NHL training camps open this week, with the exhibition schedule starting Sunday. That means we all get to spend the next few weeks speculating about goaltending battles, line combinations, special teams time, and which scrappy underdogs will claim which roster spots.
We’ll do all of that while ignoring that, in the salary-cap era, 90 percent of each team’s roster is set in stone before camp ever starts. We’re getting pretty good at that, because as little as most of this will end up mattering, training camp is fun. It’s a chance to ease back into the NHL for a few weeks with your fellow fans, before opening night arrives and we all start stabbing each other with screwdrivers over a faceoff violation.
But until stabbing time arrives, here are a half-dozen story lines to keep an eye on as the preseason unfolds.
How Will All of Those PTOs Shake Out?
The NHL’s summer of fiscal sanity has shifted directly into the autumn of the PTO — i.e. the professional tryout, an offer to an established player to come to training camp as, essentially, a walk-on. The deals come with no strings attached; teams are under no obligation to sign the player to an actual contract, and players can pick up and take their services to any team willing to offer full-time employment.
PTOs are far from an ideal scenario for the veterans who end up taking them; most have solid NHL résumés and were hoping to land multiyear deals in free agency. But in a perfect world, the player turns some heads in camp, earns a one-year contract, puts together a strong season, and then cashes in on a better deal the following summer. Call it the Mason Raymond model — after a decent career with the Canucks, Raymond took a PTO with the Maple Leafs in 2013, earned a roster spot, played well, and then parlayed that into a three-year deal with the Flames that totaled almost $10 million.
Of course, that’s the best-case scenario, and most PTOs end with the veteran being sent packing, often spelling the end of an NHL career. But it’s a shot worth taking, and plenty of veterans have done just that in recent weeks.
Some of the more recognizable names include Scott Gomez (St. Louis), Devin Setoguchi (Toronto), Tomas Fleischmann (Montreal), Sergei Kostitsyn (Calgary), Patrick Kaleta (Buffalo), Brad Boyes (Toronto), Derek Roy (Washington), Martin Havlat (Florida), and Curtis Glencross (Toronto). None of those guys sounds like a future All-Star, but most could help the right team for a year, and at this point they should come cheap.
History tells us that a few will make it; most won’t. But it’s hard not to root for them at least a little bit.
What About Those Still Unsigned?
Most years, we’d still have a star player or two sitting at home waiting for a new contract, which everyone would call a holdout even though it was no such thing. There’s no P.K. Subban or Ryan Johansen this year, but there are a couple of good young RFAs who are still waiting for deals.
Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau is a tricky player to evaluate. He was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft but didn’t make the team as an 18-year-old. He put up a solid rookie year in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, then struggled as a sophomore before posting an impressive 54-point campaign last year. That kind of inconsistency probably translates to a bridge deal, one that sounds like it should be signed soon.
In Brooklyn, the Islanders need to figure out what to do with Brock Nelson. The 23-year-old is coming off a 20-goal campaign in his second NHL season and would presumably be looking at a short-term deal. But there’s a complicating factor here: The Islanders have a team policy that prohibits negotiations with players once camp starts. It’s a weird stance, and one that means Nelson needs to sign by Thursday or sit out the whole season. It’s hard to imagine that happening, and since Nelson has little leverage here, the deal probably gets done.
As for unsigned UFAs, there’s not much left out there. Sean Bergenheim could probably help someone, and Jiri Tlusty is reportedly turning down PTO offers and eying the KHL if he can’t find an NHL deal. With the great Cody Franson Watch finally behind us and just about everyone else with a pulse signing PTOs, that’s pretty much it.
Of course, when you mention signing contracts, there’s one more group of players we need to talk about …
Will Any Big Extensions Get Done?
While this year’s free-agency ranks are getting dangerously thin, next year’s remain tantalizingly stacked. And that’s unusual. For the better part of a decade, it’s been accepted wisdom in the NHL that star players in their prime just don’t make it to unrestricted free agency — they always sign extensions well before their deals run out.