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Should the Toronto Maple Leafs sign undrafted prospects to ELCs?

Can they? Should they? Would they?

Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Camp Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Every year during the rookie development camp and prospect tournaments, there’s some talk about signing one or more of them to ELCs. That leads to inevitable questions about how it works. Can the Leafs sign an undrafted prospect they invited to their rookie camp?

Should they, even if they can? After all, if they were that good as prospects you’d expect them to have actually been, you know, drafted already. But this off-season is no ordinary one thanks to the pandemic. A fair amount of prospects barely played last year, or looked bad in limited minutes during a stressful time, or caught COVID and had to recover from it, or never even played in a single game in their draft year.

I was interested enough in this as a general topic, and a question concerning the Leafs, that I spent entirely too much time researching the CBA and past examples of undrafted prospects getting signed to ELCs, And then I looked up all the undrafted prospects invited to every NHL team’s rookie camp (if they invited any), and did some research into them to see if there were any interesting options.

How You Can Sign an Undrafted Player

There is a mechanism for NHL teams to sign undrafted players to an ELC — it doesn’t have to be an undrafted free agent who is too old to be in further drafts. Under the CBA, you can sign any player who has gone undrafted in as little as one draft to an ELC.

So for this off-season, the Leafs could sign any player who has gone undrafted, who was born from September 16th, 2002 to September 15th, 2003. There are some restrictions to this, which can depend on where the prospect played in his draft year and what team holds his rights.

Here’s what the CBA says — first is what establishes eligibility for a player to sign an ELC as a free agent:

10.1 Unrestricted Free Agents

(d) Draft-Related Unrestricted Free Agents.

(i) Any Player not eligible for claim in any future Entry Draft pursuant to this Agreement and not on a Club’s Reserve List shall be an Unrestricted Free Agent. Further, any Player eligible for claim in the Entry Draft, but who was unclaimed, shall be an Unrestricted Free Agent subject to the provisions of Section 8.9(b).

That section is in reference to this:

8.9 Eligibility for Play in the League.

No Player shall be eligible for play in the League unless he:

(b) had been eligible for claim in the last Entry Draft, but was unclaimed, and:

(ii) had played hockey in North America the prior season and was under age 20 at the time of the last Entry Draft, and signed an SPC which was signed and registered with the League between the conclusion of the Entry Draft and commencement of the Major Juniors season (except that if such Player had signed an NHL try-out form, which was signed and registered with the League during the aforesaid time period, then the deadline for signing and registering with the League an SPC with such try-out Club shall be the commencement of the NHL Season).

If that sounds complicated, here’s how it works (and I ran this by Katya first to make sure what I am about to write makes sense):

  • A player goes through an entry-level draft, and goes unclaimed.
  • Between the end of the draft and the start of that player’s next season at their junior league, they can be signed by any NHL team to an ELC.
  • If the player signs a try-out form, that deadline is extended to the start of the NHL season.
  • The player must be age 20 or younger and played in North America.

That last point is vague. Other articles trying to explain how the CBA works in this regard have said that the ONLY players who can be signed after a draft, under the limit for free agency, are CHL players — not counting those taken in the CHL import draft who are technically on loan from a European team. But there have been plenty of examples of players who were part of the CHL import draft that were signed to an ELC after being undrafted once. It might be that the eligibility concern is if you are an import AND have been officially loaned to the CHL by your European club that still has your rights.

This little primer on drafting rights, including signing undrafted players, includes an example of a CHL import player who the Flyers tried to sign to an ELC after he was undrafted. In 20211, Tomas Hyka played in the QMJHL but went undrafted. The Flyers wound up wanting to sign him to an ELC, but the NHL ruled he was not eligible because he was under 22 years old and his rights were still held by a Czech team.

This may also only be eligible for a player drafted from the CHL specifically. The CBA does not specify those leagues, it just says North America. But none of the examples I found were players who played in any other North American league — just the CHL.

Philippe Myers and Other Examples

It’s easier to understand the weird CBA language by looking at actual examples that happened. Since 2010, there has been exactly 50 cases of a player under 20 years old going undrafted and being signed to an ELC by an NHL team. If that sounds like a surprisingly high number, there’s probably a reason for that — they don’t have a very high success rate.

Only 19 of them have ever played a single game in the NHL. Only two of those have played 100+ games in the NHL. There is a third is at 95 games and played his whole season in the NHL last year, so he is likely to hit that mark. If you think about it, it makes sense. If they were that obviously good, they’d have been drafted. They may surprise teams at a training camp, but most teams will choose to let them go back into the draft and maybe take them there after seeing them play for another full season. You have to see some surprising development in as little as a few months’ time, or just have a hunch you want to take a chance on.

