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NHL Work Shortages: Players Feeling the Pinch

There is no denying that the modern NHL game is faster than ever before. An influx of young, speedy talent has catalysed an obvious paradigm shift amongst league front offices. Ask Commissioner Bettman, and he will tell you this is simply a passing trend or phenomenon. Is it really JUST a coincidence that an increasing number of current NHL stars and recent draftees happen to match a shorter, quicker mold? Or is this a by-product of the new CBA and a league captivated by advanced statistics? Regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Bettman, or logic and reason, there are a number of side-effects this is having on the league which should not be ignored. At the forefront this season is the issue of veteran players being left without contracts, released from Professional Tryout Offers, and often forced into early retirement. Trend or not, this is a reality in professional hockey right now and one that should be addressed.

More and more teams have abandoned the old-school drafting techniques in which a player’s size would indirectly dictate both his potential and his opportunities. In a direct competition between two players of similar skill-sets, it was traditionally the taller player to be favoured amongst front offices. The new NHL, however, is all about fancy advanced statistics and possession numbers; factors like size have now become secondary. If a player maintains positive possession statistics he can be a useful to an NHL team regardless of his height. This has opened the door for a considerable number of young players who would have been almost immediately ignored under the old system of values. Players that always had the speed and maybe the skill, but were never given the proper capacity to develop into complete NHL players because they were labeled too small. Now, these undersized players are taking full advantage of their opportunities and successfully earning contracts around the league. Additionally, teams are further inclined to fill out their bottom-six forwards with exactly these types of young players because it also makes sense under the current CBA and salary cap.

“It’s shifting from the old and grinding to make the money to a younger man’s game. It’s constantly evolving and ever-changing. It’s very fast. There are younger guys playing and it’s the way they were brought up, too. They train better and the speed and size of players have changed”. - Robyn Regehr, retired NHL defenseman (quote courtesy Calgary Herald).

[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]While young players on entry-level contracts are cheap, controllable, and flexible in both the short and long term, the alternative is for teams to sign a veteran player to fill any hole in their lineup. The downside to this is quite obvious. Vets command higher salaries and often more restrictive 1-way contracts. They also lack the upside of younger players, who have a wildcard factor which appeals to GMs hoping to find a diamond in the rough. To find something where somebody else could not. Teams know what they’re getting when they sign a reliable veteran. This unfortunately makes for a better backup plan in most cases. They also know there will be hard-up veterans who will stick around fielding those free agent calls well into the season. Rich Clune, the 28 year-old grinder who once put up 45 points in 27 GTHL Minor Midget games, wasn’t picked up by Toronto until basically November. However, if a player is talented enough to play a top-six role, at any age, the scenario plays out entirely different. Look to Martin St. Louis for evidence of this. He retired this year despite having numerous offers. Numerous, because he is a top-six talent on those teams that were interested. It’s the battle for the last few spots on each team that’s leaving NHL vets out of work as they find the deck to be stacked against them. Fans and veteran players alike will find themselves more and more familiar with the term “Professional Tryout Offer”, which guarantees nothing to the player beyond a lottery ticket. Just ask Andrej Meszaros, whose ticket landed him in Siberia.

“I’ve been waiting for a call like this for a couple months and it never happened. I was hoping it did. I was very happy to have a chance and an opportunity, that’s all I can ask for”. - Dainius Zubrus, on being invited by St. Louis to a PTO (quote couresy

Curious Case Studies: The following players were UFAs without NHL contracts to start the 2015-16 season. Current as of (2015-10-30).

