NHL veterans forced to audition for jobs
A harsh reality for many NHL players under the league’s salary cap system is general managers only have so much money to spend on their rosters and thus are less willing to invest in aging veteran players.
That’s led some unsigned free agents to train on their own in hope a team comes calling with a contract offer while others look toward Europe to continue their playing careers.
Several others, meanwhile, accept invitations to training camps on a tryout basis in hope of continuing their NHL careers for another season.
One veteran going the tryout route is former Toronto Maple Leaf center Jason Allison, attempting a comeback with the Leafs after three seasons away from the game.
A nearly point-per-game player in his prime with the Boston Bruins and L.A. Kings earlier in the decade, Allison suffered a career-threatening neck injury which sidelined him for nearly two years.
Signing with the Maple Leafs in 2005-06 Allison continued his offensive pace with 60 points in 66 games until sidelined by a season-ending hand injury, but was criticized for his lack of speed. The Leafs opted not to re-sign him and Allison was out of the league for the next three seasons.
With a new general manager in Brian Burke in place with the Leafs, Allison is being given another chance as the club lacks experienced offensive depth at forward, particularly at center.
The most notable tryout/comeback attempt is 41-year-old Theo Fleury, returning to the Calgary Flames, with whom he started his NHL career and had the most success, more than 11 years after he was traded away to the Colorado Avalanche.
Fleury, who struggled with alcohol abuse in the latter years of his career, had been suspended by the league in 2003 for violating its substance abuse policy.
After bouncing around in a couple of minor leagues, including a season in Ireland, Fleury had retired to try his hand at several different ventures. After getting permission from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman earlier this month the Flames invited him to training camp.
It remains to be seen if Fleury can make it but if he pulls it off it could be an early season “feel-good” story.
Comebacks may be the motivation for Allison and Fleury but for others it’s the hope of continuing their previously uninterrupted NHL careers.
Mark Parrish is a former six-time 20-plus goal scorer who last summer was bought out of the remaining three years of his contract with the Minnesota Wild.
He had hoped to sign with another NHL team but by late October 2008 was forced to accept a 25-game tryout with the New York Islander AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn. Several weeks later however the Dallas Stars, desperate to bolster their offense, inked him to a one-year contract.
He had an impressive debut with the Stars, potting a hat trick in his first game, but over the next 43 games Parrish would score only four more times and finish the season with a mere 13 points.
Unsigned by the Stars and once again unable to find another contract with an NHL team Parrish is once going the tryout route, this time with the Vancouver Canucks.
Another former Star trying to play his way into a job is veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, who accepted an invitation to the St. Louis Blues training camp.
Sydor, 37, was once considered among the better two-way blueliners in the NHL for most of his long career.
He was a key part of the Dallas Stars’ defense corps from 1996 to 2003, helping them win the Stanley Cup in 1999. He also won a Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But age and injuries caught up with Sydor, who found himself limited to playing only four playoff games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and was shipped back to Dallas in an early season trade last year.
Now an unsigned free agent, Sydor hopes to provide the Blues defense with the benefit of his experience and leadership at an affordable price, perhaps replacing the departed Jay McKee, whom the Blues bought out this summer.
Former Detroit Red Wing and Montreal Canadien Mathieu Dandenault is also looking for a new contract via tryout, heading to the San Jose Sharks training camp.
Dandenault was part of two Red Wings Stanley Cup championship teams (1998 and 2002) and was able to carve out a career as a reliable multi-purpose player, capable of playing right wing and defense.
But the 33-year-old Dandenault wasn’t able to land a contract with another NHL team until getting an invite to the Sharks camp.
With his playoff experience and versatility, Dandenault could be a good addition to the Sharks but that depends on whether or not he can beat out younger, hungrier talent.
Other notable NHL vets hoping to play their way into jobs via tryouts include checking center Blair Betts (Philadelphia), goalie Dan Cloutier (Detroit), forward Kyle Calder (Anaheim), blueliner Martin Skoula and goaltender Manny Legace (Atlanta).
Despite their experience, the odds are against most of them getting new NHL contracts for the upcoming season, which could leave them considering either signing with European teams or retirement.