Have No Fear, Petersen Decision Isn’t A Sign of Larger Issues

After Jason Botterill’s pre-draft confirmation that Cal Petersen would not be a Sabre, the saga officially came to an end when the goaltender inked an entry-level contract with the LA Kings.

Petersen’s decision to test the open market was rumored going back to the spring and was all but guaranteed when he announced he was turning professional as opposed to signing an entry-level deal with the Sabres in May. His departure is a sore spot for Sabres fans who saw Tim Murray acquire Jimmy Vesey’s rights only for the Hobey Baker winner to test the market last summer.

Petersen is the fourth NCAA prospect in as many years to opt to test free agency as opposed to signing with the team that drafted them. By my count, eight NCAA prospects have opted for free agency since 2008; Blake Wheeler, Justin Schultz, Blake Kessel, Jason Gregorie, Kevin Hayes, Mike Reilly, Jimmy Vesey and Cal Petersen. We’ll see a ninth join the group when Will Butcher hits free agency in August but it’s hard to say how much responsibility lies with the Avalanche for pushing Butcher to free agency.

Note: This doesn’t include players who signed as free agents after the team allowed their draft rights to expire. There may be other prospects who went this route as well, but none that I came across.

While the number of NCAA prospects opting to explore free agency represent the vast minority of drafted players, it does seem to be an attractive option for late-blooming, mid-round picks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the league work out some sort of compensation ruling for teams who lose a prospect in this manner.

Feelings over Petersen’s departure are likely amplified by the Vesey saga from last season. Vesey’s relationship with Nashville and the professional game was well-covered (over covered depending who you ask), putting his decision in a larger spotlight than someone like Reilly who made the same decision a year before with a fraction of the fanfare.

I’d even go so far as to say Vesey doesn’t fit the same category as Petersen, from a Sabres perspective. Tim Murray moved to acquire Vesey’s rights in an attempt to land the free agent early. It was likely fueled by some piece of information which Murray had that indicated Vesey favored Buffalo as his final destination. Vesey’s true intentions were to test the market, but his relationship to the club was closer to that of a veteran unrestricted free agent as opposed to a typical college prospect.

Vesey never had any true connection to the organization. Buffalo didn’t draft him, none of the coaches or staff developed a relationship with him and the team didn’t devote any time to developing him. Vesey’s ties to Nashville were far stronger than his ties to Buffalo. So while it’s unfortunate that he didn’t choose Buffalo, I don’t put him in the same category as Petersen from a Sabres perspective.

Many Sabres fans were on high alert throughout draft weekend as just hours after confirming Petersen wouldn’t be signing in Buffalo, Jason Botterill spent three of his six picks on NCAA or college-bound prospects. It’s not in the nature of sports fans to be patient or look at things in a practical manner, but losing Petersen doesn’t mean the Sabres are doomed to lose every college prospect they draft from now on.

Picking Casey Mittelstadt wasn’t a mistake because Cal Petersen decided he wanted to explore free agency. The same goes for Jacob Bryson and Linus Weissbach. Cutting off a major NHL pipeline from a draft list over fears that you might lose a prospect in three or four years is ridiculous. If anything, losing a prospect in this manner should lead to an increase in a team’s development model so they form better relationships with each prospect they draft in the future.

Immediately assuming every college prospect will now leave is overly negative even for Buffalo sports fans. Mittelstadt’s talent level is that of a player who will likely only spend one year in college, should he make the strides on and off the ice this year he’ll be signing his entry-level contract in the spring and beginning his professional career in the fall of 2018. Will Borgen will certainly benefit from the lack of right handed defenders throughout Buffalo’s system and he could be signing his first professional deal this spring as well. It’s not out of the question that Bryson could be inked sooner rather than later too.

Buffalo boasts a solid stable of NCAA prospects and the general manager is a proponent of that development model as referenced from his time with the Penguins. There’s no sign that the Sabres will shy away from NCAA players, nor should they. It was tough to see Petersen look to find work elsewhere, but it’s hardly reason to fret over what NCAA prospects might offer the Sabres in the future.

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