Ottawa Has A Poor Track Record With College Free Agents

Every year there is a big name that comes out of college in the USA and gains lots of attention around the NHL as a potential star. Whether it’s Danny DeKeyser, Tyler Bozak, Stephane Da Costa, or Torey Krug, they all have lots of hype but produce varying degrees of success. Most of the time, these college signings don’t turn out, however, there are a few that may skew expectations, but for the most part players will end up being a Jesse Winchester instead of a Martin St. Louis.

This week in Tuesday’s Tirade, I’ll try to temper your expectations with Matt O’Connor. Every year it’s becoming irritating that there’s some new player that will take the league by storm. But a lot of the time, there is a reason they were not drafted. That’s not to say the O’Connor signing is a mistake though, it’s far from that. Any time you can add depth to the most important position, you do it.

Like I said a few days ago, it also gives them an expendable asset. My problem isn’t with the signing. It’s with people’s expectations for O’Connor because they think he will be this amazing goaltender that is better than Carey Price and Tuukka Rask. Perhaps that’s a bit of a hyperbole, but fans certainly see him as part of the team’s future plans.

The main reason why I can’t get overly excited with the signing? Ottawa’s poor track record with college free agents. They love to draft college players, as they have done so with Chris Wideman, Quentin Shore, Miles Gendron, Chris Leblanc, and several others. But they also try hard to sign undrafted college players, with not too much success recently.

Since the lockout, the seven players Ottawa has signed out of college (not including O’Connor) are Jesse Winchester, Derek Smith, Bobby Butler, Stephane Da Costa, Garret Thompson, Ludwig Karlsson, and Andrew Hammond. Here is a table looking at their impact with the Senators. I didn’t include Thompson and Karlsson since neither of them have played in the NHL, and it’s very unlikely either of them will.

[table id=12 /]

Those aren’t exactly the most impressive stats. Winchester looks like the best signing for skaters, but even 18 of those points came with the Florida Panthers last year, not Ottawa. He was a fine fourth line centre, notching a career high 18 points in 2008-09, but he was certainly expendable.

Butler easily had the most expectations from these five, because in 2010-11 after the team had gone on their fire sale, he played with Jason Spezza and was fantastic with 21 points in 36 games. However, just a year later he was bought out and has since been in three organizations. He was fantastic in college and in the AHL, but he wasn’t close to living up to the hype.

Then there’s Da Costa, who I feel like was never truly given a chance. He played parts of four seasons in Ottawa, but he was never up with the team for an extended period of time. He was given the second line centre role in 2011-12 and failed, but he still may have another NHL stint in him. He was amongst the leagues best in the KHL this year, but for the Senators he was a bust. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t get a proper chance, because he won’t be coming back to Ottawa and the signing didn’t turn out as they had hoped.

Oct 4, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Ottawa Senators center Stephane Da Costa (24) brings the puck behind the net as Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers (57) pursues during the first period at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is a very forgettable name, mostly because he only played 11 games for the Senators. He was a good offensive defenseman in the AHL, but even with the Calgary Flames he didn’t play a whole lot. The most he played in one season was 47 games, so you could say he turned into a seventh defenseman essentially.

Andrew Hammond is of course the most successful player overall on the list right now, but a few months ago he would have looked like another bad signing. In 25 games in the AHL this year he had a .898 save percentage, and at the age of 27 there wasn’t much hope. He saved the Senators season this year though, so he has to be seen as somewhat of a success no matter what.

Still though, I’m not sure how good he can be in the future. I think his ceiling is an average backup, but goalies are so hard to predict so maybe he can be a starter. Despite his success this season, it’s hard to call that signing a big win, because there’s a chance he goes back to being bad next year.

I can’t remember too much about Winchester and Smith, but I know that Butler and Da Costa both were very good signings at the time. They had fantastic college track records, and were supposed to be top six or at least top nine forwards. None of those players turned out for Ottawa, and they have yet to find their hidden gem.

There’s also a chance he becomes the goaltender version of Bobby Butler

It’s not as if Ottawa hasn’t found players where other don’t though, because they have had a lot of success in the late rounds of the draft. Mark Stone (6th), Mike Hoffman (5th), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (4th), and Erik Condra (7th) were all late round steals, amongst many other solid picks earlier on. So it’s not like the Senators haven’t been able to identify quality players, it’s just that in the college market they haven’t had much success.

My point is that signing players from college is great, because it’s a free prospect and it strengthens your pool of players. There’s zero down side, and tons of upside. However, not many late bloomers become NHL players. Forwards that light up the NCAA at the age of 23 may not be that great, and it’s the same thing with players in the OHL who get 100 points as a 20-year-old.

It’s hard to judge players (especially goalies) at the NCAA level, so let’s not go around saying we have another NHL caliber goalie. O’Connor is still a prospect, and will need his time in the AHL. I would be hesitant to call the signing a success so early on just because of Ottawa’s past with the free agent market.

Could O’Connor end up being a great goalie? Sure, there’s a chance. But there’s also a chance he becomes the goaltender version of Bobby Butler. We shouldn’t expect the world from him when he hasn’t played a professional game yet. Just wait to see what we have next year.

 

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