There were some hints that the PTO market was about to open up. Within the first week of September, the Colorado Avalanche penciled in Artem Anisimov and Jack Johnson and the Pittsburgh Penguins brought in local product Matt Bartkowski. However, with the New Jersey Devils announcing three PTO’s today, including two forwards who played in 45+ games this season in Jimmy Vesey and Mark Jankowski, the floodgates have officially opened on the tryout market. Once the PTO ball starts rolling, it usually only picks up steam. With plenty of talent still available among unsigned unrestricted free agents, this season should be no different. Rather than who will be next to sign, as many names could shortly come off the market (at least temporarily), who would you want your favorite team to bring to camp?
What makes a PTO different than a signing is the lack of commitment. Sure, a low-salary contract that can be buried in the minors is reasonably similar, but even that is a commitment to using up a limited number of roster slots and taking play time from prospects in the AHL. A PTO is merely a training camp invitation to see whether an available player could be a fit for your team. Perhaps it is a veteran who may have gas left in the tank – or may not. Or perhaps it is a young player who has hit a rough patch in his development but just needs a chance to show his upside. It could also be a role player in his prime who just needs a chance to prove he can be useful to the organization.
It’s hard to ignore some of the future Hall of Famers who fit the first description. 44-year-old Zdeno Chara, 41-year-old Patrick Marleau, and 36-year-old Eric Staal each played more games this past season than any other player still available. The question is, can they do it again? Fortunately, a PTO doesn’t require that question to be answered without getting an early look. All three of Chara, Marleau, and Staal have seemingly done more than enough in their respective careers to earn a contract if they want one, but after each had a down year entering a tight, flat-cap market, could they settle for a PTO? Travis Zajac may not be headed for the Hall, but the respected veteran is coming off of a better year than anyone else still unsigned and was expected to command a contract. Could he too end up on a tryout?
Other veterans who might be more likely to take a tryout to extend their careers could include Jason Demers, Bobby Ryan, James Neal, Frans Nielsen, or Devan Dubnyk. Demers and Dubnyk are both arguably the best players still available at their respective position, but that isn’t saying much for an early-September market. It still may not hurt for a team to try to lock up that security on a PTO in case depth is needed. Ryan was playing very well with the Red Wings last season before his season was derailed by injury. At 34, coming back from a long-term ailment could be difficult, but a PTO would allow teams to check on his health. Neal and Nielsen have fallen far from their spots as elite NHLers in the past few years, but could they still have a resurgence left?
Among young players looking for another chance is Alex Galchenyuk, 27, who had the makings of a breakout season brewing after a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs last season and could be ready to build on that momentum. Galchenyuk can be a tough system fit, but a PTO would allow for a team to test his abilities with their personnel. At just 25, Michael Dal Colle may actually be the best young hidden gem among unsigned players. In fact, it is surprising to 2014 top-five pick still available, especially given that he showed signs of improvement in 2019-20 before the Islanders’ depth forced him to take a back seat role last season. Dal Colle could be worth the look, but could a team glean enough in camp without much NHL experience to rely upon as supporting evidence. The same could be said for Frederik Gauthier. One of the biggest forwards in the NHL and good defensive forward, Gauthier’s played sparingly last season within the Coyotes organization and was limited exclusively to fourth line minutes prior in Toronto. Could a brief training camp appearance prove to a team that he is not one-dimensional?
As for those players in their prime who don’t have to prove that they can play in the NHL or can still play in the NHL, it is more about showing that they possess the tools to fill a specific role for a team. Those looking for some stability and minutes on the blue line should show interest in Sami Vatanen, Erik Gustafsson, or Ben Hutton, who have both shown that they can still play. However, are they a better option than what most teams already have on their bottom pair or waiting for opportunity in the AHL? Up front, a team in need of skill could eye Nikita Gusev or Alex Chiasson while those seeking defense have options such as Colton Sceviour and Tobias Rieder. Like the defensemen, all of these forwards surely could play in the NHL this season, but are they superior options to what teams already have? And can a PTO prove otherwise?
There are strengths and weaknesses to all of these players, as well as to what they would be able to prove on a training camp tryout. At the end of the day, at this point in the season value is subjective based on what each team feels could be an area of need in the coming season and who they feel could prove themselves worthy of a contract with just a short PTO. So what say you? Who would you most like to see your favorite team bring in on a PTO?