How do you improve your NHL team? Before the salary cap, you could sign and trade willy nilly. Worst case scenario, that big-name, high-priced, free-agent pickup tanks, and you set your sights on someone else. Nowadays, there is a very low ceiling that teams are constantly bumping their rich heads into. By the time players reach the wonderfully exciting status of free agent, their price-to-performance ratio is at its worst. Trades are just as difficult, as contracts are weighed at least as heavily as talent when trying to get a swap done.
Drafting is hit-or-miss and picks are often traded away when your GM thinks the trade-deadline acquisition of Zenon Zonopka is really going to put your eam over the top. The biggest bang for the buck however, are the players who slipped through the draft. When a team puts on their collective Indiana Jones fedora, explores the deep dark world outside of the NHL, and discovers a truly magical gem, that can change the fortunes of their franchise with their face-melting talent. Many try and many fail. The risk is small but the potential reward vast.
This list is the 20 best undrafted players in the NHL today. Thirty teams initially said “no thanks”. Seven soul-crushing, dream-shattering rounds went by without their name called. Did they hang up the skates and go work for their Uncle Rick in construction? No, they decided to triumph above it all. These are the heroes, these are the undrafted 20. The teams that end up finding these gems after the draft are the league’s more successful teams, as getting such an impact player at such a low cost puts a team in a tremendous position to succeed. This list takes into account the players’ body of work throughout their careers and not necessarily where they are right now.
20. Torey Krug
The NHL has changed quite a bit over the past few seasons. Enforcers that can’t skate are on their way out as more and more teams roll four lines. The game’s speed is at an all-time high and the transition game has never been more important. Now is the time for diminutive puck-moving defencemen. After becoming the first defenseman to lead the CCHA in scoring since 1986, he signed with Boston. Krug racked up 40 points in his first full NHL season. At just 23 he looks to have a tremendous career ahead of him.
19. Tyler Johnson
Another instance where size scared away potential suitors. Johnson did nothing but score in junior. He was not only dynamic offensively, but voted Top Defensive Forward and Top Faceoff Man as well. After bagging 115 points in 71 games during his last junior season, he finally earned NHL interest, and a contract from Tampa Bay. He immediately tore it up in the AHL with 68 goals in his first two seasons. He became a full time NHL’er after that, nominated for the Calder while setting a Lightning rookie record for goals in a season with 24.
18. Rene Bourque
Rene Bourque was not your typical teen. He made the conservative choice. He put his education first, declining the opportunity to play for Saskatoon in the WHL, to retain his college eligibility. This decision contributed to him not being drafted by any NHL team, but Bourque believed a full scholarship was the highest priority. He made good on his word, as he not only led the team in scoring, but also won the Ivan B. Williamson Scholastic Award as well. After his college years, Bourque signed with Chicago and immediately set a franchise record for goals as a Norfolk Admiral in the AHL. Even with all of his tools, Bourque has struggled to maintain consistency. After middling years in Chicago he posted three straight 20-goal seasons in Calgary, but ran into injury and suspension issues. He was eventually traded to Montreal, but was eventually demoted to the AHL, before being traded to Anaheim.
17. Jason Garrison
You could call Garrison a late bloomer. Or perhaps it’s that famous laid-back attitude prevalent in his native British Columbia. He didn’t even switch to defence until he was 19. The switch served him well however, as he was offered an athletic scholarship to begin his college hockey career. Garrison skipped his final year of school when the Panthers offered him a contract. He spent four years in their organization with his breakout year coinciding (as it so often does) with his contract year. His 16 goals and 33 points garnered him plenty of interest around the league. He chose his hometown Canucks but caught them in a transitional time. He lasted just two seasons before his salary was shipped back to Florida, where he currently plays for the Lightning.
16. Tyler Bozak
They say on any given night in Ontario, if you listen real hard, you can hear an armchair GM offering “Bozak and a second round pick”. Until that trade actually happens, Tyler Bozak will remain the Leafs on-and-off no.1 centre and the alongside Phil Kessel. It’s a far cry from the days when he couldn’t even crack a WHL roster. Bozak instead played three seasons in the BCHL, winning the Brett Hull trophy as top scorer in his final year. He parlayed that success into a college career with the University of Denver, which led to a contract with the Maple Leafs. Bozak majored in Business at Denver and he put that knowledge to good use in Toronto. Despite never cracking 50 points, Bozak secured $21 million over five years from GM Dave Nonis in 2013.
