Just a few more weeks until NHL training camps will open and for many veteran players who find themselves unsigned but don’t want to retire this is about the time of summer when a professional tryout might be the only path back to the league.
For a lot of players tryouts are the last gasp of a once proud career. We saw it in 2015 when Sergei Gonchar tried to defy Father Time and make the Penguins at age 41. Quick, remember Bill Guerin as a Philadelphia Flyer? Well it happened for a few weeks in 2010 on a failed tryout too, and was the last NHL team he ever ended up playing for.
Sometimes they work out though. the Pens brought veteran defenseman Mark Eaton back in 2013 and he stuck with the team for the rest of the season. Last fall David Booth (DET), Cody Franson (CHI), Tanner Glass (CGY), Daniel Winnik (MIN), Jimmy Hayes (NJD) and Alex Chiasson (WSH) among others all made NHL clubs off of PTO’s.
Last year we mentioned some candidates for the Penguins to consider and the very next day they brought in one we mentioned in vet center Jay McClement. He didn’t make it and ended up in the Swiss league for 2017-18.
This year, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your outlook, there won’t be any fun in Pittsburgh with a PTO unless an injury changes something and/or they just want some extra bodies in camp.
The reason for this would be the Pens summer free agent moves. They don’t need tryouts because they’ve gone a step further and already signed PTO-caliber players (or, a little better) to a little bit better NHL contracts. They added the aforementioned Hayes, who already doesn’t seem like the numbers make him an NHL candidate this year out of training camp. They signed 41-year old Matt Cullen who will be in the roster and the opening night lineup barring injury. And they signed center Derek Grant who scored 12 goals and 24 points last season in Anaheim, and Grant is a player that Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford said, “He’s an NHL player. We didn’t sign him for our minor-league team.”
Add those three players to center Riley Sheahan and youngsters Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon (both who will have to remain in the NHL now or face waivers to be sent to the AHL) and Zach Aston-Reese (who the team no doubt sees as a full time NHL regular after being a part of the playoff plans) and the depth players in Pittsburgh is very full up front.
Defensively it’s the same story with seven NHL blueliners under contract, all of whom the team are comfortable with including extra player Chad Ruhwedel. Salary cap realities plus practice alignments make carrying eight healthy defenseman burdensome, so unless a player gets hurt, there’s no real chance for a veteran PTO to make the roster there either.
But, for the purposes of surveying the field - here’s the “best of the rest” for players still out there that might be ready for tryout szn. While it’s doubtful any make it to Pittsburgh, it’s still fun to say names of note try to catch on somewhere.
Mark Letestu and Scottie Upshall
-Both of these players are off the tryout market with Letestu Florida bound and Upshall going to try and catch on with the Oilers. However, remember any player can leave his PTO and sign with any NHL team at any given time, though usually teams and players functionally reach agreements while together. But these are two players among the first to agree to PTO offers so they could be worth watching.
-You’d probably have to move quick, since the 33-year old defenseman is rumored to be close to going back to his Swedish club to Modo for the season. And just a tryout might not be enough for a player that is still relatively young and played 17 minutes a night last year in the NHL. Injuries may have taken a toll here and at 5’8, 180 Enstrom never was a sturdy player to begin with.
-The 36-year old did score 29 points in 66 games last season split between Los Angeles and Edmonton. At this point he’s old in the tooth and a lower-line winger and hardly the explosive and dynamic player that hurt the Penguins so back in the 2010 playoff series against Montreal.
-Nash may not be interested in just a tryout. Unfortunately earlier in the summer there were whispers that his health and concussion injury might trigger the end of his playing career. And his stint in Boston was forgettable at best. Unknown health matters aside, Nash is surely the potential best player out there (by far) with two-straight 20+ goal seasons and an average over the last five seasons of 25.4 goals. If healthy and interested in playing, he’s definitely worth looking into- even for a team like the Pens who have a lot of bodies.
-He’s been colored by being on a bad contract for a while, but freshly bought out he doesn’t have that any longer. Did score 20 points (6g+14a) last season in 75 games in Calgary and is only two seasons away from when he averaged 21 goals and 41 points over a three year stretch from 2013-16. At 6’3, 220 Brouwer has good size, and he just turned 33-years old this week so age isn’t an issue either. Really, you would think Brouwer might be able to help some team out there’s lower line.
-By now you probably know the drill on Franson. He’s a darling of the advanced stat community for some of his shot-based metrics but is now looking for his 5th team in last last six seasons. Franson was a PTO last fall and made Chicago’s team and even was in a role briefly with Duncan Keith. That didn’t last long and he was eventually waived and sent to the AHL. At 6’5, 230 and 31 years old, Franson checks a lot of boxes on measurables but his skating is excessively lumbering and one major reason that he hasn’t caught on with a team, despite playing for a reasonable percentage of the league lately. Is Franson good enough to help a team? That case gets made almost every summer, but he never seems to last. Recent evidence of not being of use on a cheap contract for a bad Chicago team can’t be a good sign.
-At only 27 years, he’s on the lower end of the spectrum for age of free agents, coming with plenty of experience as a successful PTO to contract guy last year with the Capitals. Chiasson has been a full-time NHLer for the last five seasons and averaged about 11 goals and 13 assists in that stretch. So he can add a bit of scoring punch to a 4th line and at 6’4 and 210 he’s got the size NHL teams like as well.
There isn’t a ton out there so perhaps it’s all the better that Pittsburgh isn’t going to dip into the PTO pool. While some players out there like Letestu, Brouwer and Chiasson might have a bit to offer to a team, there’s not a lot to expect. Nash could be the diamond in the rough, but he might never play again. A lot of uncertainty and more often than not sad endings come from these tryouts.