News broke on Thursday that undrafted free agent Frank Vatrano will forego his final two seasons of eligibility at Massachusetts, and has signed an entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins.
At first the news took me by surprise. It’s not that Vatrano, who scored 18 goals and amassed 28 points in his first full season in college hockey, wasn’t talented enough to take his game to the next level. Far from it, in fact. But I never gave much thought to Vatrano leaving UMass after one season, especially not after essentially sitting out two years in order to get there.
After being ruled academically ineligible at Boston College, just weeks prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, Vatrano left the Heights and joined the Jr. Bruins in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He would later play a handful of games for the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he had called home for the previous two seasons.
Then after joining the Minutemen at the start of the 2013-14 season, he was ruled ineligible for the regular season because of an administrative issue and appeared in only UMass’ playoff game last season. This was his first full season of college hockey.
But, it was essentially his junior season. At least it was supposed to be had he remained an Eagle.
Vatrano is another case of the drafted vs. undrafted player. While not entirely certain, it’s highly likely he would have remained with UMass next season if Boston took him with a draft pick in either 2012 or 2013. By going undrafted, Vatrano had 30 potential suitors instead of just one.
So if Boston wanted Vatrano, they needed to act fast. If Boston already had Vatrano under their control, there is more of a chance that the Bruins would have been patient. There would literally be nothing for them to lose. They would have held the player’s rights.
But in the case of Vatrano, an undrafted player, a team that wants him has to act sooner, or run the risk of losing the player.
After Kevin Hayes declined to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer, waiting until August 15 and becoming a free agent by virtue of the Blackhawks losing his rights under the CBA, it’s going to put more pressure on NHL teams to sign the players they really want by the conclusion of their junior years. Look at Devin Shore foregoing his final year of eligibility at Maine just earlier this week to sign with the Dallas Stars. Had Dallas not made an offer, Shore could have played his final season at Maine next winter and then have his pickings of all 30 NHL teams, or at least whoever was interested, as opposed to just Dallas.
The money would have been the same, but the opportunity to crack the NHL roster is certainly not the same in every NHL organization.
Here’s what I think we’ll start to see more of in the future:
1) Teams are going to sign the players they really want at the end of their junior seasons. If they aren’t able to come to agreements, look for those players — if they’re stars — to intend to wait it out the next summer and try free agency, picking their spot and trying to get on a team that offers the best chance at making an NHL roster. Northeastern’s Kevin Roy (Anaheim) and Minnesota’s Mike Reilly (Columbus) have similar decisions this offseason.
2) Some NHL teams will start stashing college players in later rounds of the NHL Draft. This seems like a no-brainer. Taking a European player that late in the draft typically results in the player never even making it to North America. Most of those players will make more money in Sweden or Russia than they will on an entry-level deal in the AHL. If teams start to project who they think they might target as college free agents during their draft years, they could draft those players and then stash them as prospects for at least three years before really having to make a decision.
Look at Brett Seney at Merrimack this season. He’s undersized at 5-9, but also scored 26 points as a rookie in Hockey East. If an NHL team projects him as a 40-point scorer as a junior, and a player the believe they would likely take a run at in free agency, it would make more sense to spend a seventh-round pick on him this summer and stash his rights. If it doesn’t work out, the team loses a seventh-round pick. How many of those work out anyway? Same could be said for Trevor Moore at Denver or Tyler Kelleher at UNH.
So congratulations to Vatrano on living his dream and signing an NHL deal. These situations always bring some goon out of the woodwork who says “he’s not ready” or “what about his diploma,” which might be true, but also seems selfish and shallow from a fan’s perspective. Vatrano is like any other hockey player on the planet. His dream was probably to play in the NHL. Here he is, at 20 years old, with an offer on the table. If you, Mr. Message Board Poster, were in that same position, would you not sign the contract?
Of course you would sign it. I’d never smash a kid for signing a deal to potentially fulfill a dream. That’s why they’re playing the game. You can always go back to school — of course I understand that not all kids do — but you might only have once chance to sign an NHL deal.