7 NCAA free agent forwards the Vancouver Canucks could target

Photo credit:© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Dave Hall
5 months ago
We have officially hit the midway point of the 2023-24 calendar, which typically signals the green light for prospect conversations.
Today, we turn our attention to this year’s NCAA free agent crop, which carries several intriguing options for NHL teams to pluck from.
With undrafted prospects, finding those ready to contribute in an NHL role can be challenging. Still, at no transactional cost, it’s a worthwhile gamble to bolster one’s organizational pipeline with as many of these NCAA lotto tickets as possible.
The Vancouver Canucks have a solid track record of acquiring free agents from out of the NCAA. Whether due to their impressive coaching staff between the NHL and AHL, the deployment opportunities, or even the good word from former NCAA players already in their system, the Canucks are consistently at the top of the list of teams in the mix for landing a player or two.
We have done some digging, and here is a list of NCAA forwards who could be an interesting addition to the Canucks, and who could provide an impact at the pro level.
Collin Graf, Quinnipiac University
Position: Right Wing/Centre
Height/weight: 6-foot-1, 194 pounds
Age: 21 years old
Finding free agents with projectable skills is the goal, and finding those with winning pedigree is the cherry on top.
Collin Graf, a standout junior with Quinnipiac, is widely recognized as one of the more sought-after undrafted forwards from the collegiate circuit.
Last season, Graf finished third in the nation with 21 goals and 59 points, trailing only Adam Fanitlli and Logan Cooley.
His impressive play extended into the playoffs, where he contributed eight points in six games, leading his team to a National Championship. In fact, Graf scored a late, game-tying goal in the third period of that Championship match en route to the eventual victory.
Despite being limited to 15 games (injury) this season, Graf has continued his stellar performance, collecting 29 points. These totals not only rank fourth nationwide, but his 1.93 point-per-game clip currently leads the entire field.
Regarded as a skilled winger, Graf possesses a good shot, but his vision and playmaking ability are what truly catch the eye. The moment that he receives the puck on his stick, more often than not, it leads to a creative play.
On the power play, he has been an effective shooter, positioning himself along the half-wall and utilizing his right shot for an effective one-timer from the left side.
His skating continues to be a work in progress, compensating with his deceptive hands and strong vision. However, he can still generate good speed off the rush.
Having participated in NHL development camps for Florida and Nashville, Graf is expected to draw strong interest again this year.
Many consider him to carry top-six upside at the NHL level.
Jacob Quillan, Quinnipiac University
Position: Centre
Height/weight: 6-foot, 196 pounds
Age: 21 years old
In keeping with the Quinnipiac theme, Jacob Quillan, who centers the top unit that features Collin Graf, is considered the engine that makes that line run.
Canuck fans may recognize the name, as he spent a season with the Penticton Vees in 2020-21, scoring 27 points in 20 games.
While he may not boast the same skill level as Graf, his extraordinary competitiveness and versatile toolkit set him apart from many on this list.
If you are looking for a “Tocchet type” player, Quillan may be your guy, as he has many pro habits already baked in and consistently contributes in all zones.
Despite being recognized more for his work ethic, the 21-year-old has also proven himself in the offensive zone. He excels as a relentless presence at the netfront, creating chaos and showcasing strong hand-eye and quick hands in tight.
In his sophomore season (2022-23), he matched Canucks’ prospect Aidan McDonough with 38 points, evenly split between 19 goals and 19 assists.
Notably, he scored the National Championship-clinching goal in overtime and was named the most outstanding player of the Frozen Four tournament.
This season, he’s accumulated 11 goals and 25 points while sporting a remarkable plus-58 rating over his 97-game NCAA career.
While it does not appear to have altered his game, it’s worth noting that he did undergo double hip surgery over the offseason—a point to keep in mind.
He has middle-six NHL upside written all over his game.
Joey Larson, Michigan State University
Position: Right Wing
Height/weight: 6-foot-1, 194 pounds
Age: 22 years old
Much like Quillan, Joey Larson spent a season playing Junior hockey in British Columbia, suiting up for the Chilliwack Chiefs in the 2019-20 campaign.
For those who appreciate goal-scoring prowess, he may be your go-to option.
This kid’s shot is lethal, and boy, does he love to use it. Larson currently sits fourth in the NCAA with 91 shots on the year.
In his freshman year (2022-23) at Northern Michigan University, Larson was named to the NCAA (CCHA) All-Rookie Team, propelled by his 13 goals and 27 points across 36 games.
After transferring to Michigan State this season, Larson’s production hasn’t slowed down. He leads the team with 24 points, evenly split between 13 goals and 11 assists.
His point production outpaces high-profile names on the team, such as Isaac Howard and Red Savage, both NHL draft picks.
Impressively, Larson’s collegiate career is trending toward concluding at a point-per-game pace, with 26 goals and 51 points across 57 games.
Standing at 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, the right-winger not only brings a high level of offensive skill but also carries a frame that can project to the pro level.
Previously, he won a Championship at the high school level and took home the 2019 “Mr. Hockey Award,” presented to the top high school hockey player in Michigan.
T.J. Hughes, University of Michigan
Position: Centre/Right Wing
Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 185 pounds
Age: 22 years old
The Michigan Wolverines are widely acknowledged as a powerhouse in collegiate hockey, consistently boasting rosters bursting at the seams with elite talent.
Of course, I don’t have to remind Canucks fans about that.
