Four intriguing NCAA free agents who fit the Flyers’ mold

The Flyers have had recent success fishing the NCAA talent pool for late-bloomers and overlooked players. Matt Read and Harry Zolnierczyk are two of the current Flyers that took the academic route, playing four seasons each of NCAA hockey.

Read is a small forward from Bemidji State University who came out of school at 24 years old. The Calgary native was named the CHA Rookie of the Year in 2007-08 and the CHA Player of the Year in 2009-10. As a senior captain in 2010-11, Read was named to the WCHA All-Academic Team. Read led all NHL rookies last season with 24 goals and finished fourth with 47 points.

Zolnierczyk is a scrappy forward from Brown University who tallied 206 penalty minutes in his final two years to accompany 64 points. The feisty leader earned NCAA Ivy-League Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2010-11. Zolnierczyk was named to the ECAC All-Academic Team in 2008-09.

Philadelphia’s prospect pool is shallow, especially lacking depth on defense and in net. As the NCAA regular season comes to an end, I go under the surface of four under-appreciated NCAA prospects with NHL-upside.

Image courtesy of collegehockeyinc.

Image courtesy of collegehockeyinc.

Eric Hartzell – G

Senior, Quinnipiac University

The top-ranked Bobcats are one of the nation’s best stories this year, earning its first ECAC regular season title since joining the conference in 2005-06. One of the main reasons for the team’s 26-6-5 record is netminder, Eric Hartzell. The 6-foot-4 and 190 pound goaltender is one of the top candidates for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, after posting sensational numbers in net. The reliable stalwart in the pipes led the nation and set a new school-record with 26 wins. Hartzell has started in 36 of the Bobcats’ 37 games, putting together a remarkable 26-5-5 mark. His 1.50 goal-against-average ranks third nationally, while his save percentage of .935 ties him for sixth.

Hartzell’s stellar senior campaign has been a compilation of a steady career of improvement. Last season the goalie finished with a 12-11-6 overall record with a 2.20 goals-against-average and a .913 save percentage. Hartzell’s 2.20 GAA broke Quinnipiac’s single-season record, which magnifies his numbers this season even more. The senior netminder has become a stabilizing presence in goal for the Bobcats, shutting the door in crucial situations in order to solidify the win. In some cases signing an older, experienced goalie out of college is a benefit because they have been studying the game, becoming more technically sound and gain composure in net. Perhaps the most telling stat regarding Hartzell is that he has allowed three or more goals just five times this season.

Many NHL teams have taken notice of the exceptional play by Hartzell, including the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers invited Hartzell to its prospect camp this past summer, so don’t be surprised if rumors heat up linking the two again.

Image courtesy of Douglas Jones

Image courtesy of Douglas Jones

Parker Milner – G

Senior, Boston College

The Pittsburgh, PA native has been a stellar goaltender for Jerry York’s No. 5 ranked Eagles in Chestnut Hill. Milner shined in partial duty as a freshman, finishing with a 10-2-1 record. In Hockey East play Milner had an 8-1-1 record, a league-low 1.93 goals against average and a league-high .921 save percentage. After a strong first year, the netminder played in just eight games as a sophomore recording a 2.68 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage.

As a junior, Milner dominated the cage starting in 34 games and recording a 29-5-0 mark. He led the nation in goalie win percentage (.853) registering a 1.66 GAA and a .937 save percentage. Milner finished the year on a 19-game win streak; recording a 1.09 GAA and a .960 save percentage during that stretch. The Eagles’ tender earned Hockey East All-Tournament honors after going 4-0 with a 1.50 GAA and a .955 save percentage. Milner was named Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Frozen Four for a performance that matched the likes of Ken Dryden (Cornell), Gerry Powers (Denver), and Tim Regan (Boston University). The Boston College goalie went 4-0 with a remarkable 0.50 GAA and an amazing .982 save percentage in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

The 6-foot-1, 188-pound netminder saw a slight dip in his numbers this season, earning a 22-9-4 record with a 2.52 GAA and a .915 save percentage. Milner had to battle more defensively this season, trying to stabilize a defensive unit hit by a rash of injuries. The fact remains, Milner has 64 career victories and a .764 winning percentage. The Pennsylvania native knows how to win and plays his best under the brightest lights.

Image courtesy of NET Sports

Image courtesy of NET Sports

Andrej Sustr – D

Junior, University of Nebraska-Omaha

By far the biggest player on this list, Sustr is an absolute mammoth standing 6’8” and weighing 225 pounds. Three years ago Sustr came over from Plzen, Czech Republic as an unpolished giant with poor skating ability, but showed enormous attention. Now he is one of the hottest commodities on the NCAA free agent market, with two-thirds of the league showing interest. Why wouldn’t teams be interested in a massive blueliner with a cannon from the point, and a tremendously improved skating ability?

Sustr has deceptively good control over his body, which is difficult for a young big guy. While some young defensemen with lanky frames can resemble Bambi on skates, Sustr has improved immensely in just a few seasons.

Monster defensemen are paramount in the consistently growing NHL, as teams need big blueliners to combat large, physical forwards. Sustr’s improved physical play deep in the defensive zone has peaked a strong interest from many teams including the Detroit Red Wings, the Los Angeles Kings, the Ottawa Senators, and the Vancouver Canucks. Sustr also spent last summer in prospect camps with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The gigantic Maverick leads the team in defensive scoring with 25 points.


Image courtesy of Gazette

Image courtesy of Gazette

Dan DeKeyser – D

Junior, Western Michigan University

Perhaps the only more coveted defenseman in college hockey than Andrej Sustr is Western Michigan’s Dan DeKeyser. The Clay Township, MI native has excelled staying in his home state, earning CCHA All-Rookie Team honors in 2010-11 and CHA First All-Star Team honors this season. Displaying intelligence in all three zones, the Broncos rearguard jumps into the play when he sees an opportunity but doesn’t take unnecessary risks. DeKeyser has a hard, accurate shot coupled with very soft hands for a defenseman. DeKeyser has two goals and 13 assists this season, but earns most of his accolades in the defensive end.

As he matured throughout his three years at Western Michigan, the game appears to have slowed down for DeKeyser. The strong defenseman earned the 2011-12 CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman award, as he guided the Broncos to a CCHA championship. At 6-3 and 198 pounds, DeKeyser has a good frame and uses it well to take space away from opponents. He looks to make the smart read and in doing so he developed the ability to control the game’s tempo. DeKeyser has great feet for his size, and can range east-west just as well as he can move up the ice on the rush. What is most impressive about the 23 year old is the fact that he logs nearly 30 minutes of ice time per game. DeKeyser patrols the blueline alongside senior Luke Witkowski (TBL 160th overall ’08), combining as one of the nation’s best defensive pairings.