Constructing an effective NHL roster can be more complex than building a 3D puzzle of a National Park. Drafting and developing your own players is only part of the multi-faceted equation. Teams also must navigate the trade market and free agency. More specifically to the latter point, there’s the college free agent market. These are typically players a few years older than those selected at the NHL Entry Draft, so they tend to be a bit closer to a finished product, rather than an estimate of future career potential.
This also happens to be an area the Kings have done quite well in during Rob Blake’s tenure as GM. After inheriting cupboards that were largely bare following years of LA being Cup contenders and trading away assets to stay in the hunt, Blake and his scouts dipped into the college UFA pool to snag Alex Iafallo, Blake Lizotte, and Cal Petersen. Not every signing is a success story, yet it’s still a viable way to add players to an organization without beyond the more common methods.
As we recently discussed in detail on Kings Of The Podcastdiscussed in detail on Kings Of The Podcast, the Kings do have a contract spot reserved to sign a college UFA this spring. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to get it done, simply that they are trying and have one contract spot to use, despite being near the NHL contract limit.
Getting a player to sign with the organization may prove to be more challenging than in years past, where there was more of a clear path for certain guys to ‘jump the line’ (ala Lizotte) because LA’s prospects were still too young and inexperienced, not quite ready to make the NHL jump. On the flip side, if one of the college UFAs has full confidence in his abilities and wants to join a team on the upswing, it’s widely believed the Kings are building a Cup contender and have all the pieces necessary to have many years of success in the not too distant future. Thus, this could be a good time to hop aboard the train.
We believe there are three potential candidates the Kings have in mind this season:
Dennis Cesana, Defenseman, Michigan State
Junior, right shot, 5-foot-10, 195 lbs, 22 years old
2019-20 Season Stats: 22 points (7 G, 15 A) in 36 games
2020-21 Season Stats: 12 points (2 G, 10 A) in 27 games
Voted to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, and then to the All-Big Ten Second Team as a sophomore. Scored the lone goal for Michigan State vs. Brock Faber’s Minnesota team last weekend in the Big Ten Tournament. He’s an undersized, wide-bodied, thick offensive minded defenseman. While his numbers may not suggest top-end offensive skills, he plays at defensive minded Michigan State, where he’s a focal point for opposing teams. Cesana skates very well and has an equally heavy shot from the blueline. Scouts note that he’s a competitive, puck-rush type player. He also wore a letter for the Spartans this year. Attended Development Camp with the Washington Capitals in 2019.
Learn more about Cesana's life in the rink. pic.twitter.com/T8qoQKuqzY
— Spartan Athletics (@MSU_Athletics) January 12, 2021
Matt Kiersted, Defenseman – North Dakota
Senior, left shot, 6-foot, 175 lbs, 22 years old
2019-20 Season Stats: 29 points (6 G, 23 A) in 33 games
2020-21 Season Stats: 21 points (3 G, 18 A) in 27 games
Serving as an alternate captain for the second season, he was an NCHC offensive Defenseman of the Year finalist for 2019-20. There are not many holes in his game, yet he also doesn’t have that one defining elite trait either (like Jake Sanderson’s skating ability or Tyler Kleven’s shot). Kiersted doesn’t have deficiencies and he’s pretty good at just about everything. A solid, two-way defenseman, he’s a good skater, sees the ice well, and is a clean puck mover. He’s also a shot blocking master. Possesses a solid offensive game with good instincts for when to jump in on the rush and from the blueline, where he quarterbacks UND’s top power play unit. Kiersted rarely gets caught with a bad pinch and is efficient at moving pucks out of the zone. Now playing in all situations for one of the nation’s top teams, he’s improved during his time at North Dakota and is considered one of the true leaders on the team. Signing him will be an uphill challenge for the Kings, as Kiersted is regarded as the top prize among the 2021 college UFA class and nearly every NHL team has eyes on him. He attended Development Camp with the Winnipeg Jets in 2019. Last weekend, UND won the NCHC tournament and they’ll now be headed to the NCAA playoffs, so their season many not even end until after the Frozen Four championship game on April 10. It could easily be a month from now before Keirsted even begins the process of selecting his future NHL team.
Mike Hardman, Right Wing – Boston College
Sophomore, left shot, 6-foot-2, 190 lbs, 22 years old
2019-20 Season Stats: 25 points (12 G, 13 A) in 34 games
2020-21 Season Stats: 18 points (10 G, 8 A) in 23 games
After being passed over in previous NHL Drafts, Hardman entered college a year older than most players do by virtue of where his birthday falls on the calendar. He’s another player who figures to not be anywhere near a decision some time soon. Despite BC being eliminated in double-overtime by UMass Lowell in the Big East tournament last weekend, Hardman and the No. 1 ranked Eagles are expected to go on a deep run in the NCAA tourney that begins next week. A Massachusetts native, he attended Development Camp with his hometown Boston Bruins in 2019. A power forward, who plays a hard and heavy game, Hardman has a good touch around the net, plays with a pair of high-end NHL first rounders in Matthew Boldy (Minnesota Wild) and Alex Newhook (Colorado Avalanche). He does a good job of getting to the net and hard areas of ice, has good board play and net front presence. One of the advantages he possesses that should allow him to quickly progress through an NHL team’s pipeline is he’s a physically strong player, has a good compete and brings a willingness to play a power game. Scouts note his improved play in college hockey, including last year where he found lots of success without getting power play time. He then built upon that offensive success this season. Opposing players note he’s hard working and has a good shot. Hardman would be a solid add for the LA Kings.
Like the entire hockey world, the current pandemic has not only played havoc with the college hockey schedule this season, it will likely impact what happens in the coming weeks. With so many games cancelled, thus reducing viewings, along with many NHL teams now operating with reduced budgets, the general expectation is there will be fewer college free agents signed to NHL deals. What this would most likely lead to is an increase in AHL only contracts for much of this year’s class. That can also be a lucrative route, as it was for Sean Walker. He first signed a deal with the Ontario Reign before eventually earning an NHL contract with the Kings.
One player not listed above is Ben Meyers from Minnesota. While the Kings have likely seen more than enough of him, as he’s teammates with prized prospect Brock Faber on the Gophers, those close to the situation believe he’ll be going back for his junior season. Minnesota is stacked and look to be making another run at a national title again next season. Their D-core will return a year better, plus they have a handful of incoming forwards who will help with skill and depth. Additionally, scouts say his play of late isn’t like Lizotte’s trajectory, when he came out a year earlier than expected. Lizotte was the best player on the ice during the playoffs that year.
Two players who won’t initially sign contracts with the Kings, yet are names to watch would be defenseman Akito Hirose (MSU-Mankato) and forward Mark Cheremeta (Ohio State). Both are likely going back to school for another season, yet they’re on LA ‘s radar. The latter has already committed to attending Kings Development Camp this summer.
What about forward Jackson Cates from Minnesota Duluth? Could he possibly join former teammate Mikey Anderson with the Kings? We’d be pretty shocked to see him sign with LA. Instead, expect him to join the Flyers organization.
A few other names on the college free agent market, none expected to sign with LA: Jordan Kawaguchi of North Dakota (we profiled him last year here) and Chayse Primeau, Omaha (Keith’s son).
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Lead Photo by Thom Kendall / Boston College, others via Michigan State and North Dakota