This year’s crop of NCAA free agents presents a lot of hard-working forwards, some extremely gifted shooters, and some defencemen who have NHL potential. It’s a big year for teams to add seasoned prospects to their pools and try to get their hands on free talent without spending a draft pick.
The signing period will begin when teams wrap up their NCAA seasons. We have the national championship game scheduled for April 8th but teams will be eliminated in the weeks prior to the final game of the NCAA year.
From late March to early April, we will see a lot of college free agents sign with NHL teams and could be in AHL or NHL lineups within days of signing pro contracts.
Here’s a look at our top free-agent candidates from the 2022-23 NCAA season.
Jake Livingstone, RD, 23 years old, 6’3, 205 lbs
We didn’t rank these players or put them in order of our top free agents, but we have to start with the cream of the crop in right-shot defenceman Jake Livingstone.
Livingstone has the size and puck-moving ability that will make him successful at the next level. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him in the NHL as soon as his college season concludes. Many believed he would have been one of the top free agents if he left college after last season but the BC-born defenceman decided to go back to school for his junior year. Livingstone can quarterback a power play, kill penalties and also has the trait to be a stay-at-home defender at even strength.
He has a strong shot from the point, does a great job at making quick decisions during puck retrievals in his own end, and plays physically around his crease and in the corners. There’s plenty to like about Livingstone, but he is still a work in progress.
To have success at the NHL level, Livingstone will need to improve his skating. He has a level of skating that doesn’t worry you about AHL success but to really reach his full potential, an NHL organization needs to believe in their skating coach and put in the work with this kid. He has the potential to be a bottom-four defenceman in the NHL. It would come as a surprise if he ever ends up being a top-pairing guy, but as a 6’3″ right-shot defenceman, it would be far more surprising if there’s an NHL team that isn’t interested in Livingstone.
He will have his pick of the litter when it comes to which NHL team he wants to sign with and immediately helps with organizational depth on the right side of the defence.
Stats: 20gp – 3g -14a -17p
Hunter McKown, RW, 20 years old, 6’1″, 205 lbs
After passing through the NHL draft as a 19-year-old, Hunter McKown has come out this season with a vengeance. He matched his goal totals from last season before Christmas and has been a huge piece of Colorado’s offence.
The right-shot sniper has size but does lack foot speed — which is likely why he was passed by in the NHL draft. His scoring during his junior season has put him on NHL teams’ radars. At 20 years old, there’s still a lot that an NHL organization can do about improving his pace.
Stats: 20gp – 13g – 5a -18p
Nick Leivermann, LD, 24 years old, 5’11”, 185 lbs
A seventh-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, Nick Leivermann is a sub-six-foot defenceman who defends space with some of the best in the NCAA. His skating is at a high level and his offence has continued to improve throughout his NCAA career. Leivermann has strong puck-handling ability and the best part about his puck-handling is how he is able to make little movements with the puck on his stick before releasing a shot. He does this to find holes through traffic and has a lot of power behind his wrist shot.
At 5’11”, he is not undersized and his shot is elite when it comes to NCAA free agent defenceman in this year’s class. He should have an immediate impact in the AHL and potentially could be a third-pairing defenceman for an NHL team if he is able to transition his best skills to pro hockey.
Leivermann is in his fifth season with Notre Dame and is captaining the Fighting Irish.
Stats: 15gp – 5g -7a -12p
Nick Poisson, C, 21 years old, 5’11, 185 lbs
Born in Vancouver, Nick Poisson played his minor hockey at the Burnaby Winter Club before swimming up province for two seasons of BCHL play in Price George with the Spruce Kings.
Poisson plays a smart game, consistently finding himself in open pockets in the offensive zone. When we refer to him as a smart player, we also need to mention that he knows where the best scoring chances come from — the front of the net. Poisson plays without fear when it comes to battling for pucks around the crease and though he could use some work in the defensive zone when it comes to his ability to force turnovers, for the most part, he is positionally sound as a centre on the defensive side.
On a Providence College team with nine drafted position players, Poisson has cemented himself as the second-line centre, but may opt for another year of NCAA hockey before going pro.
Stats: 20gp – 8g -5a -13p
Ryan McAllister, LW, 20 years old, 5’10, 183 lbs
He is only in his first NCAA season, but Ryan McAllister has been excellent in his first year of college hockey. The kid is leading the nation in points and attended the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp this past summer.
