Canadiens Should Offer PTOs to Bozak and Vatanen

As we approach training camp, many teams are offering professional try-out offers (PTOs) to players who still don’t have a contract. This allows management to gauge whether a player can fill a need on the roster without commitment, and allows players to showcase their talent, not only to the team that invited them but to all 32 NHL teams, to prove they deserve a contract.

Sometimes, a player will earn a contract, but more often, a player on a PTO doesn’t make the team out of training camp. But they do earn an American Hockey League (AHL) deal, which adds depth to the organization and a further opportunity to sign an NHL contract during the season if they are called up. This offseason, players still unsigned include Tyler Bozak or Sami Vatanen.

Tyler Bozak St. Louis Blues
Tyler Bozak, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Players on a PTO are invited to help build intensity and competition during training camp. They are playing for a job and also help push young players to rise to the challenge. The Montreal Canadiens have a few positions of need and young players who might be able to step up, but added internal competition could help them prove they deserve a role on the team to help them compete for a playoff spot.

Salary Cap

The Canadiens will have salary cap issues this season. They have a projected cap hit of $88.3 million against a cap limit of $82.5 million, which puts them over the cap by a whopping $6.3 million. The saving grace is that team captain Shea Weber is expected to be on Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR) for the full season, giving the Habs an additional $7.86 million to work with. Paul Byron will also be on LTIR but should return mid-season, so the Canadiens won’t be able to create cap space off his salary and therefore shouldn’t spend beyond Weber’s cap hit. 

Shea Weber Montreal Canadiens
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens Captain (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That leaves the Canadiens with $1.56 million to spend. General manager Marc Bergevin has mentioned many times that he prefers to leave have a cap cushion in case he needs to make a deal. So, if a player on a PTO believes the Canadiens will offer the best opportunity to earn an NHL job, they will need to be willing to sign for well under that amount, possibly even at the league minimum of $750,000.

Team Needs

Bergevin let it slip during his Labour Day Monday press conference that he feels the team is “locked-in.”

He has also often said that he will let the young players decide how they will be used. All of that doesn’t mean he won’t invite players on a PTO to ratchet up the intensity and internal competition from day one of camp.

The first need is experience at center. With only one center over 25 on the roster with more than four seasons of NHL experience (Cedric Paquette, 28 years old), Bergevin should consider inviting a center to training camp.

The second area of need is mobility on defence. With several solid stay-at-home defenders on the team, they need a young defenceman like Alexander Romanov or Mattias Norlinder to step up and take on the role of a puck-moving blueliner. With veterans like Brett Kulak and Chris Wideman, a PTO might seem redundant, but added competition could be useful.

Center – Tyler Bozak

After losing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a revenge offer sheet extended by the Carolina Hurricanes, Bergevin acquired Christian Dvorak via trade. Dvorak adds experience at center that Kotkaniemi didn’t have, but it also leaves Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling in serious contention for a top-nine role. Adding an experienced center like Tyler Bozak on a PTO could help mitigate the issue if neither proves to be ready during camp.

At 35 years old, Bozak brings the necessary experience the Habs need. He has played 11 NHL seasons split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St-Louis Blues, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2019. He would fit well in the locker room as he has formerly played with Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson and Mike Hoffman.

Mike Hoffman St. Louis Blues
Former St. Louis Blues winger Mike Hoffman (Photo by Joe Puetz/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bozak may be ageing, but he can still provide mobile two-way play in a bottom-six role. In the shortened 2020-21 season, he played a third-line role on the Blues, averaging 14:55 of ice time per game, and scored 17 points in 31 games – which put him on pace for 44 points over a full season. He was also heavily relied on defensively, as his 60.2% defensive zone starts indicate, partly due to the fact that he is strong in the faceoff circle, finishing the season with an impressive 56.8% success rate.

Puck-Moving Defenceman – Sami Vatanen

Adding Sami Vatanen on a PTO would ramp up competition among young players and depth defencemen. Vatanen has defensive weaknesses, which could cause problems for him as he tries to fit into head coach Dominic Ducharme’s defensive system. However, his real strength is as a power-play specialist.

A major issue with Vatanen is his durability. When he’s not injured, he plays to his strengths, using his mobility and puck possession game to earn his ice time. Playing in a third-line role last season with the New Jersey Devils and Dallas Stars had solid even-strength possession numbers with a positive Corsi for percentage of 53.8 in Dallas.

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
Former New Jersey Devils Defenceman Sami Vatanen (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens may not have the glaring needs they’ve had in the past, but last season’s veteran additions to the taxi squad proved that there will always be value in adding experience, leadership and especially competition to motivate young players to compete and find consistency in their game. If they can’t reach the level the team needs from them to compete for a playoff position, one of these players could be ready to step in temporarily and allow the head coach to roll his lines.

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