The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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.”

Wagner was the third Minnesota State underclassman to sign with an NHL team in the last two years and the third to sign as a free agent in the last five.

Last offseason, Blues draft pick David Backes signed following his junior season, and sophomore free agent Ryan Carter signed a maximum rookie contract with the Anaheim Ducks. In 2003, before the NHL put a cap on entry-level contracts, Mavericks sophomore Grant Stevenson signed a mega-deal with the San Jose Sharks worth more than $1 million.

You can hardly blame the players. In the case of a free agent like Wagner, his stock has never been higher. An injury or a slump as a senior and it’s bye-bye bonus.

“It was a pretty good deal, tough to turn away,” Wagner said. “I was planning to come back (to MSU) unless I got a deal I couldn’t turn down. It’s a situation with an organization that needed me and wanted me. It worked out the best it could have.”

For Minnesota State and other schools, it’s a double-edged sword.

On one side, early departures allow programs to tell recruits and ticket holders that they’re bringing in and developing top-tier talent. On the other, the NHL is stealing away that talent and leaving the them with huge holes to fill.

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6373 or e-mail