The college free agent market has yet to really kick into high gear. Some NCAA teams have already finished their seasons, some of the names attached to those teams are now available, and some have even signed minor league deal. Yet, to date there has not been an NHL signing by a college free agent just yet.
That will all change soon, though. As conference tournaments continue through this weekend and next week, many more seasons will come to an end shortly. For those programs who aren’t a realistic candidate for at-large bid, ranked at least in the top-20 nationally, the next loss will be the final one of the season. This will continue until next Sunday – “Selection Sunday” – when the 16-team field for the NCAA Tournament will be revealed. Any fringe teams holding out hope will learn their fates and those on the outside looking in will join the teams that have already been eliminated in saying goodbye to the 2020-21 season. A week later, all but four of the tourney teams will also be done. By the end of the month, at the latest, college free agency will be in full swing and after the Frozen Four concludes and a National Champion is named on April 10, it is safe to assume that the free agent market will have been picked clean within days. Although college free agency has not yet made its mark this year, by this time next month the majority of the NCAA player rush could be over.
This poses a problem for the NHL’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken. As Darren Brown writes for Sound of Hockey, the Kraken have yet to make their final expansion payment to the league and as such still lack official standing. This means that they cannot yet sign any free agents to contracts for next season. When the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league, they made their inaugural signing, undrafted junior free agent Reid Duke, on March 6. Already beyond that date this year, Seattle is behind on their payment schedule compared to Vegas and it will impact their ability to add prospects. It is believed that the Kraken are on track to make their final payment next month, presumably before the April 12 trade deadline, but by that time it may be too late to cash in on college free agency. If at all possible, Seattle would be best-served to make their final payment as soon as possible.
The delayed trade deadline date could cause some difficulty with college free agent decisions for a number of other teams, too. Normally, the deadline falls two weeks earlier than it will this season and much of the college free agent frenzy takes place after that date. Following the deadline, teams know for sure where they sit in terms of roster limits for the season, which has taken on even more importance in recent years as a key negotiating tactic for young free agents has been the opportunity to sign right away and burn a year off of their entry-level contract. For the Anaheim Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals, all of whom currently have 49 of their maximum 50 contract slots filled, they won’t have that assurance when the market begins to heat up this year. While the Ducks, a seller, have more certainty that they can move a current contract or two to make room for any college free agent signings, the Flyers and Capitals are expected to be buyers and risk leverage in deal-making above all else if they hit the 50-contract maximum by signing a college free agent and sellers know that they must shed a contract to add one at the deadline. The Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues, all at 48 contracts, will also have to be careful with the college free agent market if they plan to add multiple pieces at the deadline. This could all make for an intriguing period of NCAA additions, with some of the usual top suitors potentially playing it safe while teams with more flexibility and opportunity swoop in.