It’s a position that no NHL veteran wants to find himself in, but sometimes it’s the only way to stay employed in North America. With NHL training camps starting to cut mass amounts of participants, AHL camps are opening for another round of evaluation and to prepare young pros for the start of the minor league season. However, these AHL camps can also be a last-ditch source of hope for older players looking to stay relevant with an NHL affiliate. Every year a few recognizable names opt for this route, and this year is no different.
Of the many invites announced thus far, Jimmy Hayes stands out as the top AHL camp participant. The Iowa Wild specifically acknowledged the veteran winger’s presence in camp when announcing their roster. Hayes, 29, has 334 NHL games and over 100 points to his credit over eight seasons with five different NHL teams. However, Hayes’ two-way contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season saw him play exclusively in the AHL. While he was productive, recording 30 points in 72 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, it wasn’t enough to earn another two-way deal. To this point, Hayes hasn’t even earned an AHL deal. He’ll work to earn a contract, and hopefully the attention of the Minnesota brass, when he takes part in Iowa camp.
Griffin Reinhart is another name that sticks out among the crowd of AHL camp invites. Like Hayes, Reinhart is a player whose trade value far outweighed what he ever produced on the ice in the NHL. The 25-year-old was drafted fourth overall in 2012 by the New York Islanders, who dealt him to the Edmonton Oilers a few years later for a first- and second-round pick. Yet, Reinhart has just two points in 37 games to show for his NHL impact. Even in three straight seasons of exclusive AHL action, Rienhart has failed to impress. However, on name value alone he will be able to find a shot somewhere. This time around, the Belleville Senators have invited the young defenseman to camp. Former Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels, the son of long-time NHLer Andrew Cassels, will also join the junior Senators in camp after playing in Germany last season.
Among the other recognizable faces in minor league camp is veteran forward Lance Bouma. After missing almost all of last season due to injury, Bouma signed a PTO with the Los Angeles Kings and seemed like a dark horse candidate to earn a contract. The 29-year-old has a proven track record as a checking forward in the NHL and has flashed offense from time to time as well. However, the Kings opted to go with their younger options, but not before asking Bouma to take part in AHL camp with the Ontario Reign, the team announced. Bouma could still earn a spot with the organization yet. Talented young goaltender Hayden Hawkey surprisingly remains a free agent searching for a landing spot. The property of both the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers during his four years at Providence College, Hawkey nevertheless ended up without an NHL team after graduation and became a UFA in August. He recently took part in training camp with the Washington Capitals, but was cut. He will now join the Stockton Heat in camp, the team revealed, and could prove to be a sneaky addition to the organization for the Calgary Flames. Hawkey posted a 2.19 GAA or lower in each of his four dominant collegiate seasons. Finally, Connor Brickley seems determined to stay with the New York Rangers organization at all costs. Brickley, 27, is a big, capable bottom-six forward who performed well down the stretch for the Rangers last season following a deadline trade. However, New York would not commit to a contract extension for the former second-round pick. Instead, he accepted a PTO to join the team in camp. When that ended today with his release from Rangers camp, the team announced that he will still participate in minor league camp with the Hartford Wolfpack and could stay in the organization after all.
None of these players are likely happy with their current predicament, but if they work hard in camp and in the AHL regular season, the fastest way back to NHL relevance is through production and consistency at the minor league level. Even for veterans and especially for those still considered prospects, AHL training camp can still be a valuable stepping stone toward a return to the top level.