In June 2009, some of the offensive defensemen taken at the NHL Draft included former Bruins prospect Ryan Button, David Kolomatis, and Brett Flemming. They do not qualify as names at the vanguard of NHL blue-line play. None has appeared in an NHL game.
Yet where teams, including the Bruins, believed these players were worthy of spending precious draft capital, they did not feel the same about Torey Krug. The 18-year-old, who had 10 goals and 37 assists in 59 games for the Indiana Ice, future NHL coach Jeff Blashill’s USHL team, was considered too small for big-league battle.
“I was really upset,” Krug said of being bypassed. “Emotionally, it was a tough day for me. A lot of players got drafted that you know you’re better than. You’re wondering why they’re not calling your name. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because even if you’re drafted, sometimes you feel entitled and you don’t do the work. For me, I think that was part of it. If I was drafted, I don’t know if I’d even be in the league because I might not have put in the work that I did. It was the best worst day of my life.”
There are important checkpoints in the NHL season. The traditional markers include the draft, trade deadline, and July 1.
The league is currently in the sweet spot of a once-overlooked segment. Not anymore. College free agency, the period to sign undrafted NCAA players, has become an important period.
Because of the emphasis on developing players, it has become an opportunity for teams to hit the reset button on prospects they once missed, such as Krug. In a way, they’re considered free players because they don’t require picks to draft or assets to acquire.
Recent undrafted signees include Providence College’s Brandon Tanev (Winnipeg), UMass Lowell’s Kevin Boyle (Anaheim), St. Cloud State’s Charlie Lindgren (Montreal), and Minnesota State’s Casey Nelson (Buffalo).
The draft remains an inexact science. Outside of sure things, it’s hard to project how teenagers will develop into 20- and 30-year-old NHL players. Some may experience unexpected physical spikes in either direction. Emotionally, a 36-year-old is a different person than he was when he was half that age. Drafting teenagers is an exercise in dart throwing that 30 NHL teams complete every year with breath held and fingers crossed.
As such, good collegians such as Krug regularly fall through the cracks. By the end of his junior season, Krug was less than a month away from turning 21 years old. Three additional years of literal and figurative growth on Krug’s part allowed teams to develop a cleaner projection of what he could become in the NHL. They liked what they saw: a hungry, hard-playing, points-producing defenseman (12-22—34 in 38 games) who played bigger than he was.
Half the league was chasing the Michigan State captain. Krug, with help from his family adviser, trimmed the list to three candidates: Boston, Carolina, and Chicago. Krug studied each organization’s culture, style of play, and depth chart. They were the most significant factors in helping Krug make his final decision.
Krug liked the Hurricanes ever since they invited him to one of their development camps. Current Carolina assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, formerly involved in development for the Hurricanes, went to Michigan State. Krug was loyal to Brind’Amour and one of the teams that first gave him an opportunity.
Chicago was a good fit for Krug. The Blackhawks, the 2010 Cup champions, were already playing to a philosophy of moving the puck and attacking opponents. Such a style would have complemented Krug’s skills.
But Duncan Keith, a left-shot defenseman like Krug, wasn’t going anywhere. They had three other left-shot defensemen on their varsity at the time: Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. Of the three, Leddy was the most similar to Krug. It would not have been easy for Krug to bypass Keith or Leddy.
The Bruins were less than a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup. With Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in goal, Zdeno Chara on defense, and Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin up front, they were set up for multiple runs. They represented one of Krug’s best chances at a ring.
They were missing a defenseman with Krug’s assets. There was nobody on the big club or in the system who could move the puck, initiate the transition, and work the point on the power play like Krug. The Bruins were also willing to play Krug right away. This would allow Krug to burn a year off his entry-level deal and accelerate his progression to free agency.
On March 25, 2012, Krug agreed to a three-year contract with the Bruins. Nine days later, he made his NHL debut against Pittsburgh. Unlike his drafted counterparts, Krug enjoyed the privilege of selecting his employer instead of the other way around.
