Wing – North Dakota

Gaber was an invite to Bruins camp last summer. Okay, so he’s 5’8” and just 163 pounds but you will be hard pressed to find a player that works as hard as Gaber does on any given night, or shift.

Gaber spent two seasons with Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL hitting the 50-point mark in both campaigns. Now in his third NCAA season, Gaber has carried that production over with seasons of 21, 37 and 37 points. He’s emerged as a leader, wearing a letter this year. Gaber will draw some interest from NHL teams. How much will depend on how many of them can overlook the size issue. I’m pretty confident the Bruins will have some interest.

UPDATE: Announced he will be returning to school on March 21, 2023

Jason Polin – Right Wing – Western Michigan

Polin spent three seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL where he put up some decent numbers. He’s in his firth season at Western Michigan University where he is Captain this season. Abd what a senior year he is having.

Polin’s 29 goals is tops in the nation this year and his 46 points have him sixth in the nation. He is a threat to score 5v5, powerplay and short handed. At 6’0” and 198-pounds he has some decent size but it’s his strength on his skates that make him stand out. He has a lethal shot and that alone will draw some interest. He will likely get several NHL offers.

Luke Pavicich – Goaltender – U Mass

At 20-years of age, Pavicich is still young for an NCAA goaltender who guards the cage at U Mass. He is an alumni of the OJHL who spent a season in the NAHL before moving onto College. Last season he only appeared in 4 games for U Mass and posted a 1.62 goals-against-average and .933 save-percentage. This season he has a goals-against-average of 2.75 (26th in the nation) and a save-percentage of .920 (13th in the nation)

At 6’3” and 190-pounds, Pavicich had the size coveted by NHL teams. But he’s an incredibly athletic goaltender. As I said, he is still young and a ways to go, but I can’t imagine an NHL team or two not speaking with him about turning pro and developing further under their tutelage.

There you have it. Obviously, there are many more players and we can’t cover them all. Some of these players will sign NHL or AHL contracts soon, others will choose to go back to school for at least one more year and others may not get a contract at all. But these are 20 players that have drawn my interest and I will be keeping an eye on what comes next for them.

Follow me on Twitter @dominictiano

Published by Dominic Tiano

Following the Ontario Hockey League players eligible for the NHL Draft. I provide season-long stats, updates and player profiles as well as draft rankings.

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