2021 Free Agent Class: NCAA, Juniors, and Europe

Don’t expect Nashville to make a huge splash.

An annual tradition—the signing period for undrafted college, junior, and European free agents—is nearly upon us as conference tournaments and playoffs begin in various leagues worldwide.

Over the coming weeks and months, teams will jostle for a number of talented players who they hope will be nice complementary pieces to their current or future lineups. It should be noted that rarely (if ever) do these signings produce star players, and most of these players end up making little impact at the NHL level. Nonetheless, the excitement can be palpable.

Some of Nashville’s moves in this department notably include the likes of Mathieu Olivier and Tanner Jeannot, but also Niclas Westerholm and Filip Pyrochta. I’ve noticed a few potential fits below, but I don’t anticipate any big splashes from the organization.

I’ll also add that we could see more AHL deals this year, as teams are strapped for cash due to the COVID-19 pandemic and taxi squads may limit space for anyone teams try to bring in prior to the NHL trade deadline.

Potential Fits in Nashville

Matt Kiersted — D — North Dakota Fighting Hawks [NCAA]

Kiersted may be the hottest name on the market this year, and there’s good reason. I mentioned him last year, too, as he was heavily courted by NHL teams trying to get him to leave North Dakota (UND) after his junior year. I’d say it’s all but guaranteed he does not return to school for his final year of eligibility (the NCAA granted winter sports athletes an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19).

His 19 points lead all UND defenders and put him tied for fourth among defenders nationwide. The one catch is that nine of those points are primary ones scored on the power play (he has just four even-strength primary points this season).

Kiersted (#3, black) is a textbook “puck-moving” defender. He skates out of his own zone with his head up while corralling the puck on his blade, looking for solid outlet or stretch passes to spring his teammates into high-danger scoring chances. His skating mechanics are very good, as is his four-way agility when defending, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed and could be out-muscled by some at the NHL level. I can see Kiersted panning out as defender number five to seven for any club.

Jere Innala — F — HPK [Liiga]

Turning just 23 next week, Innala is another name that was floated last season. He leads all HPK skaters in points per game and is second on the team in goals behind Valterri Puustinen. On the ice, Innala is scoring at an impressive rate for someone with a 49.4% Corsi rating, but I’ll note that HPK’s even-strength save percentage when Innala is on the ice is just 0.878.

Eight of Innala’s 14 goals and 15 of his 27 points have come on the power play this season.

Innala (#21, white) is a skilled player who slots in at the point on the man-advantage and is an excellent shooting threat from the “Eeli Tolvanen” spot. I think he’s an extremely underrated passer, too, who can launch the puck off his stick quickly and grind out of puck battles with possession often. His skating mechanics are interesting—not bad, but there are some flaws in his knee bend and stride extension that will hold him back. Regardless, he can move fine, especially on the power play where he’s the biggest threat.

Bobby Trivigno — F — Quinnipiac Bobcats [NCAA]

I haven’t heard much about Trivigno this season in terms of NHL interest, but it’s also more difficult to gauge than ever with COVID-19 restrictions at rinks nationwide. It’s possible he heads back to school next year, as he’s just finishing his third season at UMass, but Trivigno leads all Minutemen in scoring with 24 points in 22 games this year. He’s scoring 0.667 primary points per game this year in all situations and has been a key pillar of UMass’s top line alongside Josh Lopina.

Trivigno (#8, white) is a hard-working skater who rarely gives up on puck battles in the tough areas of the offensive or defensive zones. He understands well how to use his body to protect the puck and create seams for his teammates to find open ice. He’s also an excellent player to post in front of the net as seen above. He isn’t overly skilled, and his skating skill is average to slightly above-average, but he’s cut out to succeed at the pro level in a depth role.

Arvid Söderblom — G — Skellefteå AIK [SHL]

At just 21-years old—and standing at 6’3”—Söderblom may be the most intriguing potential prospect to me on this list, especially considering that the organization is starved for goaltending help in North America.

In Söderblom’s first full season as an SHL starter, he’s posted a 0.923 save percentage in 20 appearances—second best in the entire league behind Viktor Fasth. Elliotte Friedman recently noted the NHL interest in Söderblom, including from the Chicago Blackhawks.

