The road to the NHL, part 3 – Road closures

If it can be said that for every first rounder there are three, four, five or more guys who are selected later on, then the number of guys who are outright overlooked is exponentially higher. Most, of course, are passed over because they simply lack the skill, or the projection of skills, to reach the highest levels. Some, however, are skipped for other, less visible reasons. Maybe they were injured in their draft year. Perhaps they had a lesser role on their junior club and simply lacked the opportunities necessary to gain fans among the scouts. In those cases, the draft can provide a second and even third chance before the purgatory of undrafted free agency beckons.

After looking at top flight prospects on Monday, and mid-range hopefuls on Tuesday, today we look at a few players for whom the draft has already brought a fair amount of heartache. The Guelph Storm’s Zack Mitchell was passed over three times in spite of seeing his offensive production rise each year. No longer eligible for the draft, he was recently signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild a few months before helping his junior team to an OHL championship. In Oshawa, scoring winger Josh Sterk was easily overlooked in his first year of eligibility as he fought through injuries in a bottom six role with the Kitchener Rangers. With a new team came new opportunities and he goes into this weekend with renewed hopes of hearing his name called by an NHL team. On the other end of the spectrum is Sterk’s teammate with the Generals, blueliner Colin Suellentrop. Drafted by Philadelphia in fourth round of the 2011 draft, two years later he was told that the Flyers would not be offering him an entry level contract. Now having completed his OHL eligibility, in spite of a strong junior career, he enters the unexpected uncertainty of free agency.

Colin Suellentrop

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

Most players come to their CHL team with an agent already in tow. Just as OHL scouts find them at ages 14 and 15, agents also hangout at those same bantam tournaments, hoping to lock up tomorrow’s big stars. Of course, not all 14 year old wonders remain elite by the time they are 16, and even more drop by the wayside by 18 and more still by 20. Progress is very rarely linear.

On the road to the show, there are many pratfalls and very few survive the competition. One who seemed so close – and may yet receive a second chance, was Oshawa Generals blueliner Colin Suellentrop, a solidly built dirty blond with an infectious grin hailing from the unlikely hockey bed of Plantation, Florida. Unlike the Canadians above, Suellentrop did not grow up dreaming of stardom in the CHL. He had other options.

“One day it was a choice between either soccer or hockey and I didn’t want to play soccer anymore so I picked roller hockey. It’s outdoor. It’s always outdoor because Florida is always nice outside. Then eventually my Dad transitioned me into ice hockey.”

Young Colin had a local friend named Brady Vail who excelled enough at ice hockey that he was welcomed to a more competitive team in Michigan. Like Vail, Suellentrop turned his Michigan adventure into an OHL career and seemingly, for a time, NHL prospectdom. Both players, Vail with the Windsor Spitfires and Suellertrop with the Generals turned heads with their OHL play and both were drafted by NHL teams. Colin was a fourth round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 and Brady was a fellow fourth rounder one year later with Montreal.

Although each progressed as CHL players, in the end neither was offered a professional contract by their drafting team. Vail will be draft eligible again this year, while Suellentrop is a free agent. He had no idea that the team that drafted him, giving him one of the best days of his life, would walk away from him so abruptly.

“Ian Laperriere, before he became the assistant coach he was always coming to watch our games. Kept tabs on all the drafted players. So they were here quite a bit. Scott Laughton, too, got drafted by them so, they were always here. My agent was in communication with there a little bit…they told my agent (about not being offered a contract). They just said that they didn’t want anything. It was tough. It’s not what you want to hear. Coming back for your overager year, it’s not exactly the position you want to be in. But I’m just trying to make the best of it so far…I mean a lot of it is business and you can’t take it too personal, you’ve got to keep your head up and keep working hard because there still could be chances. Like now I’m an overager and I’m hoping to get something else with some other team. So I’m keep going strong here and keep my head up.”