15. David Clarkson
Dubbed “the contract” in Toronto, David Clarkson has learned the hard way that Mo’ Money = Mo’ Problems. Clarkson’s contract is similar to signing a deal with the devil. He had an easy life in New Jersey. He had little expectations, was thought of as a great team guy, and any contribution he made offensively was a fantastic bonus. He lost all of that when he signed the huge contract. He now makes more money than he ever thought possible, but it came at a big cost. He will never produce what his contract is worth.
His meager contributions are no longer considered a bonus, they will forever be a disappointment. Nonis’ greedy excitement to sign the next Wendel Clark has damaged Clarkson’s career, and potentially his own. While he’s on a bad contract, he’s most certainly not a bad player.
14. Jonas Hiller
Deemed undraftable, Hiller went on to win Swiss championships in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006. This got him noticed by the Anaheim Ducks, where he eventually replaced J.S. Giguere. The greatest thing Hiller did for the Ducks was give then-GM Brian Burke the confidence to waive Ilya Bryzgalov and avoid the nightmare Philadelphia went through. Hiller went on to some great playoff performances with Anaheim but was never able to match Giguere’s ultimate success.
Loaded with young goaltending talent, the Ducks let Hiller walk as a UFA. He signed with the Flames and was a big part of their incredibly surprising first quarter success this season. They have recently come back to Earth, but Hiller has proven he’s still got it.
13. Zbynêk Michalek
Older brothers are used to the younger sibling getting everything handed to them. In this case, younger brother Milan was drafted sixth overall, while Zbynêk had to create his own NHL opportunity. After two years in the QMJHL, he signed with the Minnesota Wild and played another three years in the AHL with a short NHL stint. He was traded to the Coyotes where he put in five solid seasons, even posting the most blocked shots in 2008-09.
He scored a nice 5-year, $20 million contract with the Penguins. He was traded back to the Coyotes after just two seasons. He’s now the subject of constant trade rumours as his contract expires after this season, and several teams could use his skills. After 30 teams passed on the chance to draft him, it’s nice to see so many GM’s making offers for the “other” Michalek.
12. Vernon Fiddler
If you’re familiar with Vernon Fiddler’s game, it should come as no surprise that he made the NHL though sheer will and pesky determination. Undrafted, he used that famous work ethic to make the most of an opportunity with two ECHL teams, eventually earning a contract with Nashville. Fiddler spent parts of four seasons in the AHL until he finally stuck with the big club. He scored 11 goals three years running before he moved on to the Coyotes, and eventually his current team, Dallas. The 5-foot-11, 38-year-old fan favorite defied all the odds.
11. Dan Girardi
The type of qualities that made Dan Girardi unwanted throughout his draft years are the same qualities that make him wanted now. He doesn’t rack up a ton of points, he doesn’t make flashy high-risk plays, he doesn’t do anything to stand out, works for a shut-down defender. He also wins. Girardi took home two OHL Championships and the Memorial Cup, and was a big piece of the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last year.
10. Josh Gorges
Josh Gorges has always been about leadership and winning. He captained the 2004 Kelowna Rockets to a Memorial Championship, and won a silver medal with Canada at the 2004 World Juniors. He was also captain for Canada during the 2003 Russia-Canada challenge game. None of this was enough to get him drafted however, and he had to settle for a free-agent contract with the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks soon gave up two important pieces to the Montreal Canadiens when they traded Gorges and the pick that became Max Pacioretty, for Craig Rivet.
Gorges went on to provide eight solid seasons of heart-and-soul play, and many thought he would be the next captain. However it was not to be, as Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin needed some room for PK Subban’s upcoming monster contract, and Gorges was the guy to go. He was a Hab to the end though, as his last action was to stick it to Toronto and block a trade to the hated Leafs.
9. Sergei Bobrovsky
In 2006, NHL teams were very tentative to spend a draft pick on a Russian-born player, for fear of them staying home. Because of this, Philadelphia didn’t act on their interest in Sergei Bobrovsky, and let him slide by. During Bobrovsky’s four seasons in Russia, Philadelphia went though six different goaltenders in their never-ending quest to find “the one”.
