It's no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins have traded away several draft picks in order to bring back NHL level talent. If you want a look at the draft picks the Pens still have left for this June's entry draft, find our post here.
In years past the Pens, like all NHL teams, have tried another route to add some talent- that of the NCAA undrafted free agent. These players have "slipped through the cracks" and were not drafted while eligible and once their college careers end (which is happening now or soon depending on their NCAA tourny fates) seniors are free to sign with NHL teams if they want. Some juniors too might fore-go their last season in college to jump pro.
The Penguins have used this avenue several times over the past handful of years. Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy probably are the most famous undrafted free agents that Pittsburgh has recently signed, but they've also added a few more too. Brian Gibbons signed in 2011. Brad Thiessen signed in 2009. Of course, for every moderate success story there are also names that didn't quite work out at the NHL level, like goalie Eric Hartzell in 2013. In 2011 we were excited that the Pens signed a Hobey Baker finalist forward Paul Thompson, who ended up being a decent AHL player, but never progressed to being an NHL level player.
Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis were both never drafted, and they became 30 goal scorers in the NHL, so you never know. Odds are more likely to get a Hartzell/Thompson than a Kunitz, but it's still a low risk way to potentially have a decent reward.
Around the league, several other impressive players went without being drafted. There's Adam Oates, Joe Mullen and Dino Ciccarelli from years ago. From today, of course there's Martin St. Louis, probably the most famous never-drafted NHL'er. But also names like Mark Giordano, Torey Krug and Dan Boyle.
And, Tampa found Tyler Johnson in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, and now he sits 9th place in scoring in the entire league with 65 points in 69 games.
The Pens could use some young talent, and have to be an attractive place for these players to consider. With the Pens at/near the salary cap every year, and suffering from injuries, they seem to offer young players a chance every season to have NHL cameos. And having a chance to rub shoulders with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and play in an organization that has developed a ton of players can't hurt either.
With all that out of the way, let's check out some names the Penguins should at least consider adding to their organizational ranks. These players won't make an NHL impact this season, but could be valuable in the years to come, just like one of the many draft picks the Pens have given away.
Austin Czarnik, forward - Miami (Ohio)
Photo credit: Matt Christians
From SBN College Hockey, Czarnik was ranked the #50th best pro prospect in college hockey. They said:
Czarnik's lack of size continues to be the biggest knock on his pro potential, and likely the reason he's still in college as a senior. But he has so many other assets that make him an effective player, like his quick feet, great anticipation, strong stick, and great passing ability. He's struggled to put the puck in the net this year, but has been a great distributor of the puck and manages to work his way onto the scoresheet almost every night.
Czarnik is listed (possibly generously) by Miami as 5 foot 9 and 167 pounds, has been quite the scoring dynamo his entire college career, racking up 168 points in 156 games. This year he has 40 points (8 goals, 32 assists) in 37 games. Miami's had a great offense with Caps draft pick (and past Hobey Baker finalist) Riley Barber and Devils pick Blake Coleman, but that shouldn't take anything away from Czarnik.
One of the biggest holes in the Penguins organizational prospect depth chart is skilled wingers. They don't have any projected pro top-6 players in the system, aside from Kasperi Kapanen. If the Pens were fortunate enough to get Czarnik to sign with them, it would be an encouraging development, because it would add to the skill quotient of the organization.
Czarnik is small, but his frame seems similar to that of Tyler Johnson. Of course, for every Johnson there's a 100 Brian Gibbons that don't really work out, but if the skill is there it's got to be worth a shot. And, it's worth remembering that Johnson took 2 full years in the AHL to get up to speed and become ready to be the NHL point producer he is today. Czarnik wouldn't be a signing that would help the Pens in 2015-16 or even 2016-17, but maybe one if all went right, he could add some skill and youth to the Pens at the NHL level.
Mike Vecchione, center - Union College
Vecchione checked in at #96 on SBN College Hockey's list, with a summary of:
Only RIT's Matt Garbowsky has won more face offs than Vecchione. The Saugus, Mass. native has more than proven he can produce without Daniel Carr and company. He doesn't have as many points as linemate Daniel Ciampini, but he's a very complete player. He's very responsible in the defensive zone and has two shorthanded goals among his 15 tallies on the year.
Since that writeup was written, Vecchione has 4 more goals, for 19 on the season, to go along with 31 assists to make 50 points, tied for first on his team. The Pens already have a prospect playing the same team (2014's 7th round pick, defenseman Jeff Taylor) so the scouts should be very familiar with Vecchione.
I like from the writeup they mention his ability to win faceoffs as well as "complete player" and "very responsible in the defensive zone". The Penguins haven't developed a good, home-grown bottom six center in a long time. Adding a guy like Vecchione to develop could mean in the future that they fill a bottom 6 center role with a cheap, young, hungry type of player. And if they can do that, they can stop trading draft picks for guys like Goc/Winnik/Stempniak and stop dipping into the free agent market for guys like Glass.
Hampus Gustafsson, forward- Merrimack
A center/winger that stands 6'4, 205 pounds, do need I say more? OK, we'll let SBN College Hockey take it for their 66th ranked prospect.
The big Swedish import has been a strong presence on the ice for the Warriors this season. When he uses his size and strength to his advantage, he can really maintain puck possession and cycle down low. He is a power forward in the true sense. He doesn't have the hands or agility to weave in and out of traffic, but he can force his way right to the scoring areas. He's also been incredibly good on face-offs for Mark Dennehy's team.
Most of the Penguins prospect forwards are on the shorter/lighter side (with Oskar Sundqvist being a notable exception to the rule). NHL teams are often enamored by size and how they can develop. The fact that Gustafsson wasn't drafted and is now considered one of the better college UFA's out there shows that he's really developed and raised his level of play lately. Seems like a guy worth a look with the frame he's got.
Drake Caggiula, forward - North Dakota
Caggiula comes in at #97 with the following writeup:
Caggiula isn't a big player, but certainly packs a punch. His relentless puck pursuit and willingness to initiate contact makes him a tenacious forechecker and a very effective defender. He's shown improved scoring touch over each of his three seasons at North Dakota, but his skating ability and tenacity is his ticket to the next level.
Caggiula is listed as 5'10, 180 pounds, officially (which again might be inflated), which doesn't seem terribly small. What stands out more is he also leads North Dakota with 33 points (16g+17a) in 37 games. Skating ability and hockey sense are two traits I personally favor a lot, because that can sometimes translate to the professional level. Having the word "tenacious" mentioned twice in a three sentence scouting report also has to stick out. Who doesn't like tenacious? Grit! Character!
Caggiula is only a junior, so he could well decide to return to school for next year, but if he's offered by the Pens this year, that might be enough motivation to begin in professional career.
There you have it, a couple of players to keep an eye on in the recent days and weeks. The Penguins don't have a lot of draft picks, but if they are diligent and fortunate enough to sign some of the premier free agents from college, they might be able to add a future NHL contributor like Letestu or Lovejoy for the future.