An annual word of caution on NCAA free agents

It’s that time of year again.

The college hockey season is winding to a close and teams are being eliminated every weekend from now until mid-April, which means NHL teams will be in heated competition to sign players of, shall we say, varying quality.

You’re already seeing it from the usual cast of Insiders: “25 teams interested in So-and-So from Such-and-Such U,” “15 teams hoping to sign John Doe from Random State, but Anaheim seems to be the front-runner.” And that’s all fine.

The Maple Leafs already signed Joseph Duszak of Mercyhurst and Pittsburgh snagged Jake Lucchini out of Michigan Tech, and as is usually the case with these players, a lot of fans are going to get their hopes up. That should only continue with guys like Nico Sturm from Clarkson being listed atop every “best undrafted UFA available” board from the Athletic to ESPN to TSN to Sportsnet.

So here’s a word of caution from someone who pays a lot of attention (some would say “too much”) to college hockey: These guys are rarely as good as you think they’re going to be, and that’s just a fact borne out by history. There are 84 undrafted guys with at least one game in the NHL this season who came from college hockey, and most of them are basically the opposite of household names. Lots of tweeners, lots of bottom-six mainstays, a few perfectly average players, and maybe two or three legit higher-end players.

NCAA free agents rarely hit it big in the NHL. (Getty)
NCAA free agents rarely hit it big in the NHL. (Getty)

Torey Krug, undrafted out of Michigan State. Nate Schmidt, undrafted out of Minnesota. Andy Greene (though past it now), undrafted out of Miami. If you really want to stretch the definition, Tyler Bozak was undrafted out of Denver as well.

Not that there’s anything wrong with going from being a really good college hockey player to being a lower-end NHLer, of course, but let’s just try to remember the furor around signing Jimmy Vesey, who was drafted, but opted out of signing with Nashville. People swore up and down he was going to be a high-end NHL forward, despite the fact that he was coming into the league at 23 and really only scored a lot in a middling conference that doesn’t usually produce high-end NHL talent.

So far in his NHL career, Vesey has 89 points in 227 games, and most recently he’s running half-a-point-a-game this season. The latter brings him about even with Bryan Rust and Mikkel Boedker — two guys no one thinks about — for 200th in the NHL in points per game, among players with at least 40 games this season. And look, if you can be 200th in the world at something, that’s awesome. But does that remotely live up to the hype I cautioned against in summer 2016?

Matt Gilroy is another guy where the hype was insane, but he did everything in his Hobey Baker year at age 24 and 25, which skewed things. He came into the NHL, was a serviceable lower-end defender, then got pushed out of the league because he wasn’t what everyone thought he would be. You hate to see that but it’s the reality of how things go.

Indeed, age and conference are the two things I always always always tell people they have to watch out for here. Production is key too, obviously, but if you’re putting up a ton of points at 21 (as Duszak did) in a league that produces a lot of pros (as Duszak’s Atlantic Hockey very much does not) that’s much better than scoring an okay amount in a mediocre college hockey conference. Duszak might be different because he’s 21 and most NCAA undrafteds tend to come out at 22, 23, even 24, but the quality of that league should give you pause if you think he’ll be some kind of point producer.

To circle back to Sturm, who’s apparently high on everyone’s wish list: His production of 99 points in 113 career games doesn’t exactly bowl you over, and that’s with the acknowledgement that the ECAC (Vesey’s league, remember) isn’t exactly hard to score in if you’re even an okay NHL talent. Quite frankly, I don’t rate him very highly. I’d rather roll the dice on some higher-risk, higher-reward younger players who scored more in college, like Max Veronneau (just turned 23) or Taro Hirose (turning 23 in June), who at least have longer track records as scorers in college hockey.

Sturm ran at like 66 percent goals-for in all situations this year, and got in on the scoring for the vast majority of those goals (39 of 50). But he did that in his age-23 season, and he turns 24 in early May. So this is, more or less, what he is. There’s not much more room for growth. He’s big, which I think is what people probably like most about him, but if you think this guy’s coming in to be anything but an occasional AHL call-up on the low end or a fourth-line guy on the high end, you need to rethink how you’re evaluating these players.

And again, if your NHL team can sign a fourth-line guy for the next handful of years for nothing but the cost of the contract, that’s great. Great for the player too. But the problem is when fans (or teams) start seeing players as something they’re not because they bought some media hype.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.