by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
Every spring, the NHL becomes frenzied with the anticipation of some team signing the next big college or major junior free agent who went undrafted but has caught fire and is ready to make an impact in the show. The draft is a huge source of talent for the NHL and AHL, but there are only seven rounds each year and more talent is undrafted than is not.
While the end of the process is what most fans hear about, hockey operations staff and scouting teams have been working to form relationships and sign these players for multiple years in most cases.
By building tight relationships with prospects, the Texas Stars have been a huge beneficiary of the undrafted talent pool in recent years, seeing players like Joel L’Esperance, Sheldon Dries, Gavin Bayreuther, Ben Gleason and Tye Felhaber all enter their ranks this way.
“People develop at such different stages,” notes Gavin Bayreuther. “There’s first-round draft picks that don’t pan out and then there’s guys that aren’t drafted that end up being some of the best players in the NHL.”
Bayreuther was just happy to see his name anywhere on the Central Scouting list in his draft year. He wasn’t picked up and went on to play at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Not being drafted was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” according to Bayreuther.
When his senior year rolled around, he was heating up as an offensive defenseman and had started to get interest from many NHL clubs. One of those tight relationships came in handy to help Dallas close the gap. Former St. Lawrence defenseman and current Dallas Stars amateur scout Mark Leach also happened to be from New Hampshire, same as Bayreuther. It also didn’t hurt that Dallas general manager Jim Nill took the 90-minute drive down from Ottawa to see Bayreuther at practice on an off-day.
“We met afterwards and kind of had a connection there and that meant the world to me. That was pretty special.”
The level of intense one-on-one contact could start to make the process sound similar to the college football recruiting process, but Texas GM Scott White sees some differences.
“We’re a little more low-key, quite honestly. We prefer to talk to a player out of practice so that their focus is on the game. It’s walking that fine line of cultivating that relationship, but with the intent of allowing the player to succeed at the level he is without inundating them with information and worrying about the future.”
White himself has planted seeds that he’s harvested years later with this approach.
“I talked to [Joel L’Esperance] after his sophomore year [at Michigan Tech], saying you’ve got to change some things in your game if you want to make the jump. It took him until January of the senior year, where he became a different player, figured it out, and carried that team as far as he could go.”
That helping hand, letting L’Esperance know that there was an NHL potential in his future, set Texas up to sign him as an ATO in the spring of 2018 and later for Dallas to ink him to an NHL contract.
Getting a player like L’Esperance to the NHL helps the club sign the next free agent because of the track record of success that Dallas has. It was a big factor in signing Ben Gleason to a contract after his final year in the Ontario Hockey League.
“They have an unbelievable track record of getting guys to the NHL,” noted Gleason. “I knew coming here was going to be a great opportunity.”
Coming back from the Traverse City tournament, Gleason didn’t know whether his short tryout was going to turn into anything. He planned to head back to Hamilton for his overage year. On the plane before takeoff to go back to Dallas for training camp, he got the call offering him a contract. Within a few months, he had played his first NHL game. What was it that made Gleason pick Dallas though?
“Everybody was kind of involved [in recruiting me], and that’s what’s good about Dallas. They make it like a big family. Other teams offered contracts, but I just didn’t feel as comfortable there. It’s kind of a gut thing.”
Gleason also had Hamilton teammate and Dallas draft pick Nick Caamano in his ear telling him to come to Big D. Between the chance at development and a trusted teammate telling him to come along, Gleason was happy to get the offer from Dallas. The sales pitch of the team and city doesn’t hurt either.
“We feel like we have a good setup,” says White, noting that Dallas and Texas are just 3 hours away by car. “We’re very honest. We also tell our guys that most guys are going to spend time in the minors. You need some time in American League. You’ve got to develop your game a little bit and get acclimated to the pace and to the grind.”
The city itself certainly appeals to players coming out of Canada. Standing outside the locker room in shorts and a t-shirt in December, Bayreuther notes it is a stark contrast to wearing a winter coat five months a year.
“Austin, Texas, is a pretty special place if you’re going to be in the AHL. I love golf, and I love golfing on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas or in February. It just makes you, I think, a happier person. You walk outside and it’s 75 degrees out. There is more to hockey and more to life than just the team you play for. It’s about being happy, and my family loves coming here and visiting this very special place.”
At the end of the day, these players are people, too, and they consider things beyond just what happens on the ice. The chance to choose your NHL team is a gift that drafted players do not get until they hit free agency. Making the final decision is tough and emotional.
“I did it in the car by myself,” Bayreuther said. “I called my family, called Jim Nill and immediately bawled my eyes out. It’s pretty special. Because you work so hard, you never think it’s going to happen. It’s beyond a dream. And then when it does happen, it’s so surreal, and you’re just so thankful and grateful.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.