NHL Notebook: Veterans still available at discount

NHL Notebook: Veterans still available at discount
September 9, 2013, 1:15 pm
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With NHL training camps set to open all across North America this week, general managers aren’t exactly resting on their laurels.

Instead club managers are busy adding the finishing touches to the camp rosters that will compete for 22 spots on each of the 30 teams, and potentially shore up any organizational depth issues. That means exploring some of the unemployed NHL veterans scrounging for work, and pushing some of them to agree to a camp tryout rather than a guaranteed contract.

Not only will that scenario potentially net an NHL team a viable veteran at a Building 19 1/2 price, but it would also end a summer of uncertainty for some out-of-work NHL players coping with a dropped salary cap ceiling.

Old friend Hal Gill agreed to a camp invite with the Philadelphia Flyers over the weekend, and Scituate native Ryan Whitney did the same with the St. Louis Blues after ending his time in Edmonton. Both guys are players on the wrong side of 30 years old with some question marks, but they’re also seasoned NHL vets capable of still playing the game.

Mason Raymond will be in Toronto’s camp on a veteran tryout, and the expectation is that Bruins Killer Simon Gagne will also get a look-see somewhere.

It remains to be seen if a prideful guy like Tim Thomas will lower himself to accept a simple tryout agreement like Gill and Whitney. But there are many others out there that will accept a tryout given the names floating around in the unemployment line. Brenden Morrow, Tim Connolly, Ron Hainsey, Tom Gilbert, Gagne, Dan Cleary, Damien Brunner, Brad Boyes and Vinny Prospal are among a group of nearly 100 NHL established NHL players out of work right now.

None of those players are likely to get a shot with the Bruins, however.

A Bruins source was asked if the B’s would be dipping into the veteran pool to give a veteran invite to camp similar to Chris Clark and Jay Pandolfo over the last two seasons. The answer: “probably not.”

Gill might have been a possibility as a courtesy invite to Bruins camp while allowing the 38-year-old stay-at-home defenseman a chance to get into NHL shape, but that won’t be necessary after the Flyers stepped up. It was an odd move by Paul Holmgren given that Philly is holding nine defensemen on guaranteed contracts aside from Gill, but that’s a story for another day.

So what you see is what you get for the cap-strapped Black and Gold as they ready to crack open NHL camp on Wednesday.

Some like Hainsey might be paying the price for being front and center as NHLPA strongmen during last winter’s NHL lockout, but the trend of available free agents is much more about avoiding salary cap hits for aging players. Ageless 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr managed to find employment with the New Jersey Devils after his memorable stint in Boston, but it’s only a temporary arrangement.

It’s this humble hockey writer’s opinion Jagr would have been forced back to Europe if Ilya Kovalchuk’s “retirement” hadn’t opened up a roster spot in Jersey. Players, agents and general managers trying to construct the best possible roster are all feeling the pinch with a little more than $64 million to work with for next season.

That pinch caused many GMs to get out their surgical scalpel, and start doing cosmetic surgery on their roster for the 2013-14 season. It could also end up forcing a lot of able-bodied hockey players to flood the AHL, Europe or, gulp, retirement homes as the NHL trends younger.

The unfortunate part is the realization the cap will likely start rocketing upward again after the upcoming season. So the lowered cap hit is squeezing some veteran players out of the NHL picture, and unfortunately ending some careers before their time was due. If Gill doesn’t make the Flyers club out of camp, there’s a real chance he could be forced to retire despite a willingness to still clog up space, block shots and provide stay-at-home defense as a bottom pairing defenseman.

It would be too bad if players like Gill can’t end their careers on their own terms.

“It’s a real tough spot for a lot of veterans given the cap and teams needing to rely on younger players due to the new CBA rules,” said player agent Paul Krepelka, who managed to secure the camp invite for Whitney with the Blues.

One thing that will be interesting to watch: how quickly some of these players get scooped up once the inevitable injuries began to hit NHL teams.

In many cases young players simply won’t be able to fill certain key roster spots if a veteran skater goes down. Hopefully many of the current unemployed veterans will be on GM speed dial rather than planning their retirement parties, but that’s a question that will be answered this season.

IN LIKE FINLAND

With the Providence Bruins also set to start their season in October, the AHL club faces roster turnover similar to the parent club in Boston. One familiar name that’s exited the organization after three seasons: former Boston University defenseman Colby Cohen, who left North America this summer for the Finnish Elite League.

The 24-year-old admirably battled through an injury plagued 2012-13 season with a sports hernia while putting up 14 assists and a minus-3 rating in 43 games. But Cohen was also the victim of a Bruins system stocked with young defensemen like Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, David Warsofsky, Zach Trotman and Dougie Hamilton. So the 6-foot-3, 215 pound blueliner hopped overseas to reestablish his game as a promising, young defenseman with an ideal combination of size, toughness and skill in need of the right opportunity with the right organization.

It wouldn’t surprise if Cohen is back in the US with an NHL organization sooner rather than later, but things are also currently panning out for the blueliner in Finland. The defenseman spent at least a portion of the last six seasons playing hockey in New England as a member of the BU hockey program or the Providence Bruins, and has three games of NHL experience with the Colorado Avalanche under his belt.

It wouldn’t be the first time an NHL defenseman took a gradual, nontraditional path toward establishing his game back on the National Hockey League path, and Cohen is off to a good start in the Land of the Finns.

“It’s faster than the AHL, and there is more depth at [the] skill levels,” said Cohen to CSNNE.com. “But it’s also easier to produce and there’s less hitting. There are no fighters or grinders. Everyone has skill and can skate. The American League is much grittier and ‘harder’ with less space.

“The hockey is good, and it’s closer to North American style than the Swedish teams we played.”

Cohen had a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win for Porin Ässät over the weekend, and has been a steady performer for his new Finnish hockey club while also still maintaining a presence on Twitter. It would appear that Finland’s gain is Providence’s loss when it comes to Cohen at this point.

ONE TIMERS

*Interesting reaction from Brad Marchand when asked his thoughts about the all access “Behind the B” show produced by NESN and the Boston Bruins. The Nose Face Killah first gave a “no comment” when asked a harmless question about the behind-the-scenes “24/7” style show set to debut on Monday night.

But given a second to think about it, Marchand then added “I can’t wait to be censored all year.” That’s too bad given Marchand’s sense of humor and ability to light up for the cameras. But a little censorship is probably a good thing given that raw, uncut and uncensored Marchand might be enough to turn NESN’s quality control equipment into a smoldering pile of junk…

*Thanks to the NHLPA and PR mavens Andrew Wolfe and Jonathan Weatherdon for sending along some NHL blankets, stuffed animals and pajamas for my two week-old baby Finnegan. It’s a proud start for a young man that’s clearly going to be pro-union when he can actually start forming complete sentences…

*Congratulations to good friend Bernie Corbett, who will be starting up his fourth season of “On the Campus” on XM 92/Sirius 207 NHL Network Radio next weekend. “On the Campus” is the only XM show that exclusively covers the entire world of college hockey, and is scheduled to air on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The show will be sponsored for the season by Reebok/CCM, and Corbett promises it won’t be heavy-handed with a Boston University slant despite his status as loyal alum and long time play-by-play man for the Terriers. Somehow the tireless Corbett also found time to write a Rolling Stones book called “50 Licks”, and made it to the infamous Pearl Jam show at Wrigley Field this summer that was delayed by a lightning storm. Not a bad summer at all, Bernie…

Remember, keep shooting pucks at the net and good things are bound to happen.