2020 Free Agent Class: NCAA, Major Junior, Europe
Analyzing a depleted pool of free agents.
The end of the season for many NCAA teams has crept up on us as conference tournaments are underway with Frozen Four spots on the line. Simultaneously, European leagues have commenced their post-season, and the Canadian Hockey League is finishing up their last handful of games.
There is a noticeable buzz around this time each year as teams jostle for the rights of various free agents who could become complementary NHL players in the near future. It may seem early, but there have already been a few reported signings, and Nashville is rather familiar with the process.
Last spring, the Predators went after Adam Smith, Brandon Fortunato, Lukas Craggs, Josh Wilkins, Hunter Garlent and Hugo Roy in some capacity. And, in previous years, they’ve had less success scouting players like Miroslav Svoboda and Carl Persson.
I expect Nashville to be quieter this spring: they’ll have a few drafted prospects to sign and have rounded out their pipeline nicely this season. Regardless, I’ve noted a few potential fits below along with other big names that should be signing around the league.
Nashville’s Best Options
Mitchell Chaffee - RW - UMass Minutemen (NCAA)
Chaffee (#21, white) has been limited to 30 games so far for the Minutemen due to injury but still nearly matched his 18-goal total from 2018-19, making up for the loss of Cale Makar to the NHL.
Over a dozen NHL teams have been to Amherst to watch Chaffee this season, and I know Rob Scuderi has spent time up there on behalf of Nashville. Chaffee is strong around the net and a solid power play option; he’s got an NHL-ready shot and relies on driving play north to south in the offensive zone.
He attended Vegas’s development camp last summer.
Nate Sucese & Alex Limoges - LW, C - Penn State Nittany Lions (NCAA)
Sucese (#14, white) and Limoges have been a dynamic duo in contributing to Penn State’s fiery offense the past few seasons. Sucese, a 2018 camp-invitee of Nashville, is the more impressive of the two players with 61 goals and 140 points in 147 career NCAA games. He’s hit 30 points in all but his sophomore year for the Nittany Lions and became the school’s all-time leading scorer in January.
Limoges is an option I highlighted last year for Nashville after he led the nation in scoring with 50 points. But 2019-20 has been somewhat of a down season for the Virginia native despite his still notching 32 points in 30 games.
Sucese is a quick player, standing at just 5’8”. I think he has the offensive skill and shooting ability to succeed against bottom-six skaters and contribute some on special teams: using him on the penalty kill could uncover a competitive advantage.
Limoges’s cycling ability was always impressive to me. He comes with good puck protection skills, decent size and a powerful stride, but he’s not overly fast. Regardless, both players can score and score regularly.
Sucese attended Boston’s camp last summer and Limoges did so in Detroit.
Ryan Hughes - C - Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
Hughes (#21, blue) isn’t a player who is likely to be on too many teams’ radars this offseason, but I could see the organization giving the 2017 development camp attendee an AHL deal, at the very least, if they need to fill out depth. Hughes’s 69 points rank him 20th across the WHL this season (14th in points-per-game), but he’s scored rather consistently at this level: 57 points (70 GP) in 2016-17, 41 points (46 GP) in 2017-18 and 69 points (61 GP) in 2018-19.
Hughes has a short, choppy skating stride that probably limits his ceiling to the AHL (and maybe some service as an NHL call-up), but I’m a fan of his overall game that comes complete with slick passing ability, good vision in all three zones and great awareness. He’s especially good at looking off defenders with his stick-handling and play-making.
Johannes Kinnvall - D - HV71 (SHL)
Kinnvall (#28, blue) is having a fascinating season for HV71 in the Swedish Elite League. At 22, he’s leading the team in scoring with 40 points in 49 games; the catch, of course, is that he’s a defenseman, and he averages just the sixth most ice time of the team’s defenders. Granted, just 18 of his points have come at even strength, but he’s second among all SHL defenders in scoring and was tied for the most goals from the blue line in 2018-19.
Kinvall’s defensive ability is something to monitor. It’s not poor per se but reckless at times; he plays with an active stick but is sometimes too active to make a proper play on the puck. At the very least, he can provide a boost as a power play quarterback and provide a body further down the lineup that’s more mobile.
Kinnvall attended the Flames’ development camp last summer.
Matt Kiersted - D - North Dakota Fighting Hawks (NCAA)
There’s no guarantee Kiersted (#3, black) leaves North Dakota this summer after his junior season, but it’s a poorly kept secret that a good number of NHL teams have been up to watch him live in 2019-20. The six-foot defender leads all blue liners at UND with 29 points and is second on the team in scoring behind likely Hobey Baker finalist Jordan Kawaguchi and tied for 11th among all defenders in the nation.
Kiersted fits the mold well of what Nashville should want on its bottom pair: good skater, excellent zone exit passes and gets the puck off quick from the blue line while shooting for rebounds. He could sneakily be one of the best free agent signings of 2020, and Nashville would be wise to make a considerable pitch for his services.
- Jere Innala - LW - HPK (Liiga)
- Marc Michaelis - F - Minnesota State Mavericks (NCAA)
- Cedric Pare - C - Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
- Leon Bristedt - F - Rogle BK (SHL)
- Jack Ahcan - D - St. Cloud State Huskies (NCAA)/
Names to Know Around the NHL
There is a handful of names that will be thrown around recklessly over the ensuing weeks with hopes of a playoff ringer or productive rookie next season being found among them. Nashville hasn’t traditionally gone after the big tickets, or, at least, been successful at it, so it would surprise me to see them land any of the following players.
Regardless, this class is weak compared to last year’s; there aren’t many potential game-breakers at any position, so the organization won’t be missing out on much.
