NHL training camps open this week, with the exhibition schedule starting Sunday. That means we all get to spend the next few weeks speculating about goaltending battles, line combinations, special-teams time, and which scrappy underdogs will claim which roster spots.
We’ll do all of that while ignoring that, in the salary-cap era, 90 percent of each team’s roster is set in stone before camp ever starts. We’re getting pretty good at that, because as little as most of this will end up mattering, training camp is fun. It’s a chance to ease back into the NHL for a few weeks with your fellow fans, before opening night arrives and we all start stabbing each other with screwdrivers over a faceoff violation.
But until stabbing time arrives, here are a half-dozen story lines to keep an eye on as the preseason unfolds.
How Will All of Those PTOs Shake Out?
The NHL’s summer of fiscal sanity has shifted directly into the autumn of the PTO — i.e. the professional tryout, an offer to an established player to come to training camp as, essentially, a walk-on. The deals come with no strings attached; teams are under no obligation to sign the player to an actual contract, and players can pick up and take their services to any team willing to offer full-time employment.
PTOs are far from an ideal scenario for the veterans who end up taking them; most have solid NHL résumés and were hoping to land multiyear deals in free agency. But in a perfect world, the player turns some heads in camp, earns a one-year contract, puts together a strong season, and then cashes in on a better deal the following summer. Call it the Mason Raymond model — after a decent career with the Canucks, Raymond took a PTO with the Maple Leafs in 2013, earned a roster spot, played well, and then parlayed that into a three-year deal with the Flames that totaled almost $10 million.
Of course, that’s the best-case scenario, and most PTOs end with the veteran being sent packing, often spelling the end of an NHL career. But it’s a shot worth taking, and plenty of veterans have done just that in recent weeks.
Some of the more recognizable names include Scott Gomez (St. Louis), Devin Setoguchi (Toronto), Tomas Fleischmann (Montreal), Sergei Kostitsyn (Calgary), Patrick Kaleta (Buffalo), Brad Boyes (Toronto), Derek Roy (Washington), Martin Havlat (Florida), and Curtis Glencross (Toronto).1 None of those guys sounds like a future All-Star, but most could help the right team for a season, and at this point they should come cheap.
You may be detecting a pattern. The rebuilding Maple Leafs have been especially active on the PTO market, which makes sense. Toronto is a good choice for veterans since the team has plenty of holes and gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, and the Leafs are probably already thinking ahead to flipping some of these guys at the trade deadline.
History tells us that a few will make it; most won’t. But it’s hard not to root for them at least a little bit.
What About Those Still Unsigned?
Most years, we’d still have a star player or two sitting at home waiting for a new contract, which everyone would call a holdout even though it was no such thing. There’s no P.K. Subban or Ryan Johansen this year, but there are a couple of good young RFAs who are still waiting for deals.
Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau is a tricky player to evaluate. He was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft but didn’t make the team as an 18-year-old. He put up a solid rookie year in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, then struggled as a sophomore before posting an impressive 54-point campaign last season. That kind of inconsistency probably translates to a bridge deal, one that sounds like it should be signed soon.
In Brooklyn,2 the Islanders need to figure out what to do with Brock Nelson. The 23-year-old is coming off a 20-goal campaign in his second NHL season and would presumably be looking at a short-term deal. But there’s a complicating factor here: The Islanders have a team policy that prohibits negotiations with players once camp starts. It’s a weird stance, and one that means Nelson needs to sign by Thursday or sit out the whole season. It’s hard to imagine that happening, and since Nelson has little leverage here, the deal probably gets done.
Man, that is weird to type.
As for unsigned UFAs,3 there’s not much left out there. Sean Bergenheim could probably help someone, and Jiri Tlusty is reportedly turning down PTO offers and eying the KHL if he can’t find an NHL deal. With the great Cody Franson Watch finally behind us and just about everyone else with a pulse signing PTOs, that’s pretty much it.
Technically, guys on PTOs are also “unsigned,” but we’re talking guys with no deal of any kind here.