Söderblom has excellent technique in his glove and blocker and fills the net well, staying square to the puck but also angles himself properly to the puck. His quickness—both lateral and in entering into stances—has come into question, but he’s so young his potential has to pique your interest.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Meyers [F — University of Minnesota]: Meyers has been a treat to watch the past two seasons. Despite his sub-6’0” frame, he can be the dominant driver of a line with his high-end skating mechanics. He’s scored 25 points in 26 games this season, but Chris Peters reported he will return to school next season.
  • Marc McLaughlin [C — Boston College]: McLaughlin’s name has come up a lot this season as he sits second on the Eagles in scoring with 23 points in 21 games. A lower ceiling on footspeed and skill may not result in a considerable NHL impact, but he could be a nice AHL addition.
  • Jerry Turkulainen [F — JYP]: The 22-year old Finn fascinates me, and he’s second on his Liiga team in scoring with 31 points in 43 games, making him the fourth-highest U23 skater league-wide this season. He’s small—5’7”—but oozes skill, confidence, and a bit of tenacity.
  • Odeen Tufto [F — Quinnipiac]: Tufto is finishing his senior season for the Bobcats like he has every season: scoring 35+ points. His 165 points in 137 career games are incredible, and he recently set the program’s all-time assist record. Again, he’s just 5’7”, but adding a high-motor center of his complexion to the depth chart could be a nice bargain.
  • Zach Solow [F — Northeastern]: Solow—a Florida native—is another small forward standing at just 5’9”, but he’s been an excellent NCAA scoring threat, notching 104 points in 131 career games at Northeastern. His 24 points lead the Huskies this season, and his style of play could lend himself to be a useful special teams player—on the power play and penalty kill—at the next level./

Other Top Names

Emil PetterssonC27Växjö [SHL]
Jordan KawaguchiF23North Dakota [NCAA]
David TomasekF25HC Sparta Praha [Czech]
Josh DunneC22Clarkson [NCAA]
Dryden McKayG23Minnesota State [NCAA]
Strauss MannG22Michigan [NCAA]
Simon RyforsF23Rögle BK [SHL]
Grigori DronovD23Magnitogorsk [KHL]
Konstantin OkulovF26CSKA [KHL]
Damir ZhafyarovF26Nizhny Novgorod [KHL]
Eemeli SuomiF25Ilves [Liiga]
Casey DornbachF23--
Ty Pelton-ByceF23Wisconsin [NCAA]
Chayse PrimeauF23Nebraska-Omaha [NCAA]
Adam ScheelG21North Dakota [NCAA]
Alex LimogesC23UMass [NCAA]
Parker FordC20Providence [NCAA]

There are a handful of other names that are being floated around as players many expect to land contracts this offseason. You should recognize the first name on the list: That’s Nashville’s 2013 sixth-round pick, Emil Pettersson, who’s been excellent in the SHL this year, scoring 46 points in 46 games. He’ll likely land a deal, it likely won’t be with Nashville (who traded him in 2017 for Adam Helewka and Laurent Dauphin), and I don’t think he’ll be a top-six contributor next season for another team.

Another top name is North Dakota’s Jordan Kawaguchi. The 2020 Hobey Baker runner-up has been the Fighting Hawks’ best player the past two seasons, but there’s some concern his ceiling is exactly that: a dominant NCAA player. The speed of the pro game may be an issue with Kawaguchi.

Josh Dunne is an interesting case. He was heavily pursued after the 2019-20 season but chose to return to Clarkson, where he’s only managed five points in 14 games. I’m not high on the Missouri native as an NHL talent, but I know several teams are. He’ll find a home soon.

The goalie market is limited, but expect Dryden McKay, Strauss Mann, and maybe Adam Scheel to leave school with contracts in hand.

The talent pool of expiring KHL contracts is limited too, but Konstantin Okulov has been a striking scorer for CSKA with 49 points in 55 games. Elliotte Friedman recently mentioned there is NHL interest in defender Grigori Dronov as well.

I’ve heard multiple times that 23-year old Ty Pelton-Byce is almost certain to land a deal this offseason after a four-year NCAA career spanning Harvard and Wisconsin; I think he’ll be more of an AHL-level piece, but he does have 0.722 even-strength primary points per game this season. Alex Limoges-—who led the nation in scoring in 2018-19—should sign somewhere too, but it seems to me that interest has waned on him from NHL clubs.

All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com, pick224.com, liiga.fi, and collegehockeynews.com.