TORONTO - By the time August rolled around, Curtis Glencross discovered his 500-plus games of NHL experience wasn't worth much to him in today's market. The veteran forward was still looking for a contract more than a month after free agency opened.
After the salary cap went up just US$2.1 million, Glencross and dozens of established players had to sweat out a tough summer of free agency. Some, like former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson and former Winnipeg Jets forward Jiri Tlusty inked last-minute deals, while many others weren't so lucky.
"The July 1 wave, you want to ride that all the way to shore if you're a player," St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "You don't want to have to paddle back out because the next wave takes a long time to come in."
Glencross and 26 other players who dressed for at least 10 NHL games last year went to camp on professional tryout agreements, the result of modern cap economics and a changing landscape for how free agency works.
"That's just the way the league's going," said winger Brad Boyes, who like Glencross is in Maple Leafs camp on a tryout. "You just see that everybody's got to adapt to the new rules and the way that the league is shifting."
The Leafs have Glencross, Boyes, Devin Setoguchi and defenceman Mark Fraser in camp on tryouts, commonly referred to as PTOs. The Blues lead the league with seven, most notably forwards Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall.
Former Jets forward Lee Stempniak is on a PTO with the New Jersey Devils, longtime Boston Bruins forward Daniel Paille and former Colorado Avalanche defenceman Jan Hedja are trying to make the Chicago Blackhawks and veteran forward Tomas Fleischmann is trying to catch on with the Montreal Canadiens.
"Every summer is a little bit different, and this off-season there were a lot of qualified NHL players who didn't have contracts," Armstrong said in a phone interview. "I think teams are starting to understand and the top players are demanding the majority of the pie, and that leaves less and less and I think you're seeing a two-tiered system in the NHL."
The Blues committed US$7.5 million a season to superstar Vladimir Tarasenko on a long-term contract and only went bargain hunting when they knew Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera would miss some time with injuries. The Leafs would like to keep prospects like William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen developing in the minors, so having more veterans to fill spots made sense.
Some teams, like the Florida Panthers, wanted to have some veteran insurance for young players, so GM Dale Tallon brought Martin Havlat and former Leafs winger David Booth to camp.
"We talked about giving our kids a chance, but we don't also want to make them feel like they'll be given a job," Tallon said in a phone interview. "It's just a good look at a couple quality players that might make our team or might force our younger guys or other guys to compete harder for jobs."
Like the Blues, other PTOs came about from injuries. The Tampa Bay Lightning reached out to goaltender Ray Emery with Andrei Vasilevskiy out after surgery to remove blood clots and the Washington Capitals giving Derek Roy a look in light of centre Nicklas Backstrom's recovery from off-season hip surgery.
Opportunity led Boyes, Glencross and Setoguchi to Toronto.
"It's going to be a battle anywhere you go," said Setoguchi, who has played for four teams in eight seasons and blamed himself for being in this predicament. "Any team you go on, anywhere you go, there's guys on contracts, there's guys that are pushing for spots. It's no different here. The best players are going to play, and that's kind of what I'm going for."
Tallon considers the bevy of PTOs a cyclical thing but wondered aloud if it might be part of the checks and balances that a salary cap creates. Teams can't keep locking up young players and signing a plethora of depth free agents.
But Armstrong doesn't believe this will be a long trend, saying the onus might be on players to recognize the changing market in a cap environment.
"The star players are demanding a larger portion of the pie, and as the cap goes up, the star players' income goes up and it doesn't seem to reflect down to the rest of the players," Armstrong said. "There could just be an understanding that this is the market now and players might sign earlier for maybe not what they thought they could've got three or four years ago but what this market bears."
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