Of course, when you mention signing contracts, there’s one more group of players we need to talk about …
Will Any Big Extensions Get Done?
While this year’s free-agency ranks are getting dangerously thin, next year’s remain tantalizingly stacked. And that’s unusual. For the better part of a decade, it’s been accepted wisdom in the NHL that star players in their prime just don’t make it to unrestricted free agency — they always sign extensions well before their deals run out.
That’s why nobody who looked at next year’s potential class in June bothered to get all that excited. Sure, there were plenty of big names, but that’s always the case a year out. Once the calendar hit July and the extensions could start flying,4 surely the stars would all get locked down.
NHL players can’t sign extensions until July 1 of the final year of their deal.
It hasn’t really happened yet, with a few exceptions. Mark Giordano signed a contract that made sense. Jakub Voracek signed a contract that made sense. Ryan Kesler signed a contract that … was a contract. But that leaves plenty of elite players still waiting, including Anze Kopitar, Dustin Byfuglien, and Eric Staal.
And then there’s the biggest name of them all: Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain and consensus top-five player in the world. We had all assumed his extension would end up in the ballpark of last summer’s Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews megadeals, which were signed in early July. When the calendar flipped over to August without a new contract in place, we thought, That’s weird. Now it’s September, and it’s starting to feel like there really is a nonzero possibility Stamkos is going to bolt.5
Now, “nonzero possibility” doesn’t mean it’s likely, and it’s still quite possible that all the guys named in this section get their deals done, maybe even before opening night. And there is a precedent for monster deals getting done during the season — remember that a few years ago, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry didn’t sign theirs until March.6 But with many players preferring not to negotiate during the regular season, and the open market getting closer with every day that goes by, there has to be some sense of urgency around these situations.
Meet the New Boss
Although that was the lockout-shortened year.
Seven teams will have a new coach debuting behind the bench this fall. Four of the names are familiar ones. Peter DeBoer takes over in San Jose, replacing Todd McLellan after a disappointing season in which the Sharks failed to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. McLellan didn’t stay out of work for long, heading to Edmonton to coach Connor McDavid and a young Oilers team desperate for some credibility. It’s the nature of the beast that these two will be compared to each other as the season goes on, and meetings between the teams should be fun, assuming you can get past the loud whooshing noise of franchises headed in opposite directions.
Mike Babcock takes over in Toronto, where he and his record-shattering contract will be under a telescope.7 Babcock should instantly improve a team that hasn’t exactly had Jack Adams candidates behind the bench in recent years, although Leafs fans dreaming of Auston Matthews may wonder if that’s really a good thing. The team he spurned, the Buffalo Sabres, will welcome a Cup-winner of their own in Dan Bylsma; Babcock-related bad feelings aside, Bylsma may end up being an even better fit in Buffalo. He’ll certainly start with a better roster, one that may even be thinking playoffs after back-to-back years in last place.
That’s right, telescope. In Toronto, being under a microscope is considered a day off.
But while Babcock and friends will get plenty of attention, it may be more fun to watch the three rookie coaches as they get acclimated to the NHL. Detroit’s Jeff Blashill will have the easiest time; he joins the team from its AHL affiliate, where he coached several current Red Wings on their way up to the big leagues. He’s highly regarded around the league, and it will be interesting to see what sort of changes he has in mind for the Wings after 10 years of Babcock’s reign.
New Jersey’s John Hynes has a history with new Devils GM Ray Shero, having served as his AHL coach in the Penguins organization. He steps behind a Devils bench that’s seen all sorts of weirdness in recent years, including last year’s firing of DeBoer followed by the bizarre three-man rotation of Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens, and Adam Oates. At 40, Hynes will be the youngest coach in the league, and he will need time and patience to mold the Devils back into a contender.
And then there’s Dave Hakstol in Philadelphia. He’s a rarity, joining the NHL directly from the college ranks, and he represents a gusty choice by Flyers GM Ron Hextall. The only other two college coaches to go straight to an NHL head-coaching job represent the range of possibilities here: Bob Johnson had a long career and won a Stanley Cup, while Ned Harkness lasted 38 games. Flyers fans are patient with coaches, right?
