The Pittsburgh Penguins announced that they will be bringing three veterans into camp on professional tryouts.
The Penguins have signed forward Austin Wagner and defensemen Mark Pysyk and Libor Hajek to professional tryout contracts. pic.twitter.com/jaBgOMT7z0— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) August 30, 2023
In the fourth year of a tight salary cap situation, veterans like these could play well and still find it difficult to find takers for their services as the league skews ever-younger. Sometimes after major injury these players have been unable to secure a full-time contract. Austin Wagner, Mark Pysyk and Libor Hajek, the players signed by the Pens to PTO’s today, fit in these categories in different ways.
Due to NHL rules of playing a number ofveteran players in preseason games, occasionally PTO’s are little more than fodder for helping a team meet a requirement and destined to become training camp cuts. However, every chance to pull on an NHL sweater or play for coaches and managers is a real opportunity — and as we saw recently with Brian Boyle in Pittsburgh — sometimes players brought in on tryouts can end up going on to make an impact and become valuable and important parts of the team (on or off the ice).
Mark Pysyk is perhaps the biggest chance for a PTO success story for the Pens this time around, and probably the most intriguing tryout announced. He is a right shot defender, playing in a world now where Chad Ruhwedel is penciled into the third pair. Ruhwedel has given years of quality time, and as recently as 2021-22 was counted on as a full-time member of the lineup. Ruhwedel’s lengthy stint in Pittsburgh masks the fact that’s ever-true for fringe players: his spot is never secure and always has to be earned, then re-earned, then proven over and over again.
Pysyk is an intriguing case. At 31, he’s a former first round pick with 500+ NHL games under his belt (and as we will get to, has done some good work in his NHL career). However, the big issue hanging over him is that Pysyk is coming off a major Achilles injury that kept him out for all of the 2022-23 season. He now has something to prove himself about if his game hasn’t dropped off since that point. (Brian Dumoulin did not have an Achilles injury, but recall how a ankle problems limited his mobility and was a turning point in his effectiveness over the past few years).
Even if there is uncertainty about that leg, Pysyk is surely worth seeing on a no-risk to the team tryout — he has a long resume of providing quality defensive impacts over the last decade.
If nothing else, this adds one more battle for a job in camp. If Ruhwedel is the better player, the Pens can let Pysyk go and feel pretty decent about their long-time depth player keeping his spot as an every day player in the lineup. If Pysyk recaptures his previous form, that might make for tough decisions about where, how or if Ruhwedel can be squeezed onto the team as an extra. Injuries do happen, though, and it’s usually not a problem to have a defender too good sitting for very long.
At just 25 years old, Libor Hajek does not fit the classic archetype of the grizzled veteran looking for one more opportunity to hang on at the NHL level. Instead, Hajek is trying to get his career off the ground in the first place. Hajek, a former second round pick of the Lightning, was traded to the NY Rangers as a prospect early on. He’s played a total of 110 NHL games over the last five years with the Rangers, and hasn’t been able to build much.
Hajek was a well-regarded player, the Rangers kept him mostly as a depth defender last year and were hesitant to waive him, despite the fact he was a healthy scratch much more frequently than the 16 games he dressed for them in 2022-23. They held out until February before finally pulling the plug and sending him off the team in an effort to clear some salary space before the deadline. Hajek didn’t find a taker from a different NHL organization and finished out the season at the AHL level. Hajek was not issued a qualifying offer by NYR this summer and became an unrestricted free agent as a result.
The hope here is to see what a once-promising and still not exactly old player has to offer. Can’t beat it for the Pens, since there is no commitment if it doesn’t work out. Based on Hajek’s past, it doesn’t look like a good bet that he will show up to camp in Pittsburgh next month and wow them. But you never know until you get to see it for yourself.
Wagner, 26, is looking to make an impression for the Pens after a few quiet years. The winger was mostly a regular player for the LA Kings from 2018-19 to the shortened 2020-21, playing in: 62, 65 and 41 (out of 56) games in each season. Since then, however, it’s been mostly quiet for Wagner. The Kings waived him and sent him to the AHL for all of 2021-22, and then again in 2022-23 - only relenting when LA shipped him out to Chicago for nothing (err, sorry for “future considerations”) in March 2023.
Chicago, as you’ll recall, was attempting to be as weak as possible down the stretch after trading away anything NHL caliber that they could and tanking for Conor Bedard. The latter part worked, but being bad wasn’t always the case - which a late-season win over Pittsburgh stands out as a shocking result that could be pointed to as changing the course of the hockey world..
Anyways, back to Wagner, he’s a fringe NHL winger. Mid-round pick, mid-sized, a few years of declining impact. The Pens get to take a look to see how he stacks up to their mountain of fringe players (Alex Nylander, Vinnie Hinostroza, Andreas Johnsson, Radim Zohorna, Jonathan Gruden) and Wagner would probably have to stand out above all of them plus the next level of lower line wingers up a notch in Matt Nieto, Drew O’Connor to have a chance. Long odds of that.
There are only so many bodies to have in camp, so any and all players carry some degree of importance and worth, and were signed for a reason — even the tryout level players. Pysyk stands out as the one with the easiest to envision path at making it, but a key injury here or there or surprising performance could lead to a tryout coming good and extending a career.