Meet the trio responsible for Bruins’ NCAA free agent success

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The Coronavirus pandemic that has shutdown NHL play hasn’t ended all league business.

Teams continued to pursue and sign NCAA free agents after the college season was ended by the pandemic. Sure there were no conference tournaments or NCAA regionals or the Frozen Four, but the teams that do college free agent hunting right didn’t need the extra views or the additional time to land their targets.

The Bruins continued to thrive in this endeavor, signing Nick Wolff, a hulking defenseman out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and diminutive defenseman Jack Ahcan out of St. Cloud State.

Dating as far back as Boston’s signing of Torey Krug in 2012, the Bruins are close to being champions of the college free agent sweepstakes, as this ranking from College Hockey Inc. show:

NHL games played by players signed as college free agents

1. 1513 – Boston

2. 1016 – Buffalo

3. 854 – Edmonton

4. 689 – Tampa Bay

5. 561 – Philadelphia

(Note that not all those GP are with the team that signed them (for example, Frank Vatrano, now with Florida, counts in the Bruins’ number). This also doesn’t include guys who were drafted but then signed as free agents, like Jimmy Vesey.)

Krug, Vatrano, Kevan Miller, Noel Acciari, Karson Kuhlman – where would the Bruins have been the past several years without them? How do the Bruins so well in chasing down these players that have 31 teams to choose from and are often looking to step right into the greatest league in the world?

Well the Bruins’ NCAA free agent department, like all aspects of player development in the NHL, has grown over the years. Although anyone from the Bruins who’s out in the field watching college games can weigh in on a potential free agent, these days the trio leading the way across North America consists of Jamie Langenbrunner, the Bruins’ director of player development, and scouts Scott Fitzgerald and Brett Harkins.

Communication between each other and the rest of the Bruins’ front office and general manager Don Sweeney is vital, making sure there’s consensus on players and who’s going to establish and maintain contact with the player.

The message they convey never wavers.

“I don’t know if we want guys that want spots promised to them,” Fitzgerald told WEEI.com. “Like you earn your ice here, it doesn’t matter what your name is or where you’re drafted or where you came from. It doesn’t matter, you earn your ice here. Everything you get is what you put in and what you earn. That’s actually one of the best parts of being a Bruin, right.”

Winning one Stanley Cup and reaching two other Stanley Cup finals in the past nine years does a lot for an organization’s credibility, especially when that club also emphasizes a meritocratic environment. A first-year pro and college free agent like Kuhlman can find himself leapfrogging draft picks and veterans on the depth chart to become a semi-regular in the lineup during a run to the Cup final.

Of course, the Bruins don’t want to scare off NCAA free agents by making it seem like there are too few opportunities to play. Success comes with other events that could thin the competition a little bit.

“I would argue that you have a better chance as a college free agent playing on a better team than on a weaker team,” Langenbrunner said. “We’re probably trading away picks, usually. So less draft picks. … And we’re usually up against the cap, good teams, so they have a quicker opportunity to get into the lineup. So it might seem like that on paper, but the reality is I don’t believe that’s the truth. I think there’s opportunity, if you’re good enough, you’re going to go find it.”

Long before the players can calculate their odds of cracking the Bruins’ lineup the relationship between the Boston staff and the players starts in their initial draft years. The ones that get passed over but still intrigue the Bruins get tracked all the way through. There are NCAA restrictions on contact between the NHL and the amateur players, but there a plenty of interactions with the players and the coaches, and then there are development camps in the summer. The camps give teams a chance to make a really hard sell.

Before he took advantage of his opportunity in the 2019 playoffs, Kuhlman attended the 2018 development camp and signed a contract one year later. He liked what he saw and heard.

“I think they’re honest, they’re very knowledgeable too. They’re not just going to tell you what they want you want to hear, they’re going to be honest with you about your game and situations, which is great,” Kuhlman said about the Bruins’ trio of NCAA free agent experts. “I really appreciated that I think, the assessment they gave me and the outlook. And obviously great guys and they’re doing a heck of a job.”

Success breeds success, so every Miller or Kuhlman gives the Bruins’ brass more examples to sell the next wave of free agents.

“Karson was a dev camp kid, we sell that to the kids this year at development camp. ‘Listen, Karson Kuhlman was here last year and he played in the Stanley Cup finals. So it makes that decision. Because those kids have 31 teams to choose from, and we’re always pretty good,” Harkins said.

Teamwork isn’t just something the Bruins players apply on the ice. It also applies to the NCAA free agent signing trio with Langenbrunner, Fitzgerald and Harkins each doing what they can and helping each other out.

“Don has put an importance on that part,” Fitzgerald said, “ and all we’re doing, he sets the pecking order, we go out and do the work.”

And they’re doing that work a little better than most other NHL teams.

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