One of the most recent and most successful examples is Philippe Myers. After the 2015/16 season, Myers was eligible for the NHL draft for the first time. He put up 8 points in 60 games as a defenseman, and he went undrafted at the 2016 draft. Like many other undrafted prospects, he was invited to an NHL team’s development camp — the Calgary Flames’ specifically. After the Flames’ rookie camp, he was invited by the Flyers to attend their main NHL pre-season camp. He impressed them enough that they signed him to an ELC on September 21st, before the camp ended and before the next QMJHL season started. He followed that by winning the QMJHL championship in 2016, scoring 45 points in 63 regular season games and 16 points in 20 playoff games.

Some scouting people said if he had not signed that ELC with the Flyers, he may have been a potential first round pick in the next draft considering his size, point production, and tools. He represents a rarity during an otherwise normal period.

The second player to pass 100+ NHL games is Kurtis MacDermit, a 6’5” defenseman who only played in the OHL for 9 games in his draft year. He wound up being signed to an ELC in the off-season by the LA Kings, where he has played in 118 games across 5 seasons.

Then there are the most recent examples who are still too young to even have a chance to hit 100 games, but seem likely to get there. The first is Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, signed by the Flyers and sitting at 95 games. He’ll hit 100 this coming season. Also of note is Yegor Zamula, a CHL import who was signed... also by the Flyers. They’ve arguably had the best success using this strategy of signing undrafted teenagers to ELCs. Zamula only has 2 NHL games under his belt, he’s a 6’3 defenseman who came from Russian junior to the WHL, and is pretty highly regarded as a prospect.

The other prospect of note I’d mention is Dylan Coghlan, a 6’2” defenseman that was signed by the Vegas Golden Knights and played 29 NHL games for them last year. He was undrafted twice before signing the deal with Vegas, who have done pretty well at identifying undrafted free agents with Coghlan and Whitecloud.

The COVID-19 Conundrum

The past two seasons have been anything but normal. The 2019/20 season may have started normal, but seasons were cut short due to the pandemic. All of last season was affected by it, especially for OHL and major junior leagues in some provinces who did not get to play any games at all. Some leagues, like the WHL and QMJHL, managed to play partial seasons. Others, like the USHL and some European leagues, managed to play almost an entire season with some teams or players being temporarily shut down from COVID breakouts in the area or among the teams.

As a result, we heard all season leading into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft how weird it would be for players and teams. There was a lot of talk that some teams wanted it to be pushed back, potentially all the way to just before the 2022 NHL Entry Draft in one nightmare of a week, back to back. It’s all because there was a concern that teams would have a harder time scouting players without being able to go to the games, or because some players played so little if at all.

I always thought a lot of that concern was overblown, but it’s undeniable that it did affect a good chunk of prospects who never got to play in their draft year. So the Leafs may find themselves in a situation where they want to give an undrafted prospect an ELC. They may see one of the players in their rookie camp, or in another team’s rookie tournament games, to either offer an ELC directly or invite them to their main camp first. That can help them basically add another prospect who could be considered the equal of a late round pick.

The latter is not without precedent, including for the Leafs. Not many years ago, they invited the undrafted Marc-Antoine Pépin to rookie camp. The Leafs have signed an undrafted teenager to an ELC twice since 2010: Cody Donaghey in 2014, who never made the NHL, and Andrew Crescenzi in 2010, who has played in the NHL for two games.

Who Could the Leafs Sign to an ELC?

The more obvious group to look at for potential signings is who the Leafs already invited to their rookie camp, and especially those who were kept around to play in the Traverse City Tournament Roster which trimmed a bunch of the original names. On the tournament roster, there are seven players who went undrafted but are still eligible for the next NHL Entry Draft:

  • Jordan Frasca — 6’1” center on the Kingston Frontenacs, 20 years old
  • Brett Budgell — 6’0” winger on the Charlottetown Islanders, 20 years old
  • James Hardie — 6’0” winger on the Mississauga Steelheads, 19 years old
  • Colby Saganiuk — 5’8” center from the USHL, set to play in the OHL, 18 years old.
  • Braeden Kressler — 5’9” center on the Flint Firebirds, 18 years old.
  • Vincent Sévigny — 6’3” left-shot defenseman on the Victoriaville Tigres, 20 years old
  • Lleyton Moore — 5’9” left shot defenseman on the Oshawa Generals, 19 years old

The most likely candidates, for me, are James Hardie and Lleyton Moore. Hardie especially was a surprise to go undrafted at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, with 18 different ranking sources having him as high as 77th and as low as 106th. It’s not that uncommon for someone ranked in that range to go undrafted, but Hardie is a not-small winger in the OHL who scored 34 goals in a pandemic-shortened season. He may have been taken in this past draft, but due to the pandemic the OHL never played any games and Hardie wasn’t able to play in any other league. If there’s someone who has made more strides in his development since the 2020 draft, enough to be a good consideration with his offensive talent to get an ELC, it could be Hardie.