Called It Quits – Players who chose retirement from hockey. Curtis Glencross – Retired after being released from a PTO with Toronto, then from a second PTO with Colorado. Turned down contracts in Russia and Sweden, as they were too far from home and family. Sergei Gonchar – Retired after being released from a PTO with the Penguins, later joined the team coaching staff. Martin St. Louis – His agent fielded multiple contract offers, but his heart was no longer in the game. Simon Gagne –Two-time 40 goal scorer played in 23 games last year, but took a leave of absence to end his 2014 season, following the passing of his father. He was training for the 2015 season according to reports, but apparently reconsidered and opted for retirement in the long run. Daniel Carcillo – Retired at age 30 to work with his not-for-profit organization, which assists other players exiting the NHL game in adapting to a new lifestyle. Daniel Briere – Retired to be with his family. Rich Peverley – Retired due to serious health concerns and landed player development gig with Stars. Bryce Salvador – Retired wearing the “C” for the Devils. The 39 year-old said his mind was willing, but his body was not following extensive injured reserve time with nerve damage in his back. Ray Whitney – Leaves the game at age 42. Scott Clemmensen – Took job as Devils goaltending development coach. Mike Weaver – Will continue working with his defensive hockey school. Sheldon Souray – Retired once contract officially expired this year. Has not played NHL hockey since 2012-13. Troy Bodie – Retired wearing the “C” of the AHL Marlies last season. Fan-favourite battler took pro scouting position with Leafs. Close Calls – Players who signed NHL contracts off of PTO offers. Tomas Fleischmann – Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with Montreal. Lee Stempniak - Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with New Jersey. Steve Bernier – Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with the Islanders. Brad Boyes - Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with Toronto. Jack Skille – Signed a 1-year contract off of a PTO with Colorado. Scott Gomez – Signed a 2-way contract off of PTO with Blues. Kyle Cumiskey – Signed a 1-year contract off of a PTO with Chicago. Eric Boulton - Signed a 1-year contract off of a PTO with the Islanders. Scottie Upshall - Signed a 2-way contract off of PTO with Blues. Michal Rozsival - Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with Chicago. Jonas Gustavsson - Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with Boston. Mark Fraser – Released from PTO by Toronto. Signed a 2-way contract off of a PTO with Ottawa. Corey Potter - Signed a 2-way contract off of PTO with Arizona. Thomas Raffl - Signed a 1-year deal off of a PTO with Winnipeg. Rich Clune – Signed a 2-way contract with Toronto on Oct. 29. On-Hold - Players currently playing on Professional Tryout Offers. Martin Havlat – Released from PTO with Florida. Invited to PTO with the Blues Oct. 27. Dainius Zubrus – Invited to PTO with the Blues Oct. 27. Tom Sestito – Released from PTO with Pittsburgh, signed a PTO in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. 6’5” forward has played in 393 NHL games. Brett Bellemore - Released from PTO with Rangers. Signed 1-year AHL contract. Stu Bickel - Released from PTO with Blues. Signed 1-year AHL contract. Daniel Paille – Released from PTO by Chicago. Later agreed to PTO with Rockford in the AHL. Ray Emery – Released from PTO with the Lightning. Agreed to PTO in AHL with LA Kings affiliate team. Drayson Bowman – Agreed to PTO with Charlotte in the AHL Oct. 23 after briefly signing in the ECHL for 2015-16. Played only 3 games with Montreal in the 2014-15 NHL season, spending most of his time with their AHL affiliate. Former 3rd round pick is only 26 years of age. Matt Lashoff – Agreed to PTO with AHL Phantoms. Former Bruins first round pick is still only 29 years old but hasn’t played in the NHL since 2010-11 with Toronto. Taylor Doherty – Currently playing in the ECHL. Former Sharks 3rd round 2009 draft selection stands 6’7” and once scored 53 pts in 68 OHL games. Sharks Director of Scouting Tim Burke rated him 2nd of their top 10 prospects just last year. Also said he was a leader in camp with good intangibles, and one of few who was worthy of any praise at the time. Despite the upside he has never played in an NHL game. Long-Distance Calls – Players who signed contracts overseas. Andrej Meszaros – Released from PTO with Colorado Sept. 30. Signed in the KHL on Oct. 30. At only age 30, is a career plus-25 (+/-) in 645 games and has played in the last three Winter Olympics. Devin Setoguchi – Failed to stick with the Maple Leafs on a PTO. Signed and has been scoring with HC Davos in Switzerland. Hasn’t tallied an NHL point since the 2013-14 season. Substance abuse issues are to blame, but he’s only 28 and appears humbled by his experiences. Patrick Dwyer – Released from PTO by Arizona. Signed in Sweden. Sean Bergenheim – Signed in Switzerland with SC Bern for 3 years. His contract features an out-clause should he receive NHL offers. A proven bottom-six two-way NHL player. Derek Roy – Released from PTO with Washington. Also signed with SC Bern in Switzerland. Brandon McMillan – Signed in Germany with Ingolstadt. 25 years old and a former 3rd round NHL selection. Great speed and 2-way game. Martin Erat – Signed in the KHL. Scored 32 points in 79 NHL games with Arizona in 2014-15, also playing in the World Championships representing Czech Republic. At 34, proof his body is still capable of playing 82 games. Colton Gillies – Signed in Slovakia for 2015-16. 