The U.S. college free agent signing season for the National Hockey League has officially begun. The playoffs have commenced in some of the conferences in the NCAA, but the signing frenzy is just getting started.
On March 6, the party began when the Philadelphia Flyers agreed to a two-year contract with Ohio State University goaltender Cal Heeter. However, the real prize player available this year is Western Michigan University defenseman Danny DeKeyser.
At nearly all of Western Michigan’s home games this season, NHL scouts have been swarming to Lawson Ice Arena, just so they can see DeKeyser play. He’s a 6’3”, 186 pound sophomore that most teams would love to have patrolling their blueline in the very near future.
Being arguably the most coveted free agent available has certainly put a lot of pressure on DeKeyser, but he adjusted accordingly as the season went on. One of DeKeyser’s best known skills is his skating, and it’s made it really difficult for opponents to get around him this year. The Broncos’ head coach, former NHL bench boss Andy Murray, had this to say about the game of his star defenseman:
“He’s a really smart player. He’s a great leader, has a great stick, plays with some physical bite and makes good decisions with the puck. My feeling is, from my experience in the league, that he’s certainly capable of being an NHLer. When that happens, I’m not sure, but he’s capable.”
A native of Clay Township, Michigan, DeKeyser has 13 points through 36 games played this season with the Broncos. He’s been getting a lot of attention from NHL general managers such as Brian Burke (Toronto), Ken Holland (Detroit), Joe Nieuwendyk (Dallas), and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay). While DeKeyser did attend the Red Wings’ summer camp, it’s not a shoe-in that he’ll sign with them. However, at one game this season, the Red Wings had seven team representatives in the building. Though he will admit that he’s always been a Detroit fan, it will all come down to which team he feels is the best fit for him. Below is a clip from The Sports Network (TSN), where insider Bob McKenzie breaks down the situation.
Marc Fakler, a former Western Michigan University assistant coach, is credited with discovering DeKeyser. Here’s what he said about DeKeyser, in a quote obtained from broncohockeyhotstove.com:
“When I saw him at Sioux City’s camp (USHL), I saw a kid who had a long reach, nobody could go around him, he had tremendous poise and just made great decisions with the puck all the time — it was just effortless. If you watch, he isn’t the prettiest skater, but he has that long stride and big base and he just has a presence about him and I think that’s what I liked about him at that camp. He was a tall, gangly kid who continued to develop and he went out to the Trail league, the B.C. (British Columbia) league. While he was out there, he sent me an e-mail and said he had a strong interest in becoming a Bronco. If Danny has a deal to play immediately in the National Hockey League, I don’t know how you can look that kid in the eye and say don’t do it, don’t fulfill your boyhood dream of playing in the National Hockey League. It’s all about opportunity and going where you’re wanted, when you’re wanted. It’s about timing of things, and if now is the right time for one of those organizations, whether it’s Detroit or whoever, if he can start his NHL career right away, more power to him. Hopefully in the situation they’re in at Western they’re kicking him out the door instead of holding him back.”
DeKeyser is currently majoring in communications at Western Michigan. The Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League held his major junior rights, but DeKeyser ultimately felt that the NCAA route was the best for him. He would choose to go west to play for the Trail Smoke Eaters in the BCHL, one of the top Junior A leagues in Canada. With the Smoke Eaters, he was their defenseman of the year in the 2008-2009 season. From there, he moved on to the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League, and would record 11 points in 41 games for them. However, he was never really thought of as a legitimate NHL prospect until he came to WMU. With the Broncos he has certified himself a bona-fide prospect, and has made himself into the top NCAA free agent available this season.
Though the Detroit Red Wings are the favourite to land DeKeyser, he’s made it clear that he’s keeping all his options open in terms of where he’ll play next season. Insiders have said that they wouldn’t be shocked if DeKeyser receives a contract offer from all thirty NHL clubs.
It’s only fitting that DeKeyser’s been communicating his potential and talent to NHL organizations all season long; just look at his major.
David O’Connor is a managing editor with the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. His writing has been on the Los Angeles Times’ website, among other places. O’Connor also does some scouting work for the local Junior B hockey club. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.