One forward has managed to ascend through the ranks and secure a spot among their potent top six despite failing to carry that high-profile status.
T.J. Hughes, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound centre, may not possess eye-catching, elite-level attributes, but his game is that of a versatile, high-IQ player.
Hughes–no relation to Quinn–relies on his intelligence, work ethic, and eye for the game to capitalize on scoring opportunities. He’s often commended for his high level of maturity and has garnered tons of praise from his bench bosses.
“He’s like the ultimate student of the game. Everything off the ice, too, with his body and rest and recovery. He’s a pro.” Michigan Head Coach Brandon Naurato said. “He’s got the physical skills to bury pucks, but he’s just really good at getting open and timing when to get in certain spots depending on how the play develops.”
During his freshman year, Hughes finished sixth among Wolverines with 36 points in 39 games, flying under the radar behind notable teammates Adam Fantilli, Luke Hughes, Mackie Samoskevich, Rutger McGroarty, and Gavin Brindley—an impressive group, to say the least.
This season, he’s taken the bull by the horns, leading the forward group with 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) through 19 games.
The Ontario native plays up and down the lineup, patrolling the power play, where he lines up either on the half-wall for one-timers, or in the bumper digging for pucks.
Hughes excels in the faceoff circle, boasting a 55.8% success rate last year and an impressive 60.7% this season.
He’s projected as a bottom-six contributor, primarily providing depth and energy, but there is some untapped offensive potential.
Before his collegiate career, he tallied 66 goals and 127 points across 66 AJHL games during the 2021-22 season.
Lleyton Roed, Bemidji State University
Position: Centre/Left Wing
Height/weight: 6-foot, 179 pounds
Age: 21 years old
Lleyton Roed has built an impressive resume over his 1.5 years at the collegiate level with Bemidji State.
In his freshman year (2022-23), the 21-year-old earned five “Rookie of the Week” honours, two “Rookie of the Month” honours, and was eventually named to the “All-Rookie Team,” recording 13 goals and 31 points.
Entering his sophomore year with high expectations, Roed has lived up to the challenge.
Recently named “CCHA Forward of the Week,” he led all conference skaters with four points, including two goals and two assists, while also posting a league-best plus-3 rating in the first week of 2024.
Maintaining an average of over a point per game with 23 points in 22 games, ranking eighth nationwide, Roed has showcased his versatility by playing in various situations for the Beavers.
He has excelled on the power play, penalty kill, and in crucial moments of regulation and overtime. Despite being a natural winger, he has even taken on a top-line center role recently and thrived in the position.
All this is to say, this kid is an absolute gamer.
Despite the lack of widespread recognition, Roed’s impressive performance in the NCAA should soon garner attention, and his name could become prominent in discussions about NCAA free agents.
Josh Nadeau, University of Maine
Position: Right Wing/Left Wing
Height/weight: 5-foot-8, 159 pounds
Age: 20 years old
Okay, if you are not into highly skilled, small forwards, this pick may not be for you.
Nadeau, listed at 5-foot-8, is fresh off consecutive BCHL Championships with the Penticton Vees. He is enjoying his freshman year at the University of Maine, sharing the ice with his brother Bradley.
It’s been an interesting pathway for the Nadeau brothers. Not only did they secure back-to-back championships in Penticton together, but they also claimed the top two spots in the BCHL scoring charts in the 2021-22 season. Brother Bradley notched 112 points, while Josh scored 110.
Josh got the last laugh, finishing atop the playoff scoring race, sitting one point above Bradley with 36 points in 17 games. He was also handed the “BCHL Most Sportsmanlike Player” Award that season with just 14 penalty minutes.
Now in Maine, they continue to run up the scoreboard together and lead the team in points. Josh holds a slight two-point advantage, boasting 28 points in 19 games to lead all freshman in scoring and share a spot for fifth nationwide.
His outstanding December performance of 12 points in six games earned him the “Player of the Month” honour.
While the two appear attached to the hip and similar in many ways, Bradley is not only two years younger but two inches taller, standing 5-foot-10. With that in mind, Bradley was recently selected in the first round of the 2023 NHL entry draft by the Carolina Hurricanes, while Josh never heard his name called at the podium.
Josh did, however, enjoy an invitation to the Carolina Hurricanes’ most recent development camp, providing yet another opportunity to compete alongside his brother.
Of course, his size will continue to play a significant factor in his future NHL hopes, but his exceptional skills might make him a worthwhile consideration as a free-agent prospect.
Luke Grainger, Western Michigan University
Position: Right Wing/Left Wing
Height/weight: 5-foot-10, 181 pounds
Age: 24 years old
Grainger currently serves as the captain at Western Michigan, standing at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds.
He is utilized in all situations on the ice and has been a prominent point producer at the NCAA level, scoring 86 points over 121 games, with 63 coming from his last 57 games.
Now in his senior year, Grainger sits second nationwide in points and brings an uncanny demonstration of leadership to the table.
He’s a workhorse who plays in all situations and refuses to let up on plays, bringing a solid mix of grit and skill.
At 24 years old, NHL teams are essentially bringing in a polished product with the hopes of landing a bottom-six energy player who can chip in on the scoresheet.
As the second-half of the season trucks along, we will explore more NCAA free agent targets and NHL draft eligibles over the coming weeks.
If you have a player of note, let us know in the comments, and we’ll do some further digging!

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