Prior to the lockout, undrafted college free agents were a rare, straight to NHL commodity. Either serving out their apprenticeships as minor league signees or plying their trade overseas, few players transitioned directly from the ranks of college hockey to the NHL without enduring prolonged development curves. However, in a post-lockout landscape where GMâ€™s clutch their most valued assets and superstars to their clubs with dynasty length deals, and where dollars and ice time are apportioned in equilibrium, graduate aged (or younger) players progressing from the NCAA as free agents are providing comparatively cheap labour in an increasingly scrutinized marketplace.
Not too surprisingly, considering both his hockey heritage as a former captain of the Providence College Friars and his somewhat condensed timetable for rebuilding the Leafs, Brian Burke has been one of the first to plunder the verdant college market in recent seasons, in turn providing a quantum shift from the conventional dominance of the CHL at the junior level.
With the addition last week of Toronto born, former University of Vermont center Brayden Irwin, Burke has for successive seasons looked to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the undrafted graduate classes having added Christian Hanson (Notre Dame) toward the close of last season and the much coveted center Tyler Bozak (Denver) in the summer. While Burke missed out in the sweepstakes for Matt Gilroy, last seasonâ€™s other blue chip collegiate free agent, the arrival of Irwin means 8 players who have dressed for the Leafs this season can trace their junior roots back to the college game, while another two players from Burkeâ€™s maiden Leafs draft class have played NCAA hockey this year (if you count Kenny Ryan`s time at Boston College).
Of course, the eponymous Viktor Stalberg cannot count himself amongst the ranks of the undrafted collegiate elite. Rather, Stalberg is a college product whose franchise bloodlines can be traced back to the draft of 2006 where he was selected 161st overall making him, like fellow Swede and first year NHLer Carl Gunnarson, something entirely more inconceivable; salvageable assets from the administrative era of disrepair under John Ferguson Jr.
Nonetheless, freshly coupled with his fellow alumnus Brayden Irwin, Stalberg represents an interesting case study into the contemporary influence of the NCAA at the games highest level and the subsequent trials that can be faced by individuals making the direct jump from the comparatively unphysical college game to the NHL.
Indeed, it has been a turbulent year for Stalberg, a little known Leafs prospect headed into 2009; initially buried under the changing of regimes atop the Leafs, Stalberg saw his star rise toward the close of last season. Named Hockey East player of the month in January, the Gothenburg native went on to be named to the NCAA East All-American team and listed amongst the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. Spearheading the Vermont Catamounts first trip to the Frozen Four since 1997, Stalberg opted to sign a pro contract in April going on to wow the Leafs faithful, coaching staff and media throng alike during training camp and pre-season.
Blisteringly fast, with game breaking acceleration, Stalberg went from off-the-radar draftee to canâ€™t-miss star overnight despite a patently one dimensional, speed based game. Sparking almost instantaneous chemistry with flatmates Bozak and Hanson on the flippantly dubbed Frat-line, Stalberg found himself pencilled in to most observerâ€™s speculative opening night lineups alongside the aforementioned rookies.
As fate transpired, Stalberg would be the only collegiate to dress at the commencement of the regular season. With Hanson, arguably the least capable held down for seasoning in the AHL, Bozak faced a similar fate due to cap issues and Stalberg was assigned wingman for Jason Blake and Matt Stajan. Playing within a system that failed early and often in the opening month, Stalberg struggled to come to terms with the closer-checking, harder-hitting nature of an NHL season in full swing and struggled further still to conjure any chemistry with his seasoned linemates.
And then came the Volchenkov hit.
Like a bullet point in the former college players development, Stalberg returned after only a week but his game had become tempered, his play timid. With his confidence in carrying the puck rocked, the speed game that was so prevalent in camp was witnessed so sporadically thereafter that it served to only highlight Stalbergâ€™s increasing anonymity within the Leafs lineup.
Five pointless games would follow before Stalberg was reunited with his pre-season linemates in the AHL and two months would pass before the Frat-line began to make their impact in the NHL.
Ironically, it would be Bozak who would make the biggest waves when the Leafs reconvened the college project. With Stalberg bouncing between the AHL and NHL, Bozak, who had not enjoyed the success that both Stalberg and Hanson had with the Marlies, was seeing precipitous increases in his ice time that following the Stajan trade, would culminate in the rookie centering the top line.
Injured for all but 19 contests for Denver University in the year prior to signing a pro contract with the Leafs, Bozak had demonstrated a consistent, intricately skilled game that, whilst less flamboyant than the speed of Stalberg, had proved easier to maintain and build upon in the NHL.
Meanwhile Stalberg was not the only former collegiate struggling with the Leafs. Christian Hanson, (affix redundant story about his fatherâ€™s appearance in Slap Shot) projected as a workmanlike role player, has been unable to assert himself in a Leafs jersey after a reasonably successful cameo at the close of last season.
Stalberg on the other hand, began to turn the corner after Hansonâ€™s promotion in early February that coincided with the Olympic break and a series of trades that would see a significant overhaul of the Leafs roster. Now playing alongside one of his pre-season foils, in a team that with the arrival of Phaneuf et al has bought more fundamentally into Ron Wilsonâ€™s game plan, Stalberg (who had never played more than 48 games in any one season) has capitalized on the mid season break and begun to find a role for himself within the revisited systems that failed so badly early on.
While the wheels of the pre-season are slowly beginning to come back, itâ€™s not just velocity that is bringing Stalberg out of his funk. At 6â€™3â€ and 210 lbs, Stalberg is beginning to use his big body to get into the dirtier zones. Where teams were finding it easy to corral Stalbergâ€™s fast, but ultimately outside game, a tuned combination of hard work and power is seeing the left winger make an impact in front and around the net.
Adding 9 points in the last 17 contests, since the arrival of his former Catamounts teammate Brayden Irwin and the part-time revival of the Frat line, Stalberg has scored 3 goals in 4 games going plus one. While this by no means signals the end of the peaks and troughs of confidence witnessed this year, you get the feeling Stalberg has begun to turn the tide toward becoming an all round power forward in a castaway Leafs team that has evolved into a developmental unit.
Of course, next season the Leafs are aspiring for something more concreteÂ than developing untraditionally sourced talent and in that respect Stalberg, while himself not an undrafted college free agent, is a cautionary tale headed into an offseason bereft of choice draft picks and an uninspiring collection of free agents. Slowly turning good, the NCAA thread has been a complimentary project that has ultimately wielded a future star in Bozak and a potential top six forward in Stalberg. But whilst providing a cost effective means of plugging roster gaps, college free agents require seasoning and rarely provide the type of instantaneous impact the Leafs are going to need to avoid yet another October/November derailing.Â Worse, the timeframe for developing college free agents is condensed considerably by their age; itâ€™s a lot easier to make a raw, promising 21 year oldÂ a viable NHL asset than it is an immature 24 or 25 year old; a case in point is Matt Gilroy in New York.
Subsequently, while commentators keenly draw up their lists of this seasonâ€™s most eligible college free agents and Leafs fans ponder which diamonds in the rough will become the next Bozakâ€™s, the NCAA still has a long way to go as an consistent proving ground for genuine NHL talent, particularly for those that werenâ€™t viewed as draft worthy at 18. It remains to be seen if Bozak remains the exception that proves the rule, but ultimately even those college players such as Stalberg that were drafted are proving that the jump from the NCAA is still considerably more tangible than the CHL.