The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

March 27, 2007

NHL begins annual raid of college hockey

It’s become an annual rite of spring:

The weather warms up, the snow melts away and the National Hockey League hovers over college hockey as its teams drop, one by one, from postseason play.

Professional teams quickly begin signing draft picks and free agents, grabbing some extra help for the playoffs and bolstering their minor-league stables with fresh meat.

They don’t discriminate, either. They don’t care if the players are seniors who have just completed their college eligibility, like Minnesota State’s Travis Morin, or if they’re underclassmen who have been in a team’s future plans, like Morin’s teammate Steve Wagner.

In the case of the underclassmen, the NHL comes along dangling max contracts and $85,000 signing bonuses to lure the youngsters away from school.

Already, at least 17 college players have signed with NHL teams, and 12 of them — including five WCHA players — have left school with eligibility remaining.

Wagner, a junior defenseman and assistant captain, signed with the St. Louis Blues last week. He played his first three professional games over the weekend, getting one assist for the American Hockey League’s Peoria Rivermen.

Undrafted as an 18-year-old, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wagner toiled in the United States Hockey League for two seasons and spent the last three with the Mavericks where he turned into a rock-solid WCHA defenseman. He had a breakout junior season, more than doubling his career statistics by scoring six goals and assisting on 23 others.

Suddenly, Wagner was on the radar of many pro scouts, and, as a free agent, he was the next item up for bids.

“We’d love to have him back,” MSU coach Troy Jutting said last week. “It’s unfortunate to lose another free agent early. But it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.”

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