As of this writing, a contract had not yet rolled in, although NHL scouts talked to for this piece speculated that he could very well receive an one-way, AHL contract. Not quite the much sought after entry level contract his more highly touted peers will receive, but a foot in the door will keep the dream alive.

Josh Sterl, scoring against his former team

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

One of Suellentrop’s teammates last season with Oshawa was late blooming forward Josh Sterk, added to the Generals roster days before the start of the 2013-14 season in a trade with the Kitchener Rangers. Sterk played with Kitchener for two years, the latter of which was his first as an NHL draft eligible.

As a role player who had the added strike of being undersized to his underwhelming production, Sterk wasn’t even considered as a viable draft candidate. Looking back on that year, he was not surprised.

“You know I didn’t really have a great year. I had a couple concussions. I didn’t have the greatest year and obviously I didn’t have the opportunity of playing on the power play and all that stuff but our team was really good last year and I thought we could have made a run for the Mem Cup, but you know obviously it didn’t happen. It was just the opportunity I’ve been getting here. I didn’t really get (in Kitchener), you know, I talked to a few NHL teams and that’s about it.”

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Zack Mitchell, gaining the zone

Image courtesy of Terry Mitchell/ OHL Images

Playing on Robby Fabbri’s left wing, Zack Mitchell is living proof that a player does not need to be drafted to receive NHL attention. Like Sterk, Mitchell was a bit part player before his first year of draft eligibility. He picked it up after being passed over the first time, but was ignored on draft day twice more, making his earlier decision to pass up a role with Harvard seem questionable.

After a final, overage OHL season that was better than anything that came before, Mitchell saw his dreams come true through an entry level contract offered by the Minnesota Wild. While many would have sulked at being passed over after scoring 75 points in 67 games in the OHL, Mitchell took it very matter-of-factly.

“It would have been great to be drafted that year but really I had only shown the scouts what I could do for only one season. Sometimes they might think it might be a fluke or something. But I didn’t get drafted in my second year I wasn’t going to give up or anything they just wanted to see more and more consistency over the next couple of years…I had meetings with some NHL teams. I wasn’t sure, my agent wasn’t sure. I knew there were teams that were interested in me throughout the year but going to the draft I knew that it wasn’t a sure thing and if it didn’t happen than I saw a few more years still to prove myself. When I scored 75 points they knew that the offense was there but coaches want to see more of a complete game. So I wanted to focus on both ends of the rink, contribute defensively and I think the last year I happened to have a great year offensively but I thought my game grew defensively. This year it’s all come together. I play a lot of penalty killing and I try to be responsible on both ends. You know,  get the puck out and be responsible. I think it’s just playing a more complete game. I played both penalty killing and the power-play and I try to take pride at playing both ends of the ice.”

In spite of his offensive proclivities, Mitchell did play a two way game towards the end of his run with Guelph, and is just as comfortable making a no-look drop pass to an open teammate in the slot as he is defending the opposition’s best during the penalty kill.

In spite of playing the game he thought would give him the opportunity he had sought for nearly his entire life, when the chance finally came, it was unexpected.

“To be honest I had no idea Minnesota had any interest in me until my agent called me and told me they had a contract for me. I leave that stuff up to my agent but I had no idea about who he was talking to. He told me that there were two teams interested but they told me the week before I signed that two teams are interested with nothing concrete and told me to just keep playing well. I hadn’t even heard of Minnesota (being interested) until he accepted the contract and was quite surprised…I had been to camps in the past couple of summers, with Carolina and the summer before with Winnipeg. This year I only talked to maybe an LA Kings scout…It was pretty much just that I didn’t even talk to anybody from the organization until after it was announced. I have a lot of people working hard for me, my coaches as well as my general manager Mike Kelly. That’s what happens when you have good people in your corner.”

Good people in your corner and good hockey skills in your body. As shown by the success of a player like Justin Fontaine this year, Minnesota has not been afraid to take chances on undrafted free agents and Mitchell has an excellent chance to be their next success story.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

 

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