“You get to choose where you’re going,” Krug said. “At the same time, you have to realize how many different opinions are being thrown at you, whether it’s your agent, your family, former players who went through it. At the end of the day, I went with my gut feeling. But you definitely keep an eye on the pro landscape and see what kinds of deals teams are making at the trade deadline, whether they’re keeping a spot for you or looking to move players who you’re ultimately going to take their role. You definitely keep an eye on things like that.”
The Bruins got into college free agency sooner than others. In 2008, they named John Weisbrod (now Vancouver’s assistant general manager) director of college scouting, a position that did not exist in most organizations. Ryan Nadeau, director of hockey operations and analytics, has since assumed watch over the team’s college viewings. Krug, Kevan Miller (Vermont), Frank Vatrano (UMass Amherst), Noel Acciari (Providence), and Austin Czarnik (Miami) are results of the team’s work.
Rivals have since caught up. It’s an area teams will continue to target. Not everybody gets drafted. For players such as Krug, that can be good thing.
Leafs or Bruins will sign Vesey
Around the league, it’s a foregone conclusion that Jimmy Vesey will become a Bruin or a Maple Leaf. The Predators, naturally, are still steaming about this reality.
On Monday, Vesey’s camp informed Nashville that the left wing from Charlestown will not sign with the Predators. He will become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15.
It’s a smart move by the Harvard senior. Like Blake Wheeler and Kevin Hayes, who also declined to sign with the teams that drafted them (Coyotes and Blackhawks, respectively), Vesey will choose his destination.
According to Nashville GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton, this represents a change in direction from what Vesey had told them he was planning to do. Because Vesey continued to tell the Predators he would join the team following the Crimson’s NCAA ouster, Poile did not upgrade his attack prior to the trade deadline.
“It was our last opportunity to change our team,” Poile told The Tennessean. “We told him if he was going to sign with us, we were going to keep a position available for him, and he told us that he was going to sign with us.”
Representatives from Boston-based Global Hockey Consultants, however, denied Vesey had given such a commitment.
“Nashville now claims and it has been widely reported that they were without knowledge of this possibility and that this lack of knowledge precluded the hockey club from acquiring a player at the trade deadline,” Vesey’s advisers said in a statement. “This contention is not accurate. The Nashville Predators were informed prior to the trade deadline that they should conduct their business as they saw fit and that the potential of signing or not signing Jimmy Vesey should not be a factor in their decision.”
Toronto hired Jim Vesey, the left wing’s father, as a scout. The Maple Leafs picked brother Nolan Vesey in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. Nolan Vesey recently completed his sophomore season at the University of Maine. In Toronto, Jimmy Vesey would make the varsity in 2016-17, perhaps as the No. 2 left wing behind James van Riemsdyk.
Vesey’s prospects of immediate ice time would not be as great in Boston, where he’d be behind Brad Marchand and Matt Beleskey. But the Bruins are hot on the left wing, who is a Hobey Baker finalist for the second straight season. He could be teammates with longtime buddy Matt Grzelcyk. GM Don Sweeney played with Harvard coach Ted Donato in the NHL and college.
Vesey will sign with Toronto or Boston. The fallout will be elsewhere.
Family adviser Peter Fish, who counts Jack Eichel among his stable, is taking the expected hits. Teams will be wary of trusting Fish and his clients. Also, teams with NCAA players in their mix will become more active in signing or trading their assets before their senior seasons.
The Predators will get nothing when Vesey walks. No team wants to waste picks and years of development to be left holding the bag.
DEVIL YOU KNOW
Farnham fought for job in Jersey
Nobody enjoys playing against Bobby Farnham. The 27-year-old from North Andover does not care that he stands just 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 190 pounds. The New Jersey wing would never have made it to the league if he didn’t skate nonstop and run over every opponent who stands in his way.
“The thing about Bobby is he’s found a way to be a competitive player every night,” said Devils coach John Hynes. “Sometimes he scores. Sometimes he draws penalties. Sometimes it’s his speed. I think it’s a good lesson for some of younger players to learn.”
