A history of NCAA players leaving the NHL team that drafted them

With recent Calgary Flames first-round pick Matthew Coronato off to such a strong start to his first college season at Harvard and with Adam Fox looking like he’ll be right back in contention for the Norris Trophy again this season, it’s becoming a hot topic among Flames fans to discuss the chances of actually retaining Coronato as a prospect. After all, the Calgary crowd has made booing Fox at every opportunity a thing now—an outcome the Flames will want to avoid altogether for any current and future prospect.

Controlling college outcomes

For those unfamiliar with all of the rules of the NHL draft, it’s stated in the leagues collective bargaining agreement that drafted NCAA players who have graduated and have also waited longer than 30 days after leaving the NCAA to sign a contract become free agents.

This typically gives players coming out of the NCAA system more control over their careers, which is why this route is exercised as often as it has been. So let’s take a look at some of the most notable instances of players taking this route.

Adam Fox

2016 third-round pick by the Calgary Flames

NCAA School: Harvard University

First off let’s just get right to Fox. He’s arguably the most notable current player to have not signed with the team that drafted him, and he’s also the Calgary pick that did so.

Fox was drafted in the third round by the Flames and played two very strong seasons in the NCAA before his intensions not to sign with Calgary were made clear and he was included in the Lindholm and Hanifin trade which saw the Flames parting with Fox’s rights, Dougie Hamilton, and Michael Ferland.

Carolina then hoped to try and sign him but also found themselves in the same situation as Calgary. So they traded him to his desired landing spot in New York, where he has just signed a seven-year, $66.5M contract extension after winning the Norris Trophy as a 23-year-old playing in his second full NHL season.

Alexander Kerfoot

2012 fifth-round pick by the New Jersey Devils

NCAA College: Harvard University

Alexander Kerfoot is the second Harvard player on this list—which will soon be clear as a bit of an unfortunate trend. He was drafted in the fifth round but was able to really progress during his tenure at Harvard to the point where he was looking like an absolute steal. At the time he was finishing college the Devils had a lot of depth at the centre position, which caused him to look elsewhere for ice-time. This led him to Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche, where he played for two years before getting traded to Toronto as part of the Nazem Kadri deal.

Jimmy Vesey

2012 third-round pick by the Nashville Predators

NCAA College: Harvard University

Jimmy Vesey is one of the more well known occurrences of this happening. People still joke about the infamous Vesey sweepstakes to this day. Coming out of college he was looking like a prospect with insanely high potential and had suitors all around the league hoping to sign him. The Sabres even traded away their 2016 third-round pick for his draft rights to the Predators in hopes it would help them sign him.

Unfortunately for Buffalo it didn’t and Vesey ended up signing with the Rangers. He hasn’t quite had the career that was expected of him since the sweepstakes. But the similarities between his Harvard to New York trajectory are sure interesting when put side by side with Fox.

Kevin Hayes

2010 first-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks

NCAA College: Boston College

Kevin Hayes is the only first-round pick in this list. Going into the 2010 draft, he was mostly being projected as a second- or third-round pick, and the Chicago Blackhawks ended up surprising the hockey world by taking him late in the first round. While playing in the NCAA, he helped Boston win a NCAA championship in 2012 and helped them win the Eastern Conference in 2013. His decision to leave the Blackhawks was one that many found odd especially considering the success of the franchise at the time.

Like Fox and Vesey, Hayes also ended up finding his way to the New York Rangers after becoming a rookie free agent.

Playing hardball at Harvard

One thing that connects a lot of these players is the transition from playing at the Harvard University and somehow ending up with the New York Rangers. But of course, there’s more destinations than just New York.

Currently there are seven active Harvard alumni in the NHL. These being Fox, Kerfoot, Vesey, Jack Rathbone, John Marino, Ryan Donato, and Alex Killorn. Rathbone, Donato, and Killorn all initially signed with the teams that drafted them, but Fox, Kerfoot, Vesey, and Marino did not. Marino had a different circumstance as he was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 2021 sixth-round pick, who Edmonton used to select Shane Lachance.

As it stands, more than half of the current Harvard alumni in the NHL did not end up signing with the team that drafted them. While each player is different, the trend is deeply concerning as we look forward at Matthew Coronato who of course plays at Harvard.

Outlook on Coronato

While the Harvard Crimson to Rangers connection looks scary when put in perspective, the Flames aren’t completely doomed to see Coronato put on a Rangers jersey. One thing in the Flames favour is that many of these other Harvard prospects were later round picks who tend to be more likely to play four whole years in college so they can raise their stock and develop for longer.

As a first-round selection, it’s likely we see Flames management try to get Coronato in a Flames jersey a bit earlier than seen with the players listed above, especially if he’s able to continue to play at the pace he has so far.

Of course, Calgary also has one of the best players in franchise history in Johnny Gaudreau coming out of the NCAA. Clearly keeping him in a Flames jersey was not an issue. Also in recent years, the Flames saw NCAA alumni Mark Jankowski and Connor Mackey play in the Flaming C as well.

It is abundantly clear though that should Coronato keep playing at the rate he has so far this college season, Brad Treliving should really start looking at signing him as early as possible. The risk of possibly losing him or letting some of his value dip after he possibly declares his attention not to re-sign two years from now is too great, especially keeping in mind the possibility of his following in the footsteps of many of his fellow Harvard alumni.

Coronato is already ranked as one of, if not the Flames’ best prospect right now. Let’s hope the Flames manage his development as best as possible so he can turn into one of the Flames’ best NHLers in the future.

Photo credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

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