(Updated 4:40 pm) Bowling Green goalie Chris Nell has signed an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers, the National Hockey League team announced today.
Nell, an undrafted free agent, will forego his senior season with the Falcons to join the Rangers. He’s the second Falcon junior to sign an NHL contract this week, joining defenseman Mark Friedman, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Nell played in 34 of BG’s 41 games this season, posting a 2.15 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. He started 33 games. He finished his career as BG’s all-time leader in goals-against (2.07), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (11). He had a 41-29-10 record in 84 career games.
Nell report to the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ top minor-league affiliate.
“For the most part, he made hard saves look easy. He was on it,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said. “His confidence was something that showed itself the most. His confidence trickled over to the rest of our team. When you’ve got one of your better players playing at that level with that confidence, it’s contagious.”
Nell had a difficult start this season following the unexpected death of his dad, Rick, on Sept. 12. But he played well during the second half, helping the Falcons to a berth in the championship game of the WCHA Playoffs.
After stopping just 76 of 91 shots in his first four games this season, Nell had a 1.63 goals-against and a .941 save percentage in his 15 games after returning from the Christmas break. The Christmas break was BG’s first off weekend of the season.
As a sophomore, Nell was a first-team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association honoree after posting a 1.31 goals-against and a .930 save percentage in 37 games.
“His competitiveness was really good,” Bergeron said. “He was very competitive in practice and in games. Sometimes, you figure goalies are a little more even-keeled, not that Chris was that. He stayed fairly even-keeled, but he was very competitive. He wants to win. He strives to win. That’s a strength of his.”
Nell was the No. 1 goalie or shared the No. 1 spot in goal in each of this three seasons at BG.
“Chris Nell earned his way into a starting role over the last couple years,” Bergeron said. “He wanted an opportunity and Bowling Green gave him that. He’s leaving the program better than he found it. He took advantage of the opportunity. Like all of the kids we coach, he wants the opportunity to play hockey beyond college.”
The possibility of Nell turning pro had been widely rumored. He drew significant interest from the NHL last season and again this season.
“We knew there was going to be interest, based on the way he played the second half and the way he played last season,” Bergeron said.
Once the Falcons’ season ended Saturday with a 3-2 overtime-loss at Michigan Tech in the championship game of the WCHA Playoffs, Bergeron said the NHL’s interest in quickly increased. The 6-foot-1, 184-pound Nell is from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He’ll turn 23 in September.
“It didn’t take long,” Bergeron said. “Once we got into this week, we knew that the interest was real. In Chris’ mind, he’s ready, and everything happened quickly. It’s not a surprise (he left).”
Nell’s departure and Tomas Sholl’s graduation leaves the Falcons with one returning goalie next season. The other is sophomore Ryan Bednard, who had a 2.70 goals-against and an .882 save percentage in seven games this season.
With Nell leaving, Eric Dop will join the program as a freshman in the fall. The 6-foot, 183-pounder has a 2.77 goals-against and a .909 save percentage in 24 games this season with the United States (Junior) Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm.
Dop, who is from Lewis Center, Ohio in the Columbus area, was scheduled to join the Falcons when Nell left, whether after this season or next season.
The Falcons’ third goalie next season is Brett Rich, who is a senior at Bowling Green High School. He was a first-team All-Ohio selection this season, posting a 1.87 goals-against and a .937 save percentage in 29 games.
“We’re totally confident in our goaltending,” Bergeron said. “It’s unproven. But time after time, in this league and other leagues in college, first-year guys, second-year guys can take teams to where they’re supposed to go. We have no reason to believe that’s not going to happen here.”
Although BG lost Friedman and senior captain and defenseman Sean Walker, it still returns five defensemen who saw significant playing time this season — sophomores Connor McDonald, Adam Smith and Chris Pohlkamp; and freshmen Alec Rauhauser and Jacob Dalton.
The Falcons also return 12 forwards, including juniors Mitch McLain and Tyler Spezia, who combined for 25 goals and 38 assists this season. McLain was a first-team All-WCHA pick this season.
“If we defend well, it’s not like these guys are going to have to win us games,” Bergeron said. “They just need to have a good summer to prepare. (Bednard) knows he’s the one returning guy. That’s good motivation for him to prepare. We’re confident our goaltending will be fine next year. We don’t feel like the onus will be on them to win us games. If they do have to win us games, something’s gone terribly wrong.”