By Rob Ficiur
As National Hockey League teams begin their first week of training camp, there are a large number of players trying out for the 31 teams are on Professional Try Out contracts (PT0’s). Professional Try outs have been part of training camps in all sports as long as there have been rosters for teams to fill. In the modern NHL the PT0’s have become more common for several reasons:
1. For years players have used PT0’s as a way to make a potential comeback. In 2009 former 50 goal scorer Thereon Fleury tried out for the Calgary Flames after being out the league for six years. Looking back was it realistic for the 39 year old Fleury to think he could make the Flames? The team lost nothing by giving him a try out. When Theo scored a shoot out winning goal in a pre-season game, fans were thrilled as Fleury’s comeback took a step forward. A few days later Thereon Fleury was released from his tryout.
Hindsight is always perfect. Those 2009-2010 Flames missed the playoffs. Would an aging Theo Fleury have made a difference? In his last four NHL seasons he averaged 20 goals – so if he had scored 15 would that have made a difference? A fifteen goal season by Theo Fleury would have put him third on the Flames that year in goals scored. That year the Flames missed the playoffs by five points. Since hindsight is perfect, we can guess that this might have been one PT0 that could have helped a team.
2. PT0’s are part of NHL business. The capfriendly website has kept track of how many NHL PT0’s there have been since 2015. In 2016 there were 195 PT0’s up from 95 the year before. In the end 12 of last year’s 195 PT0’s signed NHL contracts. With salary caps as tight as they have been – many NHL teams are using PT0’s instead of signing some free agents. Using a PT0 a team does not have to commit money to a player who does not live up to their hopes. PT0’s who signed were inexpensive. Only one of the 12 PT0s contracts signed was for one million dollars; the rest were for less (sometimes considerably less).
3. Players choice – There is a backside to NHL PT0’s. Last year Kris Versteeg was a free agent and could not find a contract. He signed a PT0 with Edmonton. The day before the season started the Calgary Flames signed the versatile winger. Any time during the PT0 process, the player is free to sign with any team he can. The thirty year old Versteeg scored 15 goals for the Flames last year; tying him for fifth on the team. The fit was so good in Calgary that they have re-signed Versteeg for this coming season.
4. Restart a career – In 2015 Peter Budaj’s NHL career appeared to be over. In 2007 the rising star Budaj won 31 games as a goalie for the Colorado Avalanche. After serving as a Carey Price back up in Montreal for three seasons, Budaj’s promising career seemed to be over. In 2014-2015 he won zero games for the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps (and played zero games for his new team in Winnipeg.) The LA Kings signed the 34 year old Budaj to a PT0. As expected he did not make the NHL team.
Budaj accepted a demotion to the Kings AHL team. There Budaj won 42 games and was the Ontario Reign MVP. A year later when Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick was injured the first game of the season, Budaj was called up. His respectable 27 wins made him trade bait. He finished the year in Tampa Bay – where he signed a two year contract this summer. A career that seemed over has comeback (for up to three years more than anyone might have thought).
5. This year? Who will be the surprise PT0 success stories this year? I was surprised to see how many of the 57 players on the capfriendly list I knew. PA Parenteau scored 13 goals last year for a weak New Jersey team; the 33 year old winger could help somewhere. Thirty two year old defenseman Daniel Winnick played 72 games last year for the President Trophy winning Washington Capitals. Three years ago Brandon Pirri scored 22 goals for Florida in 49 games. This year the Panthers are giving the 26 year old a PT0 chance; hoping to revitalize his career after two forgettable years.
The most intriguing PT0 this training camp is 37 year old defenseman Chris Lee. Who? The veteran defenseman has been a KHL all-star three of the last four years. Last year the slick passing defenseman scored 14 goals and added 51 assists while playing for the Metallurg Magnitogorsk. At an age when most pro hockey players are retiring, the veteran of 249 AHL games, 157 ECHL games, and 227 KHL games still hopes to play his first NHL game.
Chances are that Chris Lee and the majority of the Professional Try Out players at training camp won’t make the NHL ever. However, since it can be done, the players are hoping for that one break that will make their career.