Each year, a late-season NHL free-agent frenzy of sorts takes place as undrafted NCAA players see their college hockey seasons end. This year, names including Ben Meyers, Bobby Travigno, and Jake Livingstone have drawn significant interest. While dozens of players immediately find NHL contracts, another wave signs in the American Hockey League, looking to continue their development and use a strong showing to earn offseason interest.
Of those players, some will eventually climb to the NHL. With the dust beginning to settle from the initial signing spree, here are a group of players who signed AHL contracts out of the NCAA that will be under the watchful eye of NHL teams.
Drew Worrad, C
Perhaps the top prospect of the non-NHL free agents, Worrad has followed a winding road to pro hockey. The 6-foot-2 forward oozes hockey sense and intelligence. He makes those around him better, and is defensively responsible. As a senior with Western Michigan, Worrad scored 45 points in 39 games (good for eighth nationally), and recorded his first multi-point game in only his second game of professional hockey notching two assists with the Grand Rapids Griffins. A playmaker (36 of his 45 points were assists), Worrad will be watched by the Detroit Red Wings, a team in desperate need of prospect depth, and could become a sleeper signing that pans out.
Colin Theisen, LW
The 24-year-old had four consistent years with Notre Dame before transferring to Arizona State. Here, Thiesen exploded offensively, and served as team captain. He recorded 42 points in 35 games for Arizona State, and didn’t have to travel far to continue his scoring pace with the AHL’s Tuscon Roadrunners. Through his first 9 games in the AHL, Thiesen had 6 points, placing him among the top scorers of any free agent signee, NHL draft pick or not.
Griffin Mendel, D.
A towering 6-foot-6 defender, there is a lot to love about Mendel. After coming out of the BCHL, and playing for Canada at the U-17s and World Junior A Challenge, Mendel spent four seasons with the powerhouse University of Denver. With an opportunity to play a fifth season due to the pandemic, Mendel entered the transfer portal and joined Quinnipiac. Here, he took immense strides offensively before signing with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. NHL teams will want to see a player of his stature play a more physical game, but Mendel checks a lot of boxes for scouts.
Owen Sillinger, C
He has a ‘hockey name,’ with father Mike an NHL alumni, brother Cole in the NHL, and brother Lukas following his footsteps at Bemidji State. Sillinger notched 47 points in 39 games this season captaining Bemidji. He didn’t immediately find that scoring touch with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, but demonstrated enough to stay in the lineup without a demotion, and did score his first professional goal. He’s undoubtedly destined for another season in the minors, but could turn into a bottom-six forward with offensive upside. He was 5th in National scoring this season.
Brannon McManus, C
One of the youngest NCAA prospects coming into pro hockey, McManus is only 22, and has a high-level experience on his resume representing Team USA at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. After four years with the powerhouse University of Minnesota, McManus found greener pastures with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Signing with Abbotsford in the AHL, McManus scored a pair of goals in his first handful of games. He’ll take more time in the minors to develop, but remains a player to watch.
Graham Slaggert, C
A member of the vaunted US National Team Development Program for multiple seasons, it would be hard to say Slaggert has been unseen, or under the radar. Rather, Slaggert continues to play reliable, two-way hockey. He kills penalties, blocks shots, and forechecks with pace, although his offensive upside is bottom six at best. At 23-years-old, Slaggert is still a prospect, and is getting his look with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Ethen Frank, C
Playing with Western Michigan this season, when Worrad dished, Frank finished. He led all NCAA scorers this year with 26 goals and inked with the Hershey Bears following their season. A power-play specialist, who also killed penalties for Western Michigan, some thought Frank might get an NHL deal. If he can prove his scoring touch can translate to the pro level, even in a special team’s role, it could come sooner than later.
Nate Knoepke, D
The 6-foot-3 blueliner has a solid hockey resume coming out of the USNTDP. A strong skater who is not afraid to use his frame, Knoepke was the 79th ranked North American skater in his NHL draft year before going unselected. He then transferred after his freshman season with Minnesota to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. One knock on Knoepke is his limited offensive upside. He projects to max out as a bottom pairing defender who can kill penalties. In his first AHL games, Knoepke unsurprisingly did not find the scoresheet with the Rochester Americans, but then again, he’s always focused on stopping, not scoring goals.
Brandon Estes, D
One of the older NCAA prospects to join the pro ranks this year at 25, Estes had hot and cold seasons with Union College. A right-shot blueliner, Estes had an excellent graduate season collecting 29 points in 37 games from the blueline. He had two assists in his first games with the Tuscon Roadrunners, pointing to an upward trajectory for the late bloomer.
Oliver Chau, C
Another player who used the transfer portal to earn an opportunity, Chau left Umass after helping the school to a pair of Hockey East titles and a National Championship to join Quinnipiac for a graduate season. He had 33 points in 42 games, and grabbed two assists in his first three pro games with the Tuscon Roadrunners. Chau is undersized at 5’9 ”, but has skill to boot.
Other Names To Watch: Alex Ierullo, Patrick Giles, Zachary Tsekos, Darion Hanson, Mitch Lewandowski, Trenton Bliss, Grant Gabriele, Roman Ahcan.