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Ben Meyers heads the list of the top NCAA players still unsigned

Ben Meyers

Ben Meyers

University of Minnesota Athletics

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We continue our look at free agents that are attracting attention from NHL teams with profiles of the top prospects available from the NCAA by Brock Otten. In last week’s Prospect Report, Chapin Landvogt profiled the top European free agents, and you can find it here. You may also want to check out Brock’s article from a few weeks ago on top NCAA prospects signing their ELC, including Owen Power and is set to make his NHL debut with Buffalo.

The top name on the following list, Ben Meyers, as of this writing, remains unsigned and is expected to make an announcement very soon, likely Tuesday, after taking time to interview multiple NHL clubs over the last two days. Below is a mix of players who have signed with a club and those high-profile names still remaining.

The McKeen’s team are scouting and writing about prospects all season long and provide in-depth reports on our website:

Top NCAA Free Agents

By Brock Otten

We have a National Champion! The Denver Pioneers defeated Minnesota State 5-1 last Saturday to capture the program’s second title in the last six years (Troy Terry led them to a title in 2017). However, the NCAA season has been over for several weeks already for many programs and players. Top prospects like Owen Power, Kent Johnson, and Jake Sanderson have signed their entry level contracts and joined the pro ranks. Others like Ronnie Attard and Jordan Harris have already seen NHL action after signing, with the former scoring his first career goal on the weekend.

As is the case with the end of every NCAA season, we have seen a flurry of undrafted prospects sign with NHL teams as free agents. While many of these longer shot prospects never make it above the AHL level (and eventually end up in Europe), each free agent crop tends to unearth at least a few hidden gems that develop into quality NHL players. The likes of Cam Talbot, Trevor Moore, Torey Krug, Nate Schmidt, Alex Iafallo, Conor Sheary, and Evan Rodrigues were all free agent signings out of NCAA programs in the recent past.

So, what college free agent signings have the best chance of developing into dependable NHL players? Here is a list of the top ten. A few of these players have not yet signed their entry level contracts as they wade through offers; just recently finishing their NCAA seasons.

1. Ben Meyers - Center - Minnesota - UFA

A finalist for the Hobey Baker and one of the highest scoring players in college this year, you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have Meyers as the top NCAA free agent this year. Not only did he captain Minnesota to a solid season, but he was one of the United States’ best players at the Olympics. Just a junior, there is obviously a chance that Meyers returns to Minnesota for his senior year, but that would be shocking given what he accomplished this year. Meyers is an extremely pro-ready prospect. Already a strong skater and dependable two-way player, Meyers should be able to jump right into the bottom six of an NHL team next season (or even to close out this season if he signs soon). The high-end potential of Meyers would be as a middle six player. There are some skill limitations. But he should be a sure bet to join some of the quality NHL role players (listed above, like Trevor Moore and Alex Iafallo) who have signed as UFA’s.

2. Bobby Trivigno - Wing - UMass - New York Rangers

Trivigno signed with the Rangers at the beginning of April and has already earned his first pro points in the AHL with Hartford. An undersized, playmaking winger, Trivigno had been a standout the last two seasons with UMass. This past year, he led UMass in scoring and finished third in NCAA scoring overall. A highly skilled transitional attacker, Trivigno should be a quality scoring line option at the AHL level immediately. While he is only 5’8 and barely over 150lbs, he is far from a perimeter player and will play a tenacious game to get to the middle and win puck battles. The key for Trivigno will be finding a way to improve his speed and explosiveness further. Certainly not a poor skater, we know that undersized forwards need to be near elite movers to play a scoring line role at the NHL level. However, the offensive upside is significant here.

3. Jake Livingstone - Defense - Minnesota State - UFA

There is a chance that this former BCHL defender returns to Minnesota State for his junior season (especially given Minnesota State’s loss in the final). However, many expect the 6’3, right shot defender to turn pro within the coming days. He was top ten in defenseman scoring in the NCAA this year and is a terrific skater for a blueliner of his size. His game doesn’t have a true weakness. He can lead the breakout, quarterback the powerplay, shutdown the opposition’s best, and bring a physical element. He could move quickly up the ladder of the team who eventually signs him, perhaps even playing in the NHL next season. We should have an indication of his intentions (to sign or not to sign) by the end of the week (if not by the time this column is published).

4. Georgii Merkulov - Wing - Ohio State - Boston Bruins

After a very strong freshman season with the Buckeyes, Merkulov left school early and signed with the Bruins recently. The former Youngstown Phantom (USHL) standout led Ohio State in scoring and goal scoring. In fact, he had double the number of goals of Blackhawks prospect Jake Wise, who was second. Merkulov is an extremely creative and skilled player. He is lethal on the powerplay with his shoot first mentality and ability to create further time and space for himself. His wrist shot is a major asset and gives him significant scoring potential at the NHL level. He could prove to be a real diamond in the rough for the Bruins, who obviously became enamored with him after checking in on top prospect Mason Lohrei at Ohio State.

5. Brandon Scanlin - Defense - Nebraska-Omaha - New York Rangers

Scanlin signed with the Rangers after his junior season with UNO, a year that saw him nearly double his offensive output from the back end. His 31 points were good for top ten in the nation in defenseman scoring. Scanlin can impact the game at both ends of the ice. He takes care of the puck in his own end and clears the defensive zone well. He also uses his 6’4 frame to suffocate and applies himself physically. There are some limitations to his mobility, which will need to improve for him to be an NHL defender, however his attention to detail and performance to date were well worth an NHL contract. After a few years at the AHL level, Scanlin could develop into a solid two-way defender who could play in a 4-6 role for the Rangers.

