College hockey teams learn to manage NHL teams' pursuit of top free agents
Last month, NHL teams traveled to Minnesota to meet with Connor Mackey.
They worked to build a rapport with the Minnesota State-Mankato junior defenseman and give him a background on their organization.
Although Mackey is at least six months away from signing a pro deal, NHL teams knew they better get their meetings in before the season starts, because once it does, Mackey is turning away from the awaiting NHL organizations to focus squarely on his college hockey seasons with the Mavericks.
It's a unique way of dealing with an increasingly common trend in college hockey of NHL teams hoping to sign top free-agent prospects across different programs.
At times, the courtship of the highest-profile college free agents can be overload. When Bemidji State's Zach Whitecloud was being sought-after a couple of years ago, it was so much that head coach Tom Serratore had to set parameters on when NHL teams could speak to him.
At other times, coaches and players say it is easily manageable.
"I've learned from making mistakes in that process," said MSU-Mankato coach Mike Hastings, who recently had a couple of college hockey's highest-profile free agents in defensemen Casey Nelson, who signed with Buffalo, and Daniel Brickley, who signed with Los Angeles. "We're trying to learn from experience on allowing the student-athletes to educate themselves but trying to keep them in the present.
"The biggest thing is having an open line of communication. It's different for everybody. Each player wants what they want. It's not always the same thing. I've always asked the student-athlete what they want and we've been able to say, 'Here are some of the things we've seen.'"
This weekend in the Mankato Civic Center, two of college hockey's top free agents will go head-to-head in Mackey and UND senior defenseman Colton Poolman. NHL teams began their pursuits of both of them long ago, but the blue liners opted to come back for this season, and their pro interest is expected to reach a crescendo this spring.
But with both players focused on the high hopes of their teams -- the Mavericks enter this weekend ranked No. 2, while the Fighting Hawks are ranked No. 16 -- they are putting the NHL interest on the back-burner.
"I don't handle that right now," Mackey said. "I wanted to get that done before the season. That's what I've done. Now, I'm just focused on our team and every game we play."
Poolman said: "I've left a lot of it to my family advisor. He'll let me know when I want to know things."
Navigating the waters
Most college hockey coaches will say it's almost easier navigating the path of draft players, because there's only one team in the mix. For high-profile free agents, there can be as many as 30 teams swarming. They're all looking to pick up overlooked players who could become NHL regulars.
There is no greater source for NHL teams to nab undrafted players than college hockey. Of the undrafted players in the NHL during the 2018-19 season, 56 percent of them played college. NHL teams signed 76 NCAA free agents in the last three summers.
Both MSU-Mankato and UND have had a few of them in recent years.
MSU-Mankato had Nelson in 2016 and Brickley in 2018.
"Playing my freshman year, I saw him go through it," Mackey said of Brickley. "If I had questions, I would for sure reach out to him. Obviously, I saw what he did. I did some things the same and I did other things differently. I wanted to do it my way."
UND had Troy Stecher and Drake Caggiula, who both turned pro after leading UND to the 2016 NCAA national championship. They're both regulars in the NHL -- Stecher for the Vancouver Canucks and Caggiula for the Chicago Blackhawks.
"My brother has been a great resource for me," Poolman said of his older brother, Tucker, a Winnipeg Jets defenseman who was teammates with Stecher and Caggiula.
Each team, coach and player has a different process for how they handle the attention.
"These boys have earned the interest," said first-year Miami coach Chris Bergeron, who previously had some sought-after free agents at Bowling Green. "The last thing I want to do is tell them how to handle it. What I have done is offer my advice. If it gets to be too much, I ask them to tell me so I can start to manage it. But if 10 teams want to talk to a boy, who am I to say you can't talk to them? I don't think that's my role.
"We had Lukas Craggs last year. He signed with Nashville. All of his interest came at once. Every night, it was another team who wanted to talk to him. We continued to communicate with Lukas and asked him, 'What do you want us to do? Do you want us to tell these NHL teams no? Do you want us to facilitate and use my office to talk?' We just kept the lines of communication open. I don't think there's a right way. There's a way that works for some guys but maybe not for others. We tailor it for each guy."
Several college programs ask NHL teams not to talk to their players on a weekend until the series is over -- usually on a Saturday night.
"We asked NHL teams to give our players space on Thursday and Friday nights," said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, who is expected to have several coveted free agents including Austin Rueschhoff, Cam Lee, Josh Passolt and Dawson DiPietro. "After Saturday night's game is over, they're all yours. Some teams come to practice during the week. I prefer that, early in the week.
"But I believe in promoting your players. We let the NHL teams know that we want to work with them."
Colorado College coach Mike Haviland, whose star forward Nick Halloran will get attention this spring, said: "We try to make it where we do it after the second game on a weekend as much as possible. We try to talk to advisors to make sure they're on the same page. We're trying to win hockey games. The distraction could be a lot. If you have a few (high-profile) guys, the distraction could be a real lot. We're willing to let our guys talk. We want them to talk. But you have to make sure you do it at the right times."
Focus on the present
Most coaches say they haven't had a problem keeping players focused on their college teams.
In fact, one of the main reasons why Poolman returned to school this year was to win games and bring UND back to national prominence after missing the NCAA tournament in 2018 and 2019.
"How things ended last year definitely left a sour taste in my mouth," Poolman said. "I thought we had a pretty good team coming back this year and had a chance to maybe make a couple things happen this year. Obviously, UND has always been my dream school. Missing the tournament two years in a row definitely weighed a little bit on my mind and if I could do anything to help this team get back on track, I would do it."
No. 16 UND at No. 2 MSU-Mankato
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Mankato Civic Center, Mankato, Minn.
Records: UND 2-0, MSU-Mankato 2-0.
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).
Of note: MSU-Mankato is 23-1 at home since last season and enters this weekend on an 11-game winning streak in the Verizon Center.
NCAA free-agents signed by NHL teams by season
2018-19 -- 26
2017-18 -- 17
2016-17 -- 33
2015-16 -- 27
2014-15 -- 20
2013-14 -- 21
2012-13 -- 26
2011-12 -- 19