Moore had a similar story as Hardie, but as a defenseman. He wasn’t ranked as high as Hardie, and as a smaller defenseman it’s even less unexpected for him to have gone undrafted. He had 28 points in 57 games as a 17 year old defenseman, which is good but not so overwhelmingly good that you’d expect him to be an obvious pick. His draft ranking range was between 97th and 177th, and was ranked by 14 outlets. Here’s a quote from EP Rinkside’s 2020 Draft Guide:

“Moore’s value starts with his mobility, despite a flawed stride. He doesn’t quite get deep enough into his stride and out-toes to finish his recovery, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He crushes most opposition players in footraces, and his agility is even better. His cutbacks create legitimate separation, and within two steps, few players are catching him.

The quickness makes Moore a strong transition player, highlighted by his escape-ability. His decision-making and chain of retrievals — skate, scan, deceive, and escape — is one of the most consistent in the draft. Whether he’s looking for the two-line pass or a three-metre touch pass, his breakout passes keep their target moving. Two improvements are necessary — improving his route-finding (he tends to skate into pressure without a plan), and reducing the random panic-based dump-outs with easy options.”

The others you can look at are all the freshly undrafted OHLers. They’re still 18 years old, and may have gone unclaimed in the 2021 draft only because they didn’t play at all last year. If they would have had surprising breakout seasons last year, and the Leafs see signs of that in the rookie camp and tournament, we could see one of them get an ELC. Braeden Kressler is someone to keep an eye on. EP Rinkside liked him in their 2021 Draft Guide, for his intelligence, two-way play as a small centre, and playmaking.

The final source of potential undrafted players to sign are those who attend another team’s rookie camp. Most of the teams participating in the various tournaments will have them streamed, and the Leafs could always send some scouts to watch them in person — depending on the local COVID protocols. Philippe Myers first attended the Flames’ rookie camp, before the Flyers invited him to their main NHL camp and signed him to an ELC. The Leafs could follow suit, if they’re able to see enough out of a prospect in other camps and games.

Here is a full list of all the 18 and 19 year old prospects who were undrafted and invited to an NHL team’s rookie camp. That’s a long list, so I’ll make a shortlist here of various prospects who I already had been following going into this past draft, or who I know various scouting outlets at least had ranked or interesting traits:

  • Simon Motew (RD) — I wrote about him in my honourable mentions for the 2021 draft as a 6’1”, smooth skating and offensively minded defenseman.
  • Eric Alarie (LW) — skilled offensive producer that drives high danger scoring chances, but has some skating issues that is likely what scared away teams from drafting him.
  • Trevor Wong (C) — very small (5’8”) center who scored at a point per game pace in limited games in his draft year, with a Nick Robertson-like effort at all times with and without the puck
  • Senna Peeters (C) — 6’1” German/Austrian center playing in the QMJHL, had 18 points in 16 games this past year as a D+1 player. Interesting size/skill combo.
  • Nolan Ritchie (C) — 19 year old center who missed most of his draft year with an injury, returned this year and put up 27 points in 24 games in the WHL.
  • Ivan Zhigalov (G) — 18 year old Belarusian goalie, 6’3” and had a .920 sv% playing in Belarus’ second tier pro league as a 17 year old. Will play in the QMJHL this coming season.
  • Rhett Rhinehart (RD) — big 6’4” 19 year old RHD in the WHL, put up 16 points in 21 games. He has a better offensive and skating profile than you might think for his size, but plays good defense for the level as well.
  • Gabe Klassen (LW) — strong goal scoring winger with a great shot, and has good hustle to chase down puck carriers and steal it back. Has some skating issues, similar to Alarie.
  • Jack O’Brien (C) — was considered as a potential 1st rounder going into this season, but struggled after choosing to play this year in the USHL rather than waiting to see if the WHL returned. May be interesting if he added muscle and returns to form from his rookie year two seasons ago.
  • Jeremie Biakabutuka (RD) — big 6’4” defenseman in the QMJL with good skating and interesting skills, but questionable decision making. Could be interesting as a two-way defenseman with size and skating if he improves in that area.
  • Deni Goure (C) — good playmaking center in the OHL with improving skating who already had a good reputation as a defensive forward as a 16 year old rookie.

If there is a year for the Leafs to roll the dice on a potential hidden gem who went undrafted, this year does seem like the most likely in a long time. In theory, with more uncertainty around the draft due to the pandemic, there could be a better chance that a decent prospect or two fell through the cracks — especially from the OHL. And with the Leafs only having three picks for the whole draft, they could take a swing on a player who could be considered the equal of a fifth or sixth round pick.