Farnham did not attract any NHL attention while he played at Phillips Andover. Former Brown coach Roger Grillo recruited Farnham, who was a four-year collegian. The left-shot Farnham caught the eyes of the Bruins, who signed him to an amateur tryout agreement at the end of his NCAA career in 2012. But he was released from Providence after appearing in three games. Farnham also played three games for Worcester on an ATO.
Farnham had the misfortune of starting his first pro season during the 2012-13 lockout, when AHL jobs were harder to land. After being cut from Hamilton’s camp, Farnham signed with Wheeling of the ECHL under coach Clark Donatelli, the Rhode Island native who also gave future Chicago goalie Scott Darling his shot. It progressed to an AHL call-up with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After three AHL seasons, Farnham was promoted to Pittsburgh in 2014-15. He may never return to the AHL.
“I was kind of on the outside looking in,” Farnham said. “I wasn’t really in a situation where I was going to get drafted or be a first round type of guy. I had to try and find another way to get there.”
Farnham is part of a Brown tradition of underdogs. Aaron Volpatti and Ryan Garbutt were two of Farnham’s predecessors. Garnet Hathaway was his college teammate. None of the four was drafted.
“You had all these guys who set the tone for us younger guys,” Farnham said. “Then we kind of passed it on to the next classes as a hard-working, blue-collar mentality we had at Brown. That’s why guys have succeeded at the pro level.”
Stretch run for Demko
Thatcher Demko is set up for a good weekend. The Boston College goalie and his Eagles will square off against Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four on Thursday. The next day, Demko could win the Hobey Baker Award. It would be the ideal sendoff for Demko, Vancouver’s second-round pick in 2014 and the second goalie taken that year. Demko is expected to turn pro and forego his senior season. He’s ready to do so. Demko is 27-7-4 with a 1.85 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. If Demko has a strong first AHL season, he could contend for NHL work in 2017-18. Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom will become unrestricted after 2017.
Creativity is still required
If Andy Brickley has one lament about the game, it’s how teams are employing the pack mentality when it comes to puck-hunting. The NESN color analyst believes there remains a need for cerebral playmakers, such as Adam Oates and Craig Janney, to complement the go-go style. “The east-west, slow-the-game-down type of player isn’t as commonplace because of the emphasis on speed and chip-and-chase, and there’s a lot of variables for that,” Brickley said. “I miss that. I wish there were more guys who could control the pace of the game by hanging on to the puck, drawing people to them, moving laterally, going to open spaces, whatever it may be. The real cerebral but skilled guy just isn’t as common as it used to be.”
Florida teams are hurting
The Lightning and the Panthers will enter the playoffs without big-time players. Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay’s No. 1A defenseman along with Victor Hedman, is down with a broken leg. Vincent Trocheck, the Panthers’ second-line center, was hurt while blocking a shot. Through 73 games, Stralman had a 9-25—34 line while averaging 22:04 of ice time. Trocheck, the trusted pivot between Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, had 25 goals and 28 assists in 76 games while logging 17:46 of play per outing. Both play critical roles for their respective clubs. Their absences could make Tampa and Florida subject to first-round exits.
Among the Bruins’ offseason priorities: get a better handle on David Krejci’s health. Whatever approach the team is taking toward Krejci’s chronic groin ailments isn’t working. This is the second year in a row Krejci’s skating has gone south at the wrong time. Surgery may have to be considered more strongly . . . If the Penguins are still kicking when Evgeni Malkin returns from his upper-body injury, they may keep him away from Phil Kessel. The ex-Bruin is flying while skating with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino. Kessel can create his own chances without one of the two stud centers giving him the puck. Kessel as the third-line right wing would not be a favorable matchup for most opponents . . . Stick salute to Amalie Benjamin, who is moving on to NHL.com after 12 years of Globe service. As the offensive defenseman on our humble pairing, Amalie covered the Bruins the last three seasons with professionalism, talent, and good company that will be very much missed.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.