Like the tide, every preseason brings in a wash of unsigned free agents, players making NHL comebacks, and veterans fighting for one last contract. And like the tide, when training camp ends few PTOs remain on the proverbial beach. This year at least 25 players have agreed to attend NHL training camps on a professional tryout basis, but only a few will secure an NHL contract. Last year over 90 players tried out for NHL teams and only 14 players ended up signing contracts.
Last season the Boston Bruins invited Lee Stempniak to training camp and he played well enough to garner a $850K contract. He drastically exceeded expectations, and now boasts a two-year, $5MM contract with the Hurricanes. Who are this year’s potential Stempniaks? We look at three players who are front-runners for contracts this season.
Kris Versteeg is an interesting case. Earlier this summer the flashy Canadian winger eschewed NHL offers for more money in Switzerland. Yet, days before training camp started overseas, Versteeg and SC Bern parted ways over lingering hip issues which prevented Versteeg from passing physicals and obtaining medical insurance. Within days, however, Versteeg secured a PTO with the Edmonton Oilers in his home province of Alberta.
Versteeg has the most potential out of all the PTOs this year, scoring 15G and 23A in 77 games last season with both the Carolina Hurricanes and the Los Angeles Kings. He flourished with the Chicago Blackhawks in their 2010 Stanley Cup run, but hip issues have sidelined Versteeg throughout the remainder of his career. And therein lines the biggest variable: is Versteeg healthy enough to help an NHL team? It’s his health rather than his skill that leaves NHL teams wanting, and any contract is going to hinge on Versteeg passing physicals.
Superficially, Brandon Prust looks like a gritty veteran on the decline—someone who lost a step in the last few years. His numbers seem to indicate the same as he scored only 1G and 6A in 35 games with the Vancouver Canucks. But what Prust lacks in production he makes up for in hard-nosed play. That is what garnered his previous four-year, $10MM contract with Montreal, and while that may have been an overpayment for what Prust brings, Toronto thinks he still has those talents.
A contract for Prust will hinge on his work ethic and gritty play. GM Lou Lamoriello is an old-school manager, and most old-school managers like to have veterans to mentor younger players in their development. Toronto is chock full of younger players, with 1st overall pick Auston Matthews set to make his debut alongside Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Toronto already signed Matt Martin, and if the team feels that they need a similar player, Prust will get his contract.
Tom McCollum is an odd choice here because perennial AHL goalies do not usually receive NHL contracts. McCollum, however, isn’t just any AHL goalie, and the Los Angeles Kings aren’t any NHL team. McCollum, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, flourished in the AHL, posting a 2.42GAA and a .923SV%. He has been the model of consistency for the Grand Rapids Griffins over the past few years. His lack of NHL opportunity comes as no fault of his own, but rather the logjam of goalies in Detroit with Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard.
The L.A. Kings, on the other hand, suffer from a dearth of goaltending. Known for years as a goalie hotbed, little remains behind starter Jonathan Quick this season. The Kings signed Jeff Zatkoff this summer, but Zatkoff did not perform well in Pittsburgh when given the chance. Outside of Zatkoff, the Kings’ cupboard is bare. Jack Campbell and Peter Budaj remain, but neither have shown promise. If McCollum performs well this pre-season, expect the Kings to sign him to an AHL contract as an insurance policy for Jeff Zatkoff.