McAllister has shown to be one of the best playmakers in the NCAA and skates with a ton of pace. He has a very good-looking stride that is powerful and low to the ice. McAllister exploded in his final AJHL season, posting 139 points in 60 games with the Brooks Bandits. Any questions about how his game would translate to the NCAA have been answered, as he is dominating in his freshman year.
We may be looking at a rare one-and-done college hockey player here and NHL teams will be lining up to get a go at this potential free agent.
Stats: 22 gp – 10g – 28a – 38p
Akito Hirose, LD, 23 years old, 6’0″, 170 lbs
A tough defenceman with above-average skills in every area of the ice, Akito Hirose may not shine on the scoresheet but he has the skating and puck-control skills that you will need to see from an NCAA defenceman to view them as a future pro.
He is in his junior season with Minnesota Mankato and with how that program runs, it’s likely that he returns for his senior year. If he is to go pro after his junior year, there should be interest to get him right into the AHL and let him work his way up the depth chart to hopefully one day make it to the NHL.
Stats: 19 gp – 0g – 13a – 13p
Jaxon Nelson, C, 22 years old, 6’4″, 220 lbs
With 6’4″ size and a very quick release, there’s some excitement growing about Jaxon Nelson in his senior season. The 22-year-old is one of the leaders on a mature Minnesota Gophers team that is packed full of high-end talent.
He thrives on the power play as one of the best net-front presences in the NCAA.
Nelson controls the slot in the offensive zone and is hard to move out of the crease when he plants his big frame around an opposing goaltender.
Though his size is the first thing you notice, his shot is not far behind. He’s very quick with wrist shots and seems to have a strong and accurate slap shot when he finds enough space to get it off.
You’d like to see him gain a step before he goes pro but with his size and raw shooting talent, teams will be interested in signing the Minneosta-born Nelson.
Stats: 20gp – 7g – 12a – 19p
Brendan Furry, LW, 24 years old, 6’1″, 198 lbs
Coming off a 2021-22 season where he finished third in the nation for assists with 31, Brendan Furry returned to Minnesota State Mankato as the captain and should see interest from NHL teams this spring.
He’s a big and strong centre who plays a tough two-way game and has been a rock for Minnesota State in his time with the Mavericks. Furry has the work rate with the combination of skills to potentially be a bottom-six player in the NHL one day. It’s likely that Furry is already at a level where he would be an impact player in an AHL lineup. He should gain a lot of interest this spring, even as he is going through a down season when it comes to offensive production.
Stats: 20gp – 3g – 7a -10p
Jack Randl, LW, 22 years old, 5’10”, 174 lbs
A feisty winger who has been finding the back of the net with the best of them this season. Jack Randl has had an interesting path to his senior year at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He played the 2018-19 season with Michigan, before returning to the USHL for the 2019-20 season. He then moved to UNO and has been there for the past three seasons.
The 22-year-old winger has great lateral movement and uses a strong side-jump-step to get around defenders. He is aggressive with his skating technique and even more aggressive around the opposition’s crease. His shot is above average but he is scoring a lot of his goals from just being the first to loose pucks in the high-danger areas.
Stats: 20gp -15g – 7a – 22p
Zach Metsa, RD, 24 years old, 5’9″, 181 lbs
Nick Blankenburg walked so that Zach Metsa could run.
Blankenburg was looked at as one of the most offensively-gifted right-shot defencemen in the 2022 NCAA free agent class. His 5’9″ body limited teams showing interest in him and that was good for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who signed Blankenburg last season and have gotten two goals from him over seven games this season.
The reason we mention Blankenberg is that Metsa is a direct comparison to the Blue Jackets’ defenceman. At last year’s NCAA free agent signing period, many believed that Metsa was an even more exciting prospect as he put up more points and did it on a worse team.
Metsa is short but strong. He moves the puck extremely well from his own zone and has the skating ability to quickly reset breakouts in his own zone if the exit doesn’t play out correctly for his Quinnipiac squad. Metsa is the captain in his fifth season with Quinnipiac and though he is an aggressive defender, he rarely finds himself in the penalty box. His best trait is his ability to breakout pucks and his passes already look like they are at an NHL level. You can just see the pop on his sticks that reminds you of an NHLer.
