It’s not uncommon to see many players coming off NHL contracts, including those who have found success in the AHL, opt to sign minor league contracts early in July. As the new league year begins, many unrestricted free agents find that the market for their services at the top level does not develop. Rather than hold out hope for a two-way NHL contract further into the off-season, many are content to accept AHL contracts, which don’t rule out the possibility of signing in the NHL but provide some certainty about the coming season. Through the first two days of free agency, more than a few familiar names have settled for minor league pacts:
- Tyler Sikura has signed a one-year deal with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs, remaining in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Sikura has been a key contributor for Rockford the past two years, even earning a one-year contract with Chicago this past season, but did not make an NHL appearance. He was likely content to stay with organization anyway, as he can continue to play with younger brother Dylan Sikura.
- After playing a key shutdown role for the Charlotte Checkers en route to a Calder Cup championship, defenseman Josiah Didier has signed a one-year deal with the Providence Bruins. Providence has several top prospects on their blue line, but are lacking depth and Didier should again play an important role for his team next season.
- The San Antonio Rampage have signed former Detroit Red Wings prospect and second-round pick Zach Nastisiuk to an AHL contract, as well as fellow forwards Cameron Darcy and J.J. Piccinich. The trio will have to fight for ice time in the minors, as the St. Louis Blues have signed quite a few depth players already over these past two days.
- The Lehigh Valley Phantoms went big game hunting among AHL veterans yesterday, signing five-time AHL All-Star Cal O’Reilly to a two-year deal and bringing back their own All-Star, Greg Carey. O’Reilly, 32, has been on an NHL contract in each of the past five seasons, but had to settle for a step down this year despite another strong campaign. The center was a point-per-game scorer for the Iowa Wild, notching 67 points in 67 games to finish in the top ten in the AHL in scoring. It was his sixth AHL season with 60+ points. Carey, 29, saw his contract with the Philadelphia Flyers expire, but remains in the organization, where he has recorded three straight 50+ points seasons. The Phantoms also signed another Iowa forward, Gerry Fitzgerald, and defenseman Eric Knodel to one-year contracts.
- A trio of familiar names have joined the Hartford Wolfpack: goalie Thomas McCollum, forward Harry Zolnierczyk, and defenseman Vincent LoVerde. All three players are coming off of NHL contracts but will have to work their way back into relevance at the top level. McCollum and Zolnierczyk both have played in the NHL, albeit not in several years, and LoVerde is a two-time AHL All-Star and Calder Cup champ. It’s quite a haul for Hartford.
- Sam Vigneault left Clarkson University early to join the Columbus Blue Jackets, but his play in the minors tailed off over the past two years and his entry-level contract expired without an NHL experience. However, he’s content to stay in the organization, as Vigneault has signed a one-year deal with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters.
- Former top goalie prospect Zach Fucale has had a tough go of it in the pros. A second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2013, Fucale has been relegated to the ECHL for much of the past three seasons. He managed to find an AHL contract with the Syracuse Crunch, but considering the depth in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning after signing three goalies yesterday, Fucale is likely headed back to the ECHL.
- Cole Schneider has been a force in the AHL for years, recently wrapping up his sixth straight season of 50+ points. However, the 28-year-old has been unable to translate that offense to the NHL. Although he still had enough value to warrant a trade to the Nashville Predators this season, Schneider never made an appearance for the team. That hasn’t stopped him from sticking with the organization though. The Milwaukee Admirals have brought back the talented forward on a one-year deal.