6’4”, good skater, former 16th overall draft pick in 2006. Only 26 years old and last played in the NHL in 2012-13. Played 70 games with Bridgeport in the AHL in 2014-15. Marcel Goc – 32 year old, versatile center signed a 5-year deal in Germany after seeing diminished minutes with St. Louis and Pittsburgh in 2014-15. Michal Handzus – Signed in Slovakia. Last played in the NHL with Chicago in 2013-14. Represented Slovakia in the Winter Olympics in 2014. Tomas Kopecky – Signed multi-year deal in Czech Republic after being released from a PTO by the Blackhawks at age 33. Jim Slater – Signed in Europe after not being resigned by the Jets. Can skate, win faceoffs at a high rate, and is a defensive and PK leader. Did not interest during free agency over the summer despite ideal bottom-six skillset. Ryan Wilson – Released from PTO by Calgary at age 28. Played 6 seasons with Colorado. Next stop KHL. Awaiting Calls – Ready to field contract offers. Keith Aulie – Released from PTO with Arizona. 6’6” defenseman with 167 NHL games played is only 26 years old and a former 4th round pick. David Booth – Released from PTO with Florida after failing to record a point in 3 exhibition games. Only 30 years of age and feels he can still contribute in the NHL. He doesn’t appear ready to sign overseas or in the AHL. James Sheppard – Released from PTO with Columbus. Only 27 years old and a former 9th overall draft pick. Tyler Kennedy – Released from PTO with New Jersey Oct. 3. 29 year old put up 5 points in 13 games with the Islanders in 2014-15, including 3 playoff games. Has good NHL playoff experience with 79 career games. Douglas Murray – Released from PTO with Calgary. Sheldon Brookbank – Released from PTO with Anaheim. Played in KHL last season. Vitaly Vishnevski – Released from PTO by Anaheim. 35 year old last played in the NHL in 2007-08. Has played in the KHL since. Stephen Weiss – Rejected PTOs over the summer after being bought out by Detroit. He is not interested in playing without a guaranteed contract. Scott Glennie – 8th overall pick in 2009 and just 24 years old. Became a UFA after Dallas did not offer an extension following the 2014-15 season. Once a highly touted NHL prospect. Tim Gleason – Last played with Washington in 2014-15. 32 year old defender was traded just last season for a younger defenseman along with a 4th round draft pick. Veteran of 727 career NHL games. Jan Hejda – Minutes were trending down, but was paired with Barrie in Colorado last season. Released from PTO with the Blackhawks Sept. 26. Scott Hannan – Played with San Jose last season, was not offered contract to resign. Craig Adams – Not resigned by Pittsburgh at 38 years old, production is minimal, and would only serve to provide a leadership presence at this point in his career. Eric Brewer – At age 36, played last season in Toronto. Jack Hillen – Has played in over 300 career games at age 29. Brendan Morrow – After putting up only 8 pts in 70 games with Tampa last season, may be done at 36 years old. Lubomir Visnovsky – Released from PTO with Blackhawks Sept. 26. Had 20 points in 53 games last season with the Islanders, proving he can still produce from the backend. Can still provide a veteran presence and PP specialist. Jordan Leopold – His agent has said he isn’t entirely certain if Jordan will retire or not, but it isn’t because he’s ready to quit the game. Based on a touching letter written by his own daughter to the Minnesota Wild organization last season, Jordan still very much desires to play in the NHL and appears to have his family’s support as well. Bryan Allen – No recent news on him. Was waived last season shortly after being traded for by Montreal. 6’5” defenseman is 35 years old and is a career +26 in 721 NHL games. Keith Ballard – Contemplating retirement due to history of concussions. Speculation is it may be tough for an injured veteran to get work when healthy vets regularly remain unsigned. Mark Fistric – Bought out of contract by Anaheim. 29 year old former 1st round pick has played in 325 NHL games. Todd Bertuzzi – Last played in the NHL in 2013-14 with Detroit. Played 2 games in 2014-15 with Binghamton of the AHL, after agreeing to a PTO with the team. Manny Malholtra – Played 58 games with Montreal in 2014-15 but at 35 looked to be running out of gas. David Moss – Veteran of over 500 NHL games played in 60 contests with Arizona in 2014-15, 79 the season before. Michael Ryder – 35 year old winger played in 47 games with New Jersey in 2014-15, has five 25-goal NHL seasons. Anton Volchenkov – Played in 46 games with Nashville last season, finishing a +4 at age 33. Etienne Marcoux – Currently playing for UNB (CIS), who started their season on an unbeaten streak. Not quite an NHL veteran, undrafted goalie is only 22 years old and has attended Ducks camps in two previous seasons, eventually failing to clear medical tests due to shoulder injury. Never played in an NHL/AHL game to this point. Calling-In Sick – Currently injured players. Olli Jokinen – Joker will have shoulder surgery sometime during the season; intentions unknown beyond that. Erik Cole – Doctors recommended sitting out the 2015-16 season as he recovers from a spine contusion. Keith Ballard – Played with 14 games with Minnesota last season. He is recovering from a scary-looking concussion, but even he admits short of a miracle recovery, he may have played his last game. For a player that once relied on his edgy game, the risk for another concussion is high and it may not be worth it. “Back in the day, it seemed like the older guys were pushing the younger guys back. Now, things are reversed. The older guys are getting phased out”. - David Booth, unsigned forward (quote courtesy