The size will keep teams away, as it did for Blankenburg last season. Some organization is going to get a good AHL defenceman with the potential to work on a third pairing in the NHL.
Stats: 18gp – 3g – 10a -13p
Sam Malinski, RD, 24 years old, 5’11”, 190 lbs
It’s been a bit of a down year for Sam Malinski after having a strong 2021-22 season. He is a right-shot defenceman who has a good shot, but it seems like it takes him a few seconds to wind it up. He’s an average defender and likely will play for an AHL team after he graduates.
Malinski is the type of player who you are signing because he is arguably one of the top-five right-shot defenceman free agents in the class. You’d hope that he can develop his game with an NHL organization but his play warrants at least a chance in the AHL to prove that he belongs in pro hockey.
Stats: 14gp – 1g – 5a – 6p
Collin Graf, RW, 20 years old, 6’0″, 181 lbs
After transferring to Quinnipiac in the summer, Collin Graf continues to score at a high rate in the NCAA. He is the shooter on the power play and typically plays on the left half-wall. Graf has a good one-timer but also sees the ice well with the man advantage and snaps passes with the look of a pro.
His skating is average but his release is the thing to be most excited about. It will be interesting to see how his game translates to pro hockey and he may be back at Quinnipiac for his junior season if he doesn’t garner enough NHL interest this season. At just 20 years old, there’s reason to be excited about what Graf is doing in the NCAA.
Stats: 19gp – 9g – 10a – 19p
Parker Ford, C, 22 years old, 5’9″, 181 lbs
His stats may not pop off the page, but Parker Ford is the type of player who we can see in a depth role at the pro hockey level.
He is quicker than almost everyone in the NCAA and should be able to use that speed once he gets to the next level.
Ford plays hard but smart and does a pretty good job in the faceoff dot. He is in his fourth year with Providence College and may be the type of player who returns for a fifth season. At just 22 years old, he may benefit from going back to school for one more year to gain NHL interest.
Stats: 20gp – 7g -8a -15p
Colton Huard, RD, 22 years old, 6’4″, 201 lbs
Colton Huard has size and is a right-shot defenceman who found the back of the net consistently in 2021-22. He’s currently playing on New Hampshire’s second pairing behind Nashville Predators draft pick Luke Reid.
Even though he’s on the second pairing, he is a power play quarterback on the first unit for NH. He has a lot of skill when it comes to handling the puck around the blue line and possesses one of the more accurate one-timers from the point.
For a big guy, he looks pretty light on his feet, but that lightness tends to also be something you see from him in his own end when working in the corners. He seems to struggle to get his weight on opponents and is often slipped off of in his own zone. If he could get sticky when defending, he would likely be a higher-valued free agent.
Stats: 21gp – 3g – 11a -14p
Jacob Bengtsson, LD, 23 years old, 6’3″, 203 lbs
A big left-shot defenceman with high intelligence, Jacob Bengtsson will garner plenty of NHL interest when the NCAA free agent signing period begins. He’s arguably the best left-shot free agent defenceman in this class and shouldn’t have much of a problem jumping right into the AHL or potentially the NHL on a weaker team.
He’s strong and defends well while having average offensive skills, and does a good job of handling the puck. His best skill is his defensive zone coverage and his active stick. Bengtsson is a vacuum in the corner, sucking up pucks off the opposition before making a play up to his teammates to break out of his own zone. He is more of a puck mover than a puck carrier but his game doesn’t require much more development to go pro.
Stats: 20gp – 1g -8a – 9p
Riese Gaber, LW, 23 years old, 5’8″, 163 lbs
Though he may be undersized, Riese Gaber is one of those players who seems to just have another gear when it comes to how hard they compete. The kid just makes good plays. Whether it be intelligent movement in the offensive zone or puck-handling ability in the neutral zone, Gaber has some of the most impressive tape when you watch him play. He makes incredible passes in the offensive zone and if you are simply looking to sign a player for their compete level and hockey IQ, Gaber is one of the best in college hockey.
He’s a right-shot left winger who has been scoring at a strong rate this season. He’s a bit of a late bloomer and spent time in the Manitoba Junior Hockey league before heading to the USHL and finally, the NCAA with the University of North Dakota.
