Entering the free agent market late is never an enviable position. Hitting the market in August coming off the worst season of your pro career? That’s a really tough spot and the one facing down veteran forward Troy Brouwer this summer.
Brouwer became the latest addition to the unrestricted free agent market on August 3rd, after the Calgary Flames bought out the remaining two years of his contract in the second buyout window awarded in consideration of the team’s salary arbitration status. As if becoming a free agent more than one month after the signing period began wasn’t enough of a difficult situation, Brouwer also entered a quiet market that had seen just two impact UFA signings – Brooks Orpik and Dan Hamhuis – in the previous two weeks. Now two weeks later, there has still not been another major addition and that includes a lack of interest in Brouwer.
Brouwer, who just turned 33, has begun to show his age. While physicality and two-way play have always been hallmarks of his game, Brouwer also did well for himself earlier in his career with seven straight seasons of 33 points or more while playing for three different clubs. He cashed in on that consistency two years ago, inking a four-year, $18MM contract with the Flames as a free agent – the most lucrative deal of his career. The situation in Calgary turned sour quickly, as Brouwer’s speed and production took a noticeable dip in his first campaign. The reliable forward only managed 25 points and, to add insult to injury, struggled on the defensive side of the game as well. Last season, Brouwer’s even strength ice time was cut to a career low and his production dropped again to a career-worst six goals and 22 points.
At $4.5MM per year, Brouwer’s play last season showed the Flames that he was simply a burden they could no longer shoulder moving forward, even if his buyout meant adding a $1.5MM penalty for each of the next four years. Now, the question is whether he can bounce back from a disappointing tenure in Calgary? And will any team even give him that chance?
If the offense is really gone from Brouwer’s game, then he is more of your typical fourth-line grinder at this point in his career. He still plays a very solid short-handed game, has always had a knack for stripping the puck, and can check and win battles along the boards with the best. Brouwer has even been known to excel at the occasional face-off in the past. In an energy role where he would be specifically tasked with bothering the opposition and focused more on preventing goals than scoring them, Brouwer could still thrive, maybe even for a few years.
A versatile, two-way right winger could be in demand with several squads. Especially given the fact that Brouwer’s buyout payments should drive the price of his next contract down, he could be a good value pick up for whichever team lands him. The Colorado Avalanche may be the best fit for Brouwer. The Avs’ forward corps is very young and not very deep in two-way players. The roster is also completely devoid of natural right wingers. The veteran grinder could also serve as a good mentor to young Avalanche forward A.J. Greer. There is a clear fit for Brouwer on the Colorado roster more so than any other team in the league.
The Buffalo Sabres also stick out as a prime candidate to give Brouwer a shot. The team’s off-season indicates that they are all-in and looking to do more than just rebuild this season. While the Sabres are actually deep up front, they lack many players that fit nicely into a fourth-line, penalty-killing role. They also don’t have many right-shot players who are true two-way assets. Brouwer could fill that niche role. However, Brouwer would have to win a job against one of Buffalo’s younger fringe forwards.
Don’t rule out a return to the Chicago Blackhawks either. The team has shown a tendency to be interested in former players and with the likes of Matthew Highmore, John Hayden, and Jacob Nilsson currently penciled in to compete for jobs on the right side, there is a lot of reason to think that Brouwer could make a difference in Chicago. The team does have Marcus Kruger back and signed Chris Kunitz, but Brouwer on that line would make for an intriguing veteran shutdown unit.
Despite some good hypothetical landing spots, the reality is that if there was demand for Brouwer, he would have signed by now. Some expected the veteran forward to be scooped up off the market as soon as he was bought out, but the interest just hasn’t developed. There is no reason to think that it suddenly will either; grit and character are not exactly traits that teams scramble to replace after injuries or realize they desperately need in training camp. Brouwer could still end up with any number of NHL teams and can still be an effective two-way forward for multiple years. However, in all likelihood he will have to earn that next contract on a PTO . He may even be looking at a mid-season contract situation for a contender to add a locker room presence and depth defensive forward with experience like a Brian Gionta or Ryan Carter in recent years. That is the ceiling for Brouwer after a ruinous time in Calgary.