Like a divorcé on Facebook, Philly looked into their past for a potential hook up. They found one in Bobrovsky, who signed a three-year deal. The Flyers goaltending strategy is to rush, so they promptly made him the starter, and the rookie performed admirably in 56 games, although he had a disappointing playoff. This is where things got crazy in Philadelphia. The Flyers moved out franchise pieces Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and used that cap space to sign Ilya Bryzgalov, which meant the eventual trade of a now-redundant Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was a distracting headcase, costing the Flyers $23 million in a buyout, while Bobrovsky became the first Russian to ever win the Vezina. The Flyers can only watch as he provides the elite goaltending they haven’t had since the 90’s.
8. Alex Burrows
Alex Burrows, the Frodo Baggins of the NHL. Unwanted in the draft, he set out on a long and epic journey through strange lands like the ECHL and the Ball Hockey World Championships, before clawing his way up to the NHL. Canucks broadcaster John Shorthouse even used the phrase “slayed the dragon” to describe Burrows’s climactic OT playoff elimination goal against the rival Chicago Blackhawks.
An inspiration to anyone chasing their dreams. Burrows is a testament that hard work can eventually pay off. His play in the ECHL got him a fourth-line spot in the AHL which got him a fourth-line spot with the Canucks, which eventually led to a first-line scoring position alongside two Art Ross winners.
In a league with far too many players making far too much, it was a beautiful sight to see Burrows, who previously made $500 a week, sign a hard-earned contract for $4 million over four years.
7. Andy Greene
Andy Greene graduated from Miami University which is proud to be the “No.1 Most Efficient National University Producing High Quality Results”, even if no one knows what that means. Apparently it means that can turn an undraftee into a no.1 defender on an NHL team.
After his college days, he was offered a two-way contract with New Jersey. Greene was able to make a name for himself while replacing injured Devils defenders Colin White and Johnny Oduya in the 2006-07 season. The Devils brought Greene up for good in the playoffs that year, even scratching veteran Oduya to keep Greene playing. Greene currently anchors the top line, providing stability for a team going through a very rough period.
6. Pascal Dupuis
Pascal Dupuis played four years of QMJHL hockey but couldn’t catch the eye of an NHL team at the draft. He was eventually signed by Minnesota and given a developmental year in the IHL. He worked his way up to the NHL and scored 20 goals in his second season with the Wild. He couldn’t match that and was bounced around to the Rangers and Atlanta before hitting the jackpot in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins model of “Crosby-Malkin and everyone else”, is always hungry for cheap wingers who can finish the grade-A chances their two offensive wizards conjure up. Dupuis didn’t hit the 20 goal mark in those first few years as a Penguin but he scored something far greater, a Stanley Cup. Many other players attempt to parlay their success with a team into greater financial offers, but Dupuis stuck with the team for which he could thrive.
5. Mark Giordano
Undrafted to the OHL and the NHL, Giordano was enrolled to start a regular life at a Toronto University when Mike Futa changed his life. Futa, then the GM of the Owen Sound Attack loved Giordano’s attitude, saying “I’ve never met a more humble kid”, and convinced him that a year in the OHL could be a great opportunity for his career.
After winning the Best OHL Over-Ager, he scored a three-year contract with then-Flames GM Darryl Sutter, for a chance to develop in the AHL. When that expired and Giordano couldn’t get the one-way contract he demanded, he went against the grain and signed in Russia. Sutter obviously didn’t agree with this decision, stating “I think he made a mistake” in what was most likely a very stern way. Time has told us that the experience Giordano gained in Russia playing alongside Danny Markov was definitely not a mistake, as Giordano is now the Flames captain and in the running for Norris consideration.
4. Dan Boyle
Miami University continues to show off in our top-20 list with Stanley Cup winner Dan Boyle. His time with the Miami Hockey Machine eventually gained him the notice of the Florida Panthers. They signed him, giving him the chance to finally see the Miami that all of his confused relatives thought he actually played for. While seasoning in the AHL, Boyle was one of the lucky few to ever don the “Spruce, plum and white” of the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Lasting only from 1996-2001, the Thoroughblades sported a hilarious plum-haired muscular-horse-on-skates as their logo, won two divisional championships and helped develop NHLers Zdeno Chara, Evgeni Nabokov, and Mikka Kiprusoff.
