Annually around this time of year dozens of NHL quality players become virtually up for grabs. Their college seasons and careers have ended, and they are looking for the next chapter. Over the past, the Golden Knights have taken advantage of college free agency, finding a mainstay in their lineup, defenseman Zach Whitecloud. The former Bemidji State blueliner was heavily touted in the spring of 2018 but the 31st franchise convinced the senior to join them in the Pacific Division. As Golden Knights fans have witnessed, Whitecloud might be the front office’s best amateur acquisition. Several draft picks have either flamed out or have been moved in deals for established NHL’ers. Meanwhile, Whitecloud has 177 games under his belt as one of VGK’s everyday defensemen.
Keeping in mind that many of these available collegiate athletes went undrafted or couldn’t come to terms with the club that selected them. Some were doubted, some were deemed undersized, and some were scouted as slow or not skilled enough for the NHL. As many amateur free agents prove each year, NHL teams often get it wrong. The college free agency period, front offices across the league can erase mistakes by signing a diamond in the rough from the NCAA.
It’s no secret, we are concerned about scoring in the playoffs. Back in the offseason, the Golden Knights traded scoring for cap space which could become a problem when facing one of the league’s best 16 teams. While a college free agent signing wouldn’t be eligible to play for VGK this postseason, here are some that could give the organization some much-needed organizational depth for years to come.
Austen Swankler picks up the pieces and sticks home his 18th of the season!
— CCHA (@CCHAHockey) February 25, 2023
Austen Swankler – Center
35 Games, 44 Points (19 Goals, 25 Assists)
Swankler had a brilliant year for Bowling Green. The 21-year-old led the CCHA in assists (24), points (42) and ranked second in goals (18) this season. Swankler was a member of the 2022 All-Rookie team and was awarded a spot on this year’s CCHA 1st team. The 6’0″, 185 lbs. forward recorded a 19-game point streak in 2022-23 and accrued an impressive 32 points during that run. Swankler had success in the OHL and NCAA and now many believe he is ready for the jump to the AHL. The Golden Knights could use another skilled playmaker in their system and especially one that has ties to the FO. No, Swankler is not from Manitoba, but he did attend George McPhee’s alma mater.
Parker Ford – Forward
37 Games, 26 Points (12 Goals, 14 Assists)
Ford is another player that is available right now. The Friars were eliminated from postseason contention and the slick-skating forward is able to listen to all NHL offers. Scouts have noted the 22-year-olds quickness and two-way play. He’s not big in size but is physical and pressures opponents with his speed and skating ability. Overall, Ford’s 200-foot ability could draw an offer from the Golden Knights or other teams looking to develop depth. The word is the Bruins have been linked to the Rhode Island native for a couple of seasons now, but the city of Boston doesn’t sell the same way Sin City does.
BIG transfer portal update. Lake State defenseman Jacob Bengtsson has entered the portal. Both @chrismpeters and @coreypronman listed him as a top college free agent. I imagine he’ll have tons of interest from teams around the country
— Stephen Zenack (@sezenack) March 14, 2023
Jacob Bengtsson – Defenseman
Lake Superior State/Boston College
57 Points, 100 Career Games
Lake Superior State had a season to forget. However, the junior defenseman registered 20+ assists for the second straight season. In fact, Bengtsson has already entered the transfer portal and has a verbal commitment with BC if he isn’t offered a pro contract this fall. At 6’3″, 205 lbs. the Swedish defender has the build that NHL execs drool over. The 23-year-old is considered a plug-and-play defenseman, having experience in the Swedish elite league, USHL and NCAA. Scouts love his hard shot, size, and hockey IQ. Perfect for a team looking for immediate defensive depth. Most NHL clubs would feel comfortable giving Bengtsson minutes in the AHL right away. While he’s not a right-handed shot, there’s no harm in having another large LHD to go along with Nic Hague.
The @NCAAIceHockey goal leader is at it again! 🎯
Jason Polin's 2⃣8⃣th snipe of the season is now second in #NCHChockey single-season history (one behind Josh Archibald's record of 29 in 2013-14)
— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) March 4, 2023
Jason Polin – Forward
38 Games, 46 Assists (29 Goals, 17 Assists)
Today, Polin and Western Michigan are preparing for their first-round matchup against BU in the 2023 Frozen Four tournament. The 23-year-old finished the season as the highest goal-scorer in the nation and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. The experienced forward could help any organization with his scoring ability and leadership skills. Polin will be assigned to the AHL after his collegiate career is up, but he should get a chance to fight for a depth role in training camp. Adding offense on the cheap is exactly what the Golden Knights need in their system. If the Broncos lose to the Terriers today expect Polin’s name to come up this a lot this week. Hopefully, Vegas will be one of the teams that show interest in the player of the year candidate.
Matt Brown – Forward
36 Games, 44 Points (15 Goals, 29 Assists)
The senior forward is wrapping up a solid NCAA career playing for both BU and UMass-Lowell. The New Jersey native is listed at 5’9″ which is one of the reasons he isn’t the property of any of the 32 NHL franchises. Brown’s strong senior season has his name in the mix as one of the offensive bargains on the market. His age, leadership abilities and skill will likely create interest from several teams and possibly the Golden Knights. The good news is, either Brown or Polin will be available by the end of the day.
— CanucksCore (@CanuckTruth) March 22, 2023
Sam Malinski – Defenseman
32 Games, 26 Points (8 Goals, 18 Assists)
The Big Red’s captain scored a career-high in goals and points and guided Cornell to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2019-20. Malinski could soon be available as Cornell faces off against the Denver Pioneers later today. The 24-year-old isn’t built like other free agent defensemen, notably Minnesota State’s Jake Livingstone, but he’s been as impactful. Being an Ivy Leaguer, NHL teams adore Malinski’s intelligence and composure on the ice. He may not be the top choice for some NHL clubs but he’s mobile, skilled, and shoots right-handed. If it’s later today or later in the tournament, Malinski will most likely receive multiple offers. Will Vegas be one of them?
Attracting collegiate free agents hasn’t been a problem for the Golden Knights. Whitecloud signed in the spring of 2018, and defenseman Jimmy Schuldt accepted an offer from Vegas a year later. The risk is low, and NCAA free agents can help fill holes without impacting the salary cap or trading away draft capital. Free agents straight out of the NCAA don’t always pan put but the Golden Knights have had success finding talent in unconventional haystacks. Hopefully, they will do it again this season.