Of the younger veterans without NHL work, Brandon McMillan stands out at only 25 years old and a former third-round selection (2008). Age is still an upside at this point and his potential has previously been noted based on his draft position. He’s a player known for his speed and a responsible two-way game. Last season he hustled end to end when called upon and was largely just unlucky to not have produced more. If signed and given consistent playing time, his elite speed should bring success in the modern NHL. It sounds like he fits the low-risk/high-reward mold of today’s prototypical bottom-six forward perfectly, and yet he was recently forced to sign in Germany with Ingolstadt.

Looking to the curious case of Curtis Glencross, one wonders just how a player can go from being traded for second and third round draft picks at last year’s trade deadline, to being without a job this season only at 33 years of age. Glencross has been a capable, two-way player for 507 NHL games. Not exactly a small sample size we’re talking about. The fact that he couldn’t land a spot in camp with a weak Leafs squad, or on a PTO with the Avalanche afterwards, reinforces just how difficult it is for veterans to find meaningful work. I say meaningful, because Curtis opted for retirement with several other options in professional hockey on the table; simply not in the NHL. This is also true for many already well-traveled vets - working overseas is not an attractive option when family is left behind and relocation is not feasible. When strictly comparing talent, there is an argument to be made that Glencross is as good right now, or better, than a few players suiting up for Toronto and Colorado each night. Those players simply have more of an upside at this point, and evidently a lot of that upside is based in the structure of the league’s salary cap and CBA.

“When I first got into the NHL, you had to wait until you were 31 years old before you could actually use free agency, so that’s when you got your big contract. So, really, it wasn’t until the end of your career when you made the big money. What’s changed in the CBA is it’s allowed players coming out of entry-level contracts to have nice contracts right away. If teams really like players off their entry-level contracts, they lock them up”. - Robyn Regehr, retired NHL defenseman (quote courtesy Calgary Herald)

Ask Brian Burke, and he would tell you that Glencross should have resigned in Calgary when he was apparently offered the opportunity to do so. Not to shame Curtis, but this does point to another new reality of the NHL’s CBA and salary cap. Historically, players would not really have the opportunity to test free agency and sign a lucrative contract until after their 30th birthday. Based on Burke’s insight, it sounds like Glencross turned down an extension at that time in hopes of striking it rich in free agency. In the new NHL that was a big mistake. Blame his agent for that one. Nowadays, teams are looking to spend wisely and lock up their promising talent long-term right off of their entry-level deals. While star players are negotiating their largest career contracts at a much younger age, hardened veterans may end up negotiating between swallowing their pride and playing in the AHL, leaving their home on a contract in Europe, or simply retiring on what they’ve already banked and exploring other careers. There is a now a definite risk for bottom-six type veteran players in entering free agency without a contract beyond the age of 30.

“Both guys come from really good structured programs. They know how to work, they know how to play the game the right way. If they look like they’ve got the enthusiasm and the energy, just based on their own playing ability, they would help any team”. - Ken Hitchcock, Blues Head Coach, on Havlat & Zubrus PTOs (quote courtesy

The NHL and its commissioner have been flirting with the topic of expansion for some time now. With more and more capable NHL veterans finding themselves without work as the season rolls on, it seems now more than ever that now would be a good time for the league to stop being a tease. With the addition of two full NHL rosters, a good number of these capable veterans would be given a powerful opportunity to find work. It’s not to say that some won’t again be casualties of the same system – there will still be cuts. The harsh reality is that some of these players without work are physically no longer able to compete at the speed of the NHL game. There is no shame in that. The shame is in watching a hard-working, fan-favourite, bottom-of-the-lineup type guy sit on the sidelines to start the season, then inevitably be forced to hang up his skates more due to the structure of the league itself than the ability of the player. Under this system it’s only bound to keep happening too. The NHL can afford to allow two more franchises in on its profit sharing model. Business is good these days. Add a team in Quebec and one more elsewhere, and all of a sudden a handful of these free agent veterans can find a home on a club looking to establish itself and provide leadership to all of those small, speedy youth that we keep going on about. The competition may be stiff from the foreign talent however. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif] [endif]

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