The New Jersey Devils have long been one of the more successful organizations in utilizing the PTO, or professional tryout, as means to acquire an inexpensive, veteran body to the NHL lineup. Adam Mair in 2010; Petr Sykora and Steve Bernier a year later; Then came Damien Brunner, who scored 32 points in parts of two seasons before having his contract terminated last season. Last year the team invited five veterans to camp including Scott Gomez and Jordin Tootoo, both of whom made the Devils squad (Gomez having to wait 24 games before signing a one-year, two-way contract).
Less than a week away from veterans reporting to camp there are still several veterans looking for NHL deals, many of whom have settled for camp invites, hoping to make enough of an impact to find a home for the 2015-16 season. The Devils, opting to give some of its younger players a chance, chose not to retain most of their unrestricted free agents.
They’ve Been There Before:
Until last week most of the ex-Devils looking for work had not been signed or invited to camp. Peter Harrold, who signed a 1-year, two-way contract with the Blues, remains the only non-retained free agent with a contract. Gomez agreed to a tryout with the Blues on Aug. 27, and key injuries to center’s Patrik Berglund (4 months, shoulder surgery) and Jori Lehtera (1-2 month(s) ankle surgery) could help Gomez’s attempt to return to the NHL for a 16th professional season.
Last week two more Devils found work as Martin Havlat accepted a camp invite with the Florida Panthers, where he’ll be reunited with fellow-Czech, Jaromir Jagr and general manager Dale Tallon, who traded for Havlat in 2006 when he was the GM of the Blackhawks. Bernier also accepted an invite to the Islanders.
For Gomez, the story is fresh and some only wish it had ended with a return in N.J., the team that drafted him in 1998 (27th overall), saw him raise a cup and win the Calder Trophy in the same season. He would add one more cup in 2003 and in 2005-06 he scored a career-high 33 goals and 84 points. Then, in 2007 he did what labeled him public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of black and red fans: Signed a 7-year, $51.5 million dollar contract with the cross-river, Rangers. Gomez’s slow decline from that point on has been well-documented–ultimately traded to Montreal in perhaps one of the franchise’s worst exchanges of assets that saw now-Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh part of the return for New York. A buyout in 2013 followed, then stints in San Jose and Florida. His return to New Jersey was interesting in that his production returned, but perhaps more importantly bits of his confidence. He documented his tale in The Player’s Tribune back in March, a piece adequately titled ‘Not Done.’
For Bernier, a 2011 camp invite wasn’t initially enough to earn a roster spot. The Devils opened the 2011-12 season without the forward on the team. Instead, he was sent to Albany, where he played in 17 games on an AHL contract before signing a two-way deal with the Devils and being part of an unlikely-heroic fourth line that helped push the team to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. Bernier finished with 7 points that post-season and 27 penalty minutes, including a five-minute major in game six of the finals, that resulted in three power play goals, the Devils would fall 6-1 in game six and lose 4 games to 2. Still, Bernier signed on for another two seasons with linemate’s Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta. Then in 2014 signed a one-year deal.
Last season for the first time since being on an AHL contract, Bernier was back in the minor leagues, playing in the opening nine contests of the season. Then in November, he was recalled to the Devils. For a season that seemed like a return to inconsistency for Bernier, the former first round pick scored a career-high in goals (16) and matched a career-high in points (32). New GM Ray Shero hinted that the club might ‘circle back’ to Bernier, but as the summer progressed appeared to indicate the forward would not be retained. The Islanders could be using Bernier in case RFA, Brock Nelson fails to sign a deal–the club prohibits players holding out to participate for the entire season. Still, the energy forward who took a giant step forward last season might be a low-risk, high-reward signing at a reduced rate for New York.
Gomez, Bernier and Havlat help highlight a list of NHL veterans taking camp invitations amidst general manager’s showing some unprecedented restraint in handing out contracts during the free agent process. A total of 38 players have been signed to tryouts over standard contracts and that number might still continue to rise.
Still Looking to Get Signed
Two players that hope it rises as it is likely the only way they will find some work are Michael Ryder and Mark Fraser, both of whom remain unsigned.
