It seems like every summer at least one player coming out of the NCAA exploits the “loophole” that allows him to forego signing with the team that drafted in him in favour of becoming an unrestricted free agent. Last summer, it was Jimmy Vesey, the summer before that, Mike Reilly, and before that, Kevin Hayes.
Those three players have gone on to varying degrees of success.
Hayes has put up 48 goals and 130 points in three seasons on the New York Rangers blue line, while Vesey had a 16-goal, 27-point rookie season last year with the Rangers. Meanwhile, Reilly has split time between the AHL and NHL and hasn’t established himself as an NHL defenceman for the Minnesota Wild.
This summer brings two high-profile college players who are exercising their right to enter free agency come August 15th: Alex Kerfoot and Will Butcher. The Harvard centre and University of Denver defenceman will surely garner league-wide interest. Should the Canucks pursue them?
On the one hand this is an easy question to answer: yes, of course! Why wouldn’t the Canucks want to add two more promising players to their prospect pool without having to use a draft pick or make a trade?
On the other hand, it’s not quite that simple. It’s less about whether the Canucks should try to sign them, but about whether it makes sense for both the team and the player.
The one cost for the Canucks to consider is the 50-contract limit. After getting deals done with Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce, the Canucks will have 46 players signed. If Olli Juolevi makes the team out of training camp, that will be 47 contracts.
Signing both Kerfoot and Butcher would put them up to 49 contracts, leaving them with little-to-no room for acquiring additional players, such as if an invitee impresses at training camp or if an opportunity arises to pluck a player off waivers. It’s not a massive issue — more room can be created via trade — but it’s best to have some wiggle room to avoid causing problems.
More importantly, a deal would have to make sense for the player. If Kerfoot and Butcher are looking to make the NHL in the coming season, the Canucks could prove a surprisingly hard nut to crack, considering they’re a rebuilding team. Between the prospects already pushing for a spot in the lineup and the free agents the Canucks have signed this off-season, there will already be some tough competition at training camp.
For Kerfoot, a centre, the Canucks may not look very inviting. They have Henrik Sedin, Bo Horvat, Brandon Sutter, and Brendan Gaunce down the middle, as well as Sam Gagner and Alexander Burmistrov. Meanwhile, they’ve got Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette waiting in the wings, so to speak, so the path to the Canucks lineup at centre won’t get any easier in the years to come.
At defence, things don’t look much better for Butcher. The Canucks essentially have their seven defencemen for the NHL set with the addition of Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch, and have prospects Olli Juolevi, Evan McEneny, Andrey Pedan, Jordan Subban, Guillaume Brisebois, and Philip Holm competing to crack that top-seven. I guess they also have Alex Biega.
If Kerfoot and Butcher are primarily looking for an opportunity to make an NHL lineup, the Canucks might be a hard sell. They can’t (and judging by their interactions with Troy Stecher, won’t) guarantee a spot in the lineup this coming season, so each player would have to earn their way. Are they better than the prospects currently in the Canucks system?
There’s an argument for Kerfoot, at least. While the Canucks have plenty of centres in the NHL, they have fewer signed for Utica. Michael Chaput, Griffen Molino, and Cole Cassels are the only three centres on Canucks contracts that are likely to start the season with the Comets and Kerfoot can make a compelling case that he’s a better prospect than both Molino and Cassels.
There’s also the hometown factor for Kerfoot, who grew up in Vancouver and whose father, Greg Kerfoot, is the majority owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps. That connection might be the Canucks biggest selling point, even if he’s far more likely to play across the continent in Utica.
On-ice, Kerfoot is a tempting target as well. After minimal minutes in his freshman year, Kerfoot has put up better than a point-per-game in each of his three subsequent seasons at Harvard. This past season, he proved that his production wasn’t dependent on departed linemate Vesey by doubling his career-high in goals with 16 and totalling 45 points in 36 games.
The caveats for Kerfoot are two-fold: size and age. He’s just 5’10” and 174 lbs, and he’s going to be 23 years old at the start of the 2017-18 season. Already, he’ll be nearing the upper range in age to still be considered a prospect.
The argument for Butcher is an even harder sell. Though he may have won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey, there are still concerns about his skating, which is an issue at his size. At 5’10”, his skating will likely determine his NHL future.
That said, Butcher has offensive upside, putting up 37 points in 43 games, good for second in the nation among defencemen. He has an accurate shot that he can get through traffic and he sees the ice well, making him an effective power play quarterback. Above all, he’s smart, making great decisions with the puck and getting to the right spots in the defensive zone to make up for his lack of size.
But does he see a possibility of making the Canucks? Perhaps, if he sees himself following the example of Stecher last season, who impressed in training camp, then made it clear he was NHL-ready in a brief AHL stint to start the year.
If Butcher looks at the depth chart in Vancouver and thinks he can outplay the likes of McEneny, Pedan, and Subban to be the first call-up from the farm, then the Canucks might have a shot of signing him.
Will the Canucks have a chance with the rest of the NHL enquiring into these two prospects as well? We’ll see in mid-August.