Salary cap forces vets to find alternatives

With NHL training camps opening this week, several unsigned free agents have accepted invitations to try out for jobs.

Winger Ruslan Fedotenko along with defensemen Garnet Exelby and Alexei Semenov accepted tryout invites from the New York Rangers.

One-time Vancouver Canucks forward Peter Schaefer will be returning to the club on a tryout basis after sitting out all of last season, while another former Canuck, center Kyle Wellwood, will try his luck with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Defenseman Shane Hnidy, who played last season with the Minnesota Wild, will be joining Wellwood in Phoenix in hopes of landing a spot on the Coyotes blueline. Former Calgary Flames enforcer Brian McGratton meanwhile will fight for a job with the Boston Bruins.

Former Richard trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo, who became an unrestricted free agent in June when the Ottawa Senators bought out the final year of his contract, will hope to land a job with the Dallas Stars.

But the most notable training camp invitee was former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Bill Guerin, who will try to earn a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.

A few veteran scribes puzzled over why a veteran as talented, experienced and respected as the 40-year-old Guerin would be reduced to trying out for a job.

It’s a sign of the times under the league’s salary-cap system. Prior to the cap implementation, tryouts by veteran free agents weren’t a common occurrence since teams weren’t encumbered by league-established payroll limitations.

A player of Guerin’s caliber might’ve received a one- or two-year contract from a free-spending team like the Flyers for around $2 million per season without having to bother “trying out” for a position.

Cheechoo, Wellwood and Fedotenko might’ve landed one-year deals worth more than $1 million based on their earlier NHL exploits rather than on their recent struggles, no tryout necessary.

Experienced veterans like Hnidy and McGratton also probably would’ve been signed before or during training camp.

It would’ve been younger players coming from Junior, the minors or from the European leagues having to go through a tryout period.

Under the salary cap, however, there are only so many dollars to go around for free agents, even those as respected as Guerin, and by the time September rolls around those still unsigned find themselves facing stark choices.

They can accept a contract offer for considerably less than they hoped to gain via free agency but at least guarantees a salary and a better shot at a roster spot for the upcoming season. They could also accept a training-camp tryout invitation in hopes of earning a roster spot, which still won’t pay as much as they hoped to make on the free-agent market, but comes with no guarantee of landing a contract. Or they can be patient and hope injuries that arise during training camp, preseason or early into the new season forces desperate general managers to call with job offers.

Signing up to play in Europe is another option but they’ll have to move quickly at this time of the year. Most European leagues have already started their seasons and have limits on how many “imported players” they’re allowed to sign.

If those options fail to pan out the only one left is retirement, which many unsigned 30-something players are loath to consider.

Veteran Darcy Tucker would be in that group. The Toronto Sun recently reported Tucker’s agent said the 14-year winger hasn’t received any contract offers or training camp invitations. While he’s training on his own in hopes of playing, Tucker is also preparing for the possibility he might not.

It’s not a situation Tucker wants, but it’s the harsh reality of today’s salary-cap world where teams prefer to invest more in the long-term futures of young, affordable players than in aging veterans whose best years are behind them and become a risky investment of cap space.