There comes a point in each NHL offseason when the contract offers start drying up. Teams have mostly filled up their rosters for the upcoming season, and the pool of players on the open market looks increasingly like a list of veterans on their last legs, journeymen, and failed prospects searching for one more chance.
Last year, Antoine Vermette, Radim Vrbata, and Matt Cullen were the final three unrestricted free agents to get big league deals before training camps began. They each signed between Aug. 15-17. Recently, we saw Cullen and Francois Beauchemin sign new one-year deals that could be the last of this summer.
There’s usually a rash of signings right before the season as teams look to final their final spots, but between mid-August and late September, NHL teams start using a new tool instead of guaranteed contracts: the professional tryout, or PTO.
PTOs allow teams to bring in veteran players for training camp and preseason without any commitment to them. It’s a good way for teams to get a look at some extra options to fill out roles at the bottom of their rosters. Maybe a team just wants some additional competition in camp to push a younger player. The point is, you can sign someone to a PTO, and get rid of them with no penalty by October if things aren’t working out.
For veteran players, PTOs can represent one last chance at sticking in the NHL. These are players who teams deemed weren’t good enough to receive contract offers with the guaranteed money and risk that comes with them. But if the alternative is a zero-risk PTO that can be turned into a one-year deal if things work out, suddenly a player will garner a lot more interest.
Who got PTOs last year?
A lot of players received professional tryouts last year, but only a few of them actually took advantage to make their respective teams.
Kris Versteeg is one interesting case, as he signed a PTO with the Edmonton Oilers in early September, but never received a contract offer from the team. Instead, the Calgary Flames stepped up with a one-year, $950,000 deal for Versteeg in early October, and he provided them with 15 goals and 37 points in 69 games. This offseason, Versteeg avoided the headaches with a one-year, $1.75 million extension.
Edmonton did sign a different PTO player, defenseman Eric Gryba, to a one-year deal after a successful camp. He ended up recording six points in 40 games with the Oilers last season. Rene Bourque scored 12 goals for the lowly Avalanche after joining the team on a PTO in camp.
Not every PTO works so well. Tomas Fleischmann, Zach Boychuk, Maxim Lapierre, and James Wisniewski are among veterans who didn’t play in the NHL last season despite receiving tryouts in the fall.
Who could get PTOs this year?
There’s a lengthy list of veteran players running out of time to get actual contract offers. In that case, many of these guys will likely entertain the idea of signing PTOs. The most obvious name on the open market is Jaromir Jagr, but it’s hard to see the future Hall of Famer taking that route instead of playing in Europe or retiring.
Let’s break these up by position.
Forwards: Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek, P.A. Pareanteau, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Brian Gionta, Daniel Winnik, Mike Ribeiro, Alex Chiasson, Lauri Korpikoski, Scottie Upshall, Rene Bourque, Ryan White, Jiri Hudler, Chris Kelly, Jack Skille, Jay McClement, Jimmy Hayes, Vernon Fiddler, Teddy Purcell, Milan Michalek, Andrew Desjardins, Tanner Glass, Harry Zolnierczyk, Matt Hendricks, John Mitchell, Spencer Abbott
Nine of these players recorded at least 20 players in the NHL last season, led by Vanek’s 48 points in 68 games between the Red Wings and Panthers. He’s an offensive specialist who needs the perfect fit both on the ice and in the locker room, though, which has limited his opportunities.
There’s a wide variety of player-types in here. Gionta had 35 points last season. Hudler is just two seasons removed from recording 31 goals and 76 points. Winnik is the kind of bottom-six grinder that teams love to have. Stafford could provide goal scoring in the bottom half of a lineup.
But all these players have question marks one way or another, which is why they’re still unsigned in late August. Maybe a guy like Stafford or Vanek convinces a team to give him a one-year deal soon. Otherwise, it’s PTO time for all of these players.
Defensemen: Cody Franson, Dennis Wideman, Fedor Tyutin, Roman Polak, John-Michael Liles, Jyrki Jokipakka, Cody Goloubef, Nick Schultz, Jakub Kindl, Eric Gelinas, Adam Pardy, Simon Despres, Zbynek Michalek, Brady Austin
Not as many available defensemen, which isn’t surprising given fewer guys play the position and there’s usually high demand for experienced blue liners. The name that stands out here is Franson, who has typically put up respectable underlying statistics on terrible teams over the years. A 30-year-old with his size (6’5, 224 pounds) and track record would seem like a lock to get a new deal, yet he’s found himself in no man’s land with September around the corner.
There are also some younger options like Jokipakka (age 26), Goloubef (age 27), and Gelinas (age 26) who could intrigue teams looking to take fliers for depth on the back end. Polak’s agent reportedly said he could sign a deal soon, so that could scratch him off the list.
Goaltenders: A bunch of guys you’ve never heard of
If you’re an even semi-decent goaltender, chances are you’ve been scooped up by a team given the importance of the position. Cap Friendly lists just 10 goalies as current NHL UFAs, and none of them have ever played in an NHL game. If your team is still looking for netminder help in September, it’s basically trade, waivers, or bust to find a meaningful addition.
Will any of those players get contract offers?
Yes, there are players every offseason who turn their professional tryouts into guaranteed contracts. Versteeg, Gryba, Bourque, Korpikoski, Skille, and Devin Setoguchi are among guys who did that last year.
There should be a host of players to do the same this year. The most obvious is Franson, who surprisingly doesn’t have a job at this point. It would be hard to explain how he’d go without a contract offer into the start of the season given the way teams scoop up defensemen for depth.
Among the forwards, Stafford, Winnik, Parenteau, and Vanek are players who still seem to belong in the NHL. Iginla, Doan, and Gionta (not to mention Jagr) could also come back, although retirement remains an option for all of them given their respective ages.
Maybe some of these guys get short-term deals signed soon. David Schlemko waited until Sept. 10 to sign a one-year contract with the Devils in 2015, so it’s not like teams shut off the possibility entirely.
But for all of these guys, the road to the NHL is getting bumpier as the summer goes on. The opportunity to get a contract offer before camp is fading, and that’ll mean settling for a PTO and the chance to compete for a roster spot. Once you get this deep into the offseason, there’s not much more you can ask for.