6. Marc McLaughlin - Center - Boston College - Boston Bruins

Not only has McLaughlin already suited up for the Bruins this year, but he has scored his first career NHL goal. The upside for the 6’0 center is not significant, however it is easy to see him becoming a long time NHL player in a checking line role. Not only did he serve as captain of BC, but he was named Hockey East’s best defensive forward previously too. He has been playing on the wing at the NHL level through a handful of games but does project as a center long term. He can kill penalties, win key faceoffs, and has good enough finishing ability in tight to score a few goals. A good skater, the key for him will be to develop a little more quickness to truly take his two-way game to another level.

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7. Nick Blankenburg - Defense - Michigan - Columbus Blue Jackets

A four-year player at Ann Arbor, Blankenburg exploded in his senior year with the Wolverines. Not only did he captain the team (full of higher profiled prospects), but his 14 goals were third most in the NCAA among blueliners behind teammate Luke Hughes and National Champion Michael Benning. Blankenburg, at 5’9, is never going to make the NHL as a defensive stalwart. In fact, his play in the defensive end will need to improve further for him to be an NHL player. But what he can do well is quarterback the powerplay and move the puck. A strong four-way mover, Blankenburg is extremely dangerous from the blueline in, and this makes him a fun player to watch, and likely a fun player to play with. Blankenburg’s one-year ELC was actually for the rest of this season (and not beyond). This means that he will likely get some looks with the Blue Jackets down the home stretch. It also likely means that he is playing for his qualifying offer too.

8. Taylor Ward - Wing - Nebraska-Omaha - Los Angeles Kings

Through his four years with UNO, Ward was a consistent offensive player, producing immediately as a freshman and continuing his scoring line role into his senior year. That’s a rare feat in the college game. Ward is the son of former Buffalo Sabres forward Dixon Ward and projects as a similar kind of middle six player at the NHL level. A budding power forward, Ward can drive the net, bring a physical element, and has a nose for the net that makes him a terrific option for the powerplay. He has already gotten off to a good start at the AHL level with Ontario, with five points through his first eight games. The Kings system is fairly loaded, but Ward does have the potential to be an NHL player down the line.

9. Ethen Frank - Wing - Western Michigan - UFA

The rare five-year NCAA player, Frank took advantage of an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic to become college hockey’s leading goal scorer this past season. Sure, he is a bit older than your average college free agent at 24 years old, but his combination of scoring ability and speed should get him an entry level contract at some point. This is especially true considering that Frank is a tenacious player too and does have some qualities that make him valuable even when he’s not scoring. Would have to believe that Frank signs an ELC sometime in the coming weeks.

10. Dryden McKay - Goaltender - Minnesota State - UFA

It is not too often that you see the year’s Hobey Baker winner this far down the list of top college free agents. In fact, McKay has been nominated each of the last three seasons and has been a dominant force in every one of his four NCAA seasons with Minnesota State. However, there is some skepticism about how his game translates to the pro level. I know some scouts feel that he was sheltered given Minnesota State’s unreal team defense approach. Additionally, he is undersized at pushing 6’0. However, you cannot overlook how good he has been over his college career. It is rare for “undersized” netminders to perform well at the pro level, but more and more smaller goaltenders are finding success at the NHL level too. His track record thus far speaks for itself. With the NCAA season now complete, McKay should sign soon. Even with some question marks, he should unquestionably receive an NHL ELC and not have to head overseas like former Michigan netminder Strauss Mann did last season (with Mann now being a top European free agent target).

Honorable Mentions:

Brandon Bussi - Goaltender - Western Michigan - Boston Bruins

At first glance the numbers are not remarkable for this college junior, however Bussi developed very well this season. At 6’5, he has the size NHL teams are looking for, but he is also extremely athletic. Very much a project because his play tracking ability, positioning, and rebound control all remain works in progress, Bussi could end up being an NHL netminder after a few years in the Bruins’ system.

Clay Stevenson - Goaltender - Dartmouth - Washington Capitals

You don’t see freshman netminders leave college early too often, but Stevenson is a very interesting prospect. The 6’4 netminder was the BCHL’s goaltender of the year two years ago, then lost last season (his intended freshman year) due to the Ivy league canceling because of COVID. This season, he was one of the NCAA’s busiest goaltenders (in terms of amount of rubber seen), yet his numbers were stellar. The Capitals may have unearthed a real gem here.

Jaxson Stauber - Goaltender - Providence - Chicago Blackhawks

Another netminder who left early, Stauber has had a terrific three-year run. He has not posted a save percentage lower than .915 the last three seasons between the USHL and Providence. The 6 ‘3 Stauber is a former Clark Cup MVP and will give the Hawks better depth at the position moving forward, a position which has some uncertainty attached to it at the NHL level currently (although Drew Commesso and Arvid Soderblom are terrific prospects). Stauber has the athleticism to match his length, but like the others listed here, needs refinement technically.

Ryan Fanti - Goaltender - Minnesota-Duluth - Edmonton Oilers

The only netminder listed here to make his pro debut already, Fanti also happened to win it with Bakersfield. The 6’3, Thunder Bay native was terrific this past season as Minnesota-Duluth’s starter. Fanti is a hyper athletic and quick netminder with a penchant for the highlight reel save thanks to his play reading ability. How that translates to the pro level remains to be seen, but history suggests that at least one of the five netminders listed here will become NHL goaltenders. Maybe it’s Fanti?