Who’ll Get the C’s?
If you’re the sort of fan who enjoys speculating about which players will get the honor of being named captain, you’ve been spoiled over the past few years. There were eight vacancies in 2013 and seven more in 2014, some of those for the same teams.
But this year, there’s not much to keep an eye on. Only one active NHL captain left his team this offseason, when Devils veteran Bryce Salvador announced his retirement earlier this month. Two more teams, the Sharks and Canadiens, left the captaincy vacant last season.8 That’s not much to work with, but it will have to do.9
As did the Blue Jackets, but they’ve already given their C to Nick Foligno.
The number could grow to four, because new Oilers coach Todd McLellan hasn’t committed to keeping the C on Andrew Ference even though the veteran is still with the team. But it seems unlikely the team would make a switch now, since you’d have to assume that Connor McDavid will get the job within two or three years.
Patrik Elias would seem like the obvious choice for the Devils, but he says he doesn’t want the honor. Nobody’s held the job for longer than four years in New Jersey since the Scott Stevens years, and there’s no clear-cut candidate this time around. The Devils are beginning a quasi-rebuild and aren’t expected to be very good this season, so leaving the captaincy vacant could be an option. If not, veterans Travis Zajac and Andy Greene were alternates last season and would be as good a choice as any.
In San Jose, DeBoer has already said he’s “very confident” the team will have a captain this season. It’s technically possible he could go with Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau, both of whom had held the C in the past before having it stripped, and for pure comedy value they have our full support. But Joe Pavelski seems more likely, with the younger Logan Couture also an option if the team wants to keep one eye on the future.
Finally, the Canadiens have committed to naming a captain after going with a committee approach last season. It’s hard not to get excited about the thought of P.K. Subban rocking the C in Montreal, but all indications seem to point to Max Pacioretty getting the title instead.
A Savior Appears
In any sport, one of the highlights of training camp and the exhibition season is watching rookies show up and dazzle everyone. It rarely lasts, but it’s enough to provide a small boost of hope for the future, like watching the first green shoots appear in the sidewalk cracks after a long winter.
This year will be no different in the NHL, where fans of teams like the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, and Coyotes will get a look at recent high draft picks before the final roster is revealed and everyone remembers they’re going to be terrible. But in two cities, a rookie will be asked to do more than make a few highlight-reel plays and push for a roster spot. They’ll be asked to bring the franchise back from the dead.
In Buffalo, the Sabres’ demise was mostly intentionally self-inflicted, as the team embarked on what could politely be called a strategic long-term slump, one that lasted several years and culminated with two seasons of finishing dead last, two draft lottery losses, and a whole bunch of prospects. That group is highlighted by Jack Eichel, the former Boston University star with the sort of skill set that makes an entire fan base pretend that drafting him wasn’t the consolation prize all along. He had an assist 25 seconds into his debut during the Sabres’ rookie tournament, which isn’t quite Mario Lemieux scoring on his first regular-season shift but isn’t bad at all.
In Edmonton, where the pain has been equally self-inflicted but decidedly less intentionally so, Connor McDavid has arrived to make everyone forget about the past nine years. He just might do it, too. He played one game in the Oilers’ rookie tournament, recording a goal and an assist. That went over pretty well. He was also on the receiving end of a big hit from Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen. That, uh, did not go over well, but it adds a nice little subplot as we wait to see how (or if) the team responds to future hits.
Neither Eichel nor McDavid has anything to prove this month. They’re both locks to make the final roster, and both will ultimately be judged on what they do over a decade or more, not a few weeks in September. It will be fun to watch them suit up in NHL uniforms and play with NHL teammates against NHL opposition, but that’s about it. Barring cataclysmic injury, nothing they do over the next few weeks will be remembered.
But for fans in two of the league’s most loyal markets, they represent an honest dose of hope. For a few weeks, that should be enough.