After four years in their organization, highlighted with a 22-point NHL season, the Panthers decided they would rather have a fifth-round pick (Martin Tüma), and Boyle was traded to the closest possible NHL team, Tampa Bay. Boyle soon won a Stanley Cup, was regarded as one of the top offensive-defencemen in the NHL, and cashed in with a superstar worthy contract.
3. Antti Niemi
Some folks swear that to win a Stanley Cup, you need to do whatever it takes to acquire an elite, superstar goaltender. Chicago went and signed a former zamboni driver instead. Niemi worked part-time cleaning the ice in Finland until he could secure a job that more closely suited his goaltending skills. After appearing with the Finnish National team, Chicago gave Niemi a shot, and started him in the AHL. He split time with another future Stanley Cup winner, Corey Crawford before making a late-season debut in the NHL.
Niemi stuck with the Blackhawks after the following training camp and started his dream season with two games in Finland. He out-battled Christobal Huet and was designated the starter in the playoffs. Niemi, smashed the San Jose Sharks’ Stanley Cup dreams, posting two shutouts in that series, the first Blackhawk since Tony Esposito to do it.
The Blackhawks, up against the cap, decided Niemi’s Stanley Cup win wasn’t worth the $2.75 million awarded in arbitration and they parted ways. The San Jose think-tank deduced that if Niemi played for them, he couldn’t shut them out and thus signed him immediately. With young Alex Stalock nipping at his heels, Niemi needs to take the Sharks deep into this years playoffs or he could be facing a very tough off-season.
2. Chris Kunitz
Kunitz seems to have the special ingredient that helps teams win.
Kunitz went the college route, joining the lowly (at the time) Ferris State Bulldogs. By the time of his Senior year, Kunitz led Ferris State to it’s first ever NCAA tournament appearance with his Hobey-Baker-finalist worthy performance. This caught the eye of Anaheim, and they gave him a contract and a spot in the AHL. Kunitz almost wound up a Thrasher when Atlanta claimed him on the waiver wire.
Luckily for him, the Ducks snatched him back when they could. Kunitz responded by breaking the Anaheim record for rookies points in a season, previously held by third-most-popular-Duck-ever Paul Kariya (behind Selanne and Emilio Estevez). Kunitz brought his Ferris State magic to Anaheim and helped them win their first ever Stanley Cup. Not one for nostalgia, Anaheim soon dealt him to the Penguins for Ryan Whitney. Kunitz again cast the magic he learned in Ferris State to help the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup since the Lemieux era. Kunitz never experienced the thrill of hearing his name called at the NHL draft, but he’ll have to settle with two Stanley Cups and a college degree.
1. Martin St. Louis
The poster boy for it all. Too small they said. Too little to compete in a big-man’s game. How could a little guy like Marty ever give you as much competitive grit as 6-foot-6 Nik Antropov! Theo Fleury? Never heard of him! If Marty just had an Antropov-esque career, that would be more than enough to make this list, but he has earned his spot at the top.
Initially signed by the Calgary Flames, Calgary looked at his diminutive frame and impressive scoring resume, and oddly decided he should be a gritty third-line checker. St. Louis credits the 56 games he spent that season as his “crash course in defensive hockey.” Marty’s 56 games earned him a second year with Calgary GM Al Coates. However, Al Coates did not earn a second year for himself, and after he was fired, the new management team was on a roll, and released St. Louis as well.
Thus began the legend of ‘Lightning Louis’ (made-up name). Initially struggling, he eventually remembered that he was not a gritty-third-line checker, and that he was in fact, a scoring machine. In a few seasons, he was leading the league in points, winning his first of two Art Ross trophies, and leading the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup. St. Louis continued adding to his legend with a few Lady Byngs and another Art Ross. Along with the word “no”, Marty also doesn’t seem to understand the word “aging”, as he won his second Art Ross at the ripe old age of 37.
After being left off Team Canada’s original roster for the 2014 Olympics, he demanded a trade to the Rangers, and promptly led his new team to its first Stanley Cup Final in 10 years. A future hall of famer, encompassing everything it takes for an undrafted player to make it.
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