At this stage of the season, with the trade deadline passed and the number of call-ups becoming limited for teams beyond emergency situations, there isn't a lot teams can do to make themselves better heading into the postseason. There is one way, though, and rather, one player that might be able to help at least a little bit.
Christian Folin is a 23-year-old defenseman who hails from Gothenburg, Sweden. He's 6-3, 210 pounds with great mobility and a heavy shot and pretty soon, he'll be available to any team with a contract to spare.
Folin is currently a sophomore playing for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell hockey team, which just captured the Hockey East tournament championship last weekend. The River Hawks are set to meet Minnesota State in the first round of the NCAA national tournament Saturday.
Sometime within the next three weeks, Folin's season will be over -- as early as Saturday or as late as April 12. Whenever his college season ends, expect a long line to form wherever Folin will listen to teams.
It is not confirmed that he will leave school with two years of eligibility on the table. He still has meaningful games to play this year and hasn't commented on his status, but it is highly likely he will move on to the pros. He had a chance to do so as well last year after his breakout freshman campaign, but Folin opted to stay in school and it turned out to be a great move as his development took another big step forward.
Having come up through the vaunted Frolunda system in Sweden that counts Ottawa Senators star Erik Karlsson among its alumni, Folin moved to North America in 2009. After a brief stint in the United States Hockey League, the top junior circuit in the U.S., Folin ended up in Tier II North American Hockey League with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins. For non-goalies, it has become rarer for a player to get drafted out of the NAHL. He went unnoticed and undrafted.
In his two years at UMass-Lowell, Folin continued in his development in a big way, growing into a physical, mobile two-way defenseman capable of playing at the NHL level and possibly even excelling. His numbers took a dip this year as his defensive responsibility grew, but in two years, he's posted 40 points in 77 games for one of the best teams in college hockey over that span.
The River Hawks made it to the Frozen Four last year after winning the Hockey East playoff title. Folin was a big part of that and is again this year as UMass-Lowell won its second consecutive Hockey East title and has eyes on a return to college hockey's big weekend in April again.
In his last three contests, all elimination games, Folin has four points including a goal against Vermont that he actually put through the net. Think his stock grew a bit after that one?
Any team not already at the 50-contract limit this season will be able to sign the defenseman as an unrestricted free agent and the stakes for acquiring the gifted blueliner couldn't be higher for some teams.
Most teams would be hard-pressed to hand the keys to a shiny new roster spot to a 23-year-old defenseman with two years of college hockey as his highest level experience, but Folin has drawn comparisons to Danny DeKeyser, last year's top college UFA, for his pro-readiness.
Would he be the missing piece that a team needs to get over the hump? No. More than anything, at least for right now, he is a body, to give some depth to a team that could use a little defensive help for the last few games of the season.
Western Michigan didn't make the national tournament last year and the NHL's delayed start also allowed for more time for DeKeyser to play. The Red Wings used him for the last 11 games of the regular season last year and he even appeared in two postseason contests. DeKeyser never played less than 15 minutes in any game, meaning he was getting meaningful reps immediately. Depending on how long Folin's season lasts, most teams won't have that luxury.
While what Folin can do right away may be a factor for some teams, the value in signing the big Swede is what his potential says he can be, which is a very good NHL defenseman.
If there is any time left in the NHL's regular season by the time Folin becomes available, teams will have to dangle the carrot immediate playing time and an opportunity to burn a season off his entry-level contract. He won't be able to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs, however, as he was not on the team's reserve list prior to the NHL trade deadline. That was another benefit DeKeyser and the Red Wings had by signing in the lockout-shortened season.
The beauty of a college free agent is that he can sign no more than the maximum allowed under the entry-level system, which would be $925,000 plus a signing bonus. At 23, Folin would be eligible to sign a two-year deal.
Even if he burned a year, he still has another cheap season on his entry-level deal and would likely be due a reasonably-priced extension as a restricted free agent the following season.
So where could he go? Your guess is as good as mine at this point, but reports have trickled out from teams showing interest.
According to multiple reports, the Philadelphia Flyers have a strong desire to acquire Folin. That actually could be the most intriguing potential destination for a player like him at this time of the season, especially with how well the Flyers have played in the latter stages of the year.
“He's a good young defenseman,” Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told the Courier-Post recently.
“He's a good-looking player. He's big. He moves good, moves the puck, good defender. Could he jump right in? Probably on the right team he could, yeah.”
Could the right team actually be Philadelphia? That wouldn't be much of a surprise if true.
The Flyers have had some recent success with college free agency, having acquired forward Matt Read in that fashion. The former Bemidji State star has become a versatile player for the Flyers, while providing a solid rate of production.
Other teams reportedly interested in Folin include the Boston Bruins, though the acquisition of Andrej Meszaros at the deadline and the slight possibility Dennis Seidenberg returns to the lineup late in the postseason makes that seem like a tougher sell. It would be a short trip for Folin from Lowell, though.
Another team that could (or at least should) have some interest in Folin is the Minnesota Wild, which could use a little bit of extra help on the back end. The Wild have been aggressive on the college free agent market, but missed out on two highly-regarded forwards in St. Lawrence University's Matt and Greg Carey, who signed with Chicago and Phoenix, respectively. Minnesota has contracts to spare as a result and could address a need on the blue line.
Really, there could be 20 or more teams interested and Folin is going to have his pick, which is the great leverage of a college free agent. He also has the leverage of being able to go back to school, but it seems like the time is now for Folin to cash in.
With the finances maxed out the same way for every team, it all comes down to the best situation for Folin. That may not mean latching on to a contender right now. That could mean going somewhere that gives him a chance for more meaningful playing time next season.
Also, with the number of teams interested, it only makes sense for Folin to hear every offer before making a decision. The process could take some time when there is little left in the season.
Based on the scouting reports and general consensus on Folin's readiness, wherever he ends up going is probably going to make the room necessary to fit him in however they can.
There are probably several NHL teams out there rooting against the River Hawks this weekend so that they can get Folin in a few games before the regular season is up. If Lowell makes it past the regional, which includes Boston College and Denver in addition to first-round opponent Minnesota State, the Frozen Four is April 10-12. The NHL regular-season ends on April 13.
Folin is not going to be a franchise-altering player or a guy that is going to make a contender appreciably better this year. That said, he is cheap help with the potential to develop into an everyday player as early as next season. There's a lot of value in that and a big reason why anyone with a contract to spare should be running to UMass-Lowell the second Folin's season ends.