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On 27th June 2017, Spencer Foo signed with the Calgary Flames as a "college free agent". My naive understanding of the NHL was that entry-level players came in via two routes:

  • Either they are drafted, giving them no choice as to which team to play for.
  • Or they're not drafted, and can sign with whichever team they can persuade to pay them.

However, it seems unlikely to me that Foo would not have been drafted as he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. How does a good player get to be a "college free agent" and apparently choose which team to play for?

(Feel free to use Foo for specifics in the answer, but interested in the general case).

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The difference is that an ordinary free agent can sign whenever. An undrafted player who is in a college program can be signed if he is 20, and only after the final game of his college team's season.... and only after being undrafted two times.

So the NHL can't bust a top contending college team apart by grabbing their star players in the middle of the championship playoffs, making the entire playoff tournament a farce in the process.

NHL.com - Top college free agents who could sign with NHL teams

Now, why does a player good enough to be a Hobey Baker finalist manage to be undrafted? We're talking about late teens to early 20s. That's a period of rapid physical, mental and emotional development/maturing for any young adult. He might not be the same type of player he was coming out of high school. It's the same reason why you might see a player who was not offered a football or basketball scholarship, then not drafted by a pro team go on to have successful careers. Sometimes their potential doesn't really get unlocked until they are in the right situation, and sometimes teams just miss when they evaluate.

Also, since the very top talent usually go straight to top-tier minor league programs, being a very good college player does not translate into hockey success like being a top player in college football or basketball. Even looking at the list of Hobey Baker winners, let alone finalists, you don't see a lot of superstars. Spencer Foo doesn't seem to be, especially, considered to be a shoo-in for greatness, at this point, because of his fine college career. I'm not sure that this is really all that remarkable.

  • I understand the restriction on not signing players until after their final game, but why wasn't Foo drafted? – Philip Kendall Jun 28 '17 at 21:11
  • @PhilipKendall - Ahh, I see.... edited. – PoloHoleSet Jun 28 '17 at 21:33
  • I don't think one can underestimate the advantages maturity brings to fast paced games like hockey and basketball. – Val Jun 29 '17 at 15:02
  • @Val - definitely. For hockey, though, there's better and more frequent "game" experience to be gained by going through the minor league system. In college, probably, more emotional maturity as one has to juggle the responsibilities of being a full-time, passing-grades, college student as well as an athlete. – PoloHoleSet Jul 5 '17 at 18:45
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    @PoloHoleSet. Sorry, I wasn't clear. That is exactly what I meant: maturity in playing the game. The minors provide experience in playing so that players know what to do and when as well as having the skill. (I think the jury is still out on the other types of maturity!). As an older person playing, experience is the only advantage I ever get over very talented younger players. – Val Jul 5 '17 at 19:03

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