James Wisniewski found himself in unfamiliar territory this offseason, a defenseman without a home and unsure of his next move.
The NHL veteran was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes from Anaheim prior to the 2015-16 season in exchange for goaltender Anton Khudobin. Wisniewski played all of 47 seconds with the Hurricanes on Opening Night before tearing the ACL in his left knee on his first (and only) shift.
Wisniewski never played again for the Hurricanes. His contract was bought out by Carolina the day before the start of this summer's free agency. Once free agency began, teams were unwilling to risk signing an aging defenseman coming off a major knee injury to a new contract.
Wisniewski didn't know if his 11th season in the league would be his last.
"That's not something that I'm used to," the 32-year-old Wisniewski admitted. "It was just a strange summer."
The Tampa Bay Lightning were in search of a right-handed power-play defenseman this offseason but didn't have a lot of cap space with which to acquire one. Despite making it to the Eastern Conference Final and coming within one game of advancing to a second-straight Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning were one of the worst power play teams in the NHL, their 15.8 percent success rate with the man-advantage ranking tied for 26th in the league.
With Wisniewski still unsigned, the veteran became an attractive, cost-effective option to resuscitate a beleaguered power play and provide experienced depth on the back line.
On August 10, the Lightning signed Wisniewski to a professional tryout. Wisniewski is hoping to parlay that PTO into a contract with the Lightning by proving in training camp -- which begins Thursday, September, 22 -- he's fully recovered from the knee injury that robbed him of the 2015-16 season.
"When Tampa Bay was one of the first teams to contact me and wanted me to come in for a PTO, I was ecstatic," Wisniewski said after completing his first informal skate with a handful of Bolts at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum on Wednesday. "I talked to (Lightning GM) Steve Yzerman and (Lightning head coach) Jon Cooper, and they told me what they expected out of me.
Now, I've got to come in here and earn a spot."
Two seasons ago, splitting time between Columbus and Anaheim, Wisniewski was one of the top power-play defensemen in the league. Seven of his eight goals that season came on the power play, and he ranked tied for third among NHL defensemen for power-play goals. He also had 26 assists in 2014-15, which would have ranked second among Lightning defensemen last season, just ahead of Anton Stralman (25) and behind only Victor Hedman (37).
Three seasons ago in Columbus, Wisniewski set a career high for assists (44) and tied a career high for points (51).
The Lightning are hoping Wisniewski can return to that pre-injury form.
Wisniewski is just grateful to have a chance at a roster spot on a team many consider to be a frontrunner for the Stanley Cup.
"This is probably the most excited I've ever been coming into a training camp," he said. "I haven't played hockey in a year and a half, going back two seasons when I didn't play in the playoffs with Anaheim. I worked as hard as I could to be in the best shape as I possibly could going into camp for Carolina to have a comeback year, then, sure enough, first game of the season, I tear my ACL. I'm really excited to be here with this top-notch, first-class organization. They have a chance to win the Stanley Cup every year, and that's what we all play hockey for."
Wisniewski said he targeted two teams during the offseason he felt were good fits for his skill set, the Lightning being one of them.
"Luckily, those teams came my way," he said. "But Tampa was first and very clear pretty much from the get go. The other team took a little while…Like I said, this is a team that can win it, can win it every year. That's what we're all here for, to get our name on that Cup. I've been playing this game long enough. It's time. I want a legit chance."
With the Lightning, Wisniewski feels he has a legit chance to reach the sport's pinnacle.
And the Lightning feel Wisniewski has a legit chance to potentially be the piece that puts them over the top.