- John Lethemon is the jewel of the goalie class after posting a 0.937 save percentage for a Spartans team that surprised some. He has serious NHL interest including from Winnipeg.
- Hoefenmayer was never offered an entry-level deal by the Coyotes but has 79 points in 57 games this season.
- It actually wouldn’t surprise me if Nashville has reached out to Connor Mackey, but that’s because one would be hard-pressed to find an NHL club that hasn’t. He opted against leaving school early last summer and might be the hottest commodity this year.
- Kawaguchi is producing a Hobey Baker-worthy season (15-30-45) for North Dakota and is second in the nation in scoring.
- Nattinen is a former Anaheim prospect who fizzled out in North America, but now he’s torching the Finnish Liiga with 32 goals and 52 points in 52 games.
- Pasichnuk sits third in scoring among all NCAA defenders with 37 points in 36 games. He won’t have a short list of teams courting his services.
- If you’re seeing Detroit a lot on the list below, it shouldn’t be surprising. They’ve enjoyed going overseas before and have been connected to several players including Brome and Stromwall.
- Theodor Lennstrom was offered one, maybe two NHL deals last spring but turned them down; that North American interest hasn’t subsided.
- People around the Senators seem to think Artyom Zub to Canada’s capital is a done deal; we’ll see...
- There are few former NHL players who have dominated the KHL this year: Nesterov, Grigorenko, Jaskin. I always liked the latter as a reliable, two-way center.
- Bilyalov has been subject to a lot of talk, especially around Toronto, this season, but the 21-year old Melnichuk may intrigue teams more.
- There seems to be little chance Scott Perunovich doesn’t sign with St. Louis, who hold his exclusive rights, but you never know this time of year. /
|Player||Age||Team||Pos.||NHL Interest||Player||Age||Team||Pos.||NHL Interest|
|John Lethemon||23||Michigan State (NCAA)||G||WPG||Noel Hoefenmayer||21||Ottawa 67's (OHL)||D|
|Connor Mackey||23||Minnesota State (NCAA)||D||Jordan Kawaguchi||22||North Dakota (NCAA)||F|
|Josh Dunne||21||Clarkson (NCAA)||C||Julius Nattinen||23||JYP (Liiga)||C|
|Brinson Pasichnuk||22||Arizona State (NCAA)||D||Mathias Brome||25||Orebro HK (SHL)||F||DET|
|Colton Poolman||24||North Dakota (NCAA)||D||VAN||Malte Stromwall||25||HK Sochi (KHL)||RW||DET|
|Cale Morris||23||Notre Dame (NCAA)||G||Theodor Lennstrom||25||Frolunda HC (SHL)||D||PHI|
|Alec Rauhauser||25||Bowling Green (NCAA)||D||Nikita Nesterov||26||CSKA Moskva (KHL)||D||TOR, MTL|
|Artyom Zub||24||SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)||D||OTT||Scott Perunovich||25||Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA)||D||STL|
|Gustav Rydahl||25||Farjestad BK (SHL)||F||Niko Ojamaki||24||Tappara (Liiga)||RW|
|Johnny Walker||23||Arizona State (NCAA)||RW||ARI, CBJ||Timur Bilyalov||24||Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)||G||TOR|
|Konstantin Okulov||25||CSKA Moskva (KHL)||F||TOR, MTL||Alexei Melnichuk||21||SKA-Neva (VHL)||G||VGK|
|Mikhail Grigorenko||25||CSKA Moskva (KHL)||F||Alexander Barabanov||25||SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)||RW||TOR, MIN|
|Dmitrij Jaskin||26||Dynamo Moskva (KHL)||F|
Nashville’s Pending Entry-Level Contracts
The Predators also have some potential options from their own draft history going into this summer. Hardy Haman Aktell is due an entry-level offer by June 1 or the organization loses his rights. This contract decision could be a toss-up, but Aktell and Bjorkloven entering a playoff series against Modo for a shot at playing in the SHL next season won’t hurt.
Milan Kloucek also needs a deal by June 1. He’s been dominant for Budejovice in Czechia’s second-tier league this season posting a 19.263 GSAA in 35 starts. He’ll play for promotion into the top Czech league, too.
The two big names, of course, are Patrick Harper and David Farrance. Boston University takes on UMass Lowell as the sixth seed in the Hockey East Tournament this weekend. The Terriers need the automatic bid that comes with winning their conference to make the NCAA tournament, so we could be on signing watch as early as Sunday. Harper becomes a free agent in August; it would be wise to work on a deal before then given his explosive return-to-form this year. Farrance has one more year of eligibility, but the best defender in the country this year will surely be enticed by Nashville to leave school early.
Off the Market
Some NHL clubs have gotten off the mark early in picking from this year’s class of free agents and, as is the case above, Michigan State is well-represented; the Stars announced the Rosburg signing yesterday and Frank Seravalli reported that the Rangers are locked in on Khodorenko, who hit 30-plus points in three consecutive seasons for the Spartans.
Drew O’Connor comes from an underrepresented ECAC program at Dartmouth where he collected 38 goals and 59 points in 65 career games for the Big Green.
Handemark isn’t necessarily a lock, but him signing in Detroit seems just a formality at this point; those two have been linked for some time now.
|Patrick Khodorenko||21||Michigan State (NCAA)||C||NYR|
|Drew O'Connor||21||Dartmouth (NCAA)||F||PIT|
|Jake Christiansen||20||Everett (WHL)||D||CBJ|
|Fredrik Handemark||26||Malmo (SHL)||C||DET|
|Jerad Rosburg||23||Michigan State (NCAA)||D||DAL|
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com, pick224.com, liiga.fi, and ncaa.com.