You’ll never question his effort or skill. The only thing that will likely keep NHL teams away is his size. Think Tyler Motte, but right-handed.
Stats: 19gp – 11g – 8a – 19p
Jason Polin, RW, 23 years old, 6’0″, 198 lbs
One of the top-scoring players in college hockey over the past season and a half, Jason Polin is the captain of the strong Western Michigan Bronco team. He is fresh off being named the MVP of the Great Lakes Invitational tournament after back-to-back hat tricks to win the tournament.
Polin has a lot of very exciting offensive skills. His hands are the first thing that sticks out when you watch him play. He does a good job of manipulating a defender to give himself space in the offensive zone and also uses his hands to create quality shooting lanes. Even when he looks like he is covered, Polin finds a way to move the puck around to open up good scoring chances from anywhere on the ice — typically from the left side of the offensive zone.
On top of the good offensive skills, as you can see from the previous highlight, Polin has an impressive first three strides and can burst himself into scoring chances but also uses that skating ability to initiate odd-man rushes.
Polin has the build of a bigger pro as he is sitting around 200 pounds and stands at six feet tall. He’s always been more of a triggerman but has been able to add strong playmaking to his arsenal. Polin often uses his strength to lean on defenders as he moves toward the net. If he is able to become a more well-rounded defender, there’s no doubt that he could be a strong pro for years to come.
Stats: 22gp – 19g – 11a – 30p
I’m not going to lie and say that I’m an expert on goalies. These six back-stoppers have pretty good numbers and here’s a tidbit on each of them.
Ludvig Persson, G, 23 years old, 6’1″, 183 lbs
The 23-year-old Swedish goalie had strong numbers in his junior play in Sweden before coming over to North America. He had a tremendous Freshman season with Miami (Ohio) and posted a .925% save percentage. His numbers have dropped off a bit but his team is not great, Persson has an 18-44-6 record in the NCAA but should draw interest from teams to be an AHL goalie and maybe work his way up to the NHL one day.
Stats: 19 GP – 3.21 GAA – .901 SV% – 2 SO
Ian Shane, G, 22 years old, 6’0″, 168 lbs
With a career .930% save percentage, Ian Shane may lack size, but he’s got a ton of skill.
Shane has been a big piece of Cornell’s success over the past two seasons. He’s really found his game since coming to the NCAA and was captain of his high school team back in 2018.
Stats: 13gp – 1.53 GAA – .926 SV% – 2 SO
Luke Pavicich, G, 20 years old, 6’3″, 190 lbs
The size and athleticism are exciting with Luke Pavicich, and he has great numbers to back up his raw talent and is still only 20 years old. It will be interesting to see if there is interest from NHL teams this spring. He looks like the type of goalie prospect that goaltending coaches would love to get their hands on.
Stats: 14 gp – 2.48 GAA – .926 SV% – 1 SO
Ryan Bischel, G, 23 years old, 6’1″, 190 lbs
The oldest of our goalie group, Ryan Bischel is in his fourth season with the University of Notre Dame and is very likely to sign a pro contract after this season.
He has three shutouts this season on a weaker Notre Dame team. He looks like he takes up more of the net than most 6’1″ goalies, and there should be interest from teams hoping he can jump right into the AHL.
Stats: 19 GP – 2.66 GAA – 0.924 SV% – 3 SO
T.J. Semptimphelter, G, 20 years old, 6’1, 190 lbs
Another young goalie but one who has a lot of skill. T.J. Semptimphelter was Devon Levi’s backup last season at Northeastern but transferred to Arizona State University this year to become an NCAA starter.
He’s young and has had some extremely strong starts this season for ASU. He had a 40-save shutout early in the year and showcased that he has the potential to steal games at the NCAA level. He may go back for another year of NCAA play, but there should be interest from NHL teams if he wants to go that route as a 20-year-old.
Stats: 21 GP – 2.81 GAA – .920 SV% – 3 SO
Blake Pietila, G, 22 years old, 5’11”, 165 lbs
Now in his fourth season with Michigan Tech, Blake Pietila lacks size but is extremely athletic in the crease. He leads all of college hockey with four shutouts this season and should be looking to go pro after this season.
He moves from post to post with great agility.
Stats: 19 GP – 2.19 GAA – 0.922 SV% – 4 SO