Unfairly, Ryder was cast into a go-to guy role when a week after he signed a two-year, $7 million dollar contract, Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL, allowing him to return to the Kontinental Hockey League. Yes, Ryder scored a career-high 35 goals in his 2011-12 campaign with Dallas. Still the free agent forward had never been a model of consistency before or after. In his first year with N.J., the forward, who was just one of four to play in all 82 games that season, scored 32 points in a top-six role. Fans seemed to always want or expect more from the forward, which made matters worse when he tallied just six goals and 13 assists last season. His real drop-off began after head coach Pete DeBoer was fired. Under DeBoer, Ryder tallied 14 of his eventual-19 points on the season. He also played in 34 games under DeBoer and just 15 under the three-headed coaching system of Lamoriello, Scott Stevens and Adam Oates. For much of the second half, he along with under-performing teammate Martin Havlat, were reduced to the press box. Both asked for a trade prior to the NHL trading deadline, but were not moved.
While Ryder appears to far removed from a top-six forward role on a team, he still holds value in his shot and enough skill and skating ability that can keep the 35-year-old around in the big leagues and while inconsistency has been a staple of him as of late, it’s somewhat surprising he’s still out there. A team should eventually offer him a tryout at least, presuming they understand the frustration that goes along with him and players of his ilk.
In Mark Fraser it’s easier to digest that he’s still available. The 6-foot-4 inch defenseman played in 27 contests last season after signing a two-way deal with the Devils in December. This came roughly a month after the defenseman signed an AHL contract with the organization. This time around the former third round pick of the Devils (84th overall) with over-200 NHL games under his belt, will be looking to forego a nearly two-month hiatus from playing. Fraser, who arguably had his most successful campaign in the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season with Toronto. There he played in 45 of the team’s 48 games during the regular season and finished a plus-player for the first time in his NHL career. He also played in four of Toronto’s playoff games that season versus Boston, where a scary head injury put his career in jeopardy. The following season he’d return to hockey–with a visor, but not without stretches of being a healthy scratch, coupled with a trade to Edmonton.
In New Jersey this past season Fraser proved he could still tussle with the best of them–preventing the team from being pushed around amidst another rough season. He also played solid defense in the absence of several players including Jon Merrill and Damon Severson. Ultimately he may need to return to the AHL before making another NHL comeback, but on a camp invite to help add competition, he’s not a bad option.
Dainius Zubrus, who was placed on unconditional waivers by the club in late-July, is also among the ex-Devils looking for a destination next season. The forward had played the last eight seasons in New Jersey. After two 50+ point seasons in Washington, he signed a six-year deal with the Devils in 2007 to help ease the loss of Gomez to New York. While his scoring touch was never at the 50-point mark, he earned fans respect and support due to his work ethic and board play–also a P.A. announcer in Newark helped his popularity a bit too. A favorite among players and management alike it would not be surprising if he’s spoken with his old boss in Toronto, but the belief is he would prefer to stay locally. Perhaps a return to Washington or Philadelphia, who drafted him in 1996 (15th overall) could allow him to do that. If not, he might decide to hang them up.
Also former-Devil, turned Red Wing at last season’s NHL trade deadline, Marek Zidlicky is also among the free agents working out without a contract in mid-September–a daunting situation for an 11-year NHL veteran who never went beyond July without a contract. While he’ll be 39 next season he’s still a hard skating, offensive defenseman, who is just one season removed from scoring 12 goals and 42 points with the Devils. He’s also missed just one game in the past three seasons. Like Zubrus, he is looking to stay locally and some sources have indicated he’s in talks with the Islanders–nevertheless he remains unsigned, but still a useful option on the back end.
Still No Camp Invites from NJ
As for the Devils, no invitations to current free agents have been made so far. The team did sign former-Devil, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond to a one-year, two way deal while also adding defenseman David Schlemko to a one-year, one way deal last week. It seems likely they’ll venture into some before the end of the week. Some possibilities might include Sean Bergenheim, Martin Erat or Tyler Kennedy.
Leblond was drafted by the Devils in 2004 (216th overall) and last played for the club in 2010-11, where he appeared in two games before being suspended one game for instigating a fight at the end of a game. He was waived two days later by the Devils. Last season he played one game for the Penguins and 55 with their AHL-affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton under new Devils head coach John Hynes. Schlemko split last season with Arizona, Dallas and Calgary, scoring four points in 44 games.
Neal McHale began contributing to The Hockey Writers in 2015, covering NHL hockey and the New Jersey Devils. He also writes for Inside Hockey. Previously, he’s served as a correspondent to the Big East Conference and a staff writer for The Setonian. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations.