When Alex Chiasson found himself without a job halfway through the off-season, frustration began to set in.
Even at age 26 with 106 points to his name in 320 NHL games, Chiasson wasn't tendered a contract by the Calgary Flames, and by late July his options were limited. In early September, he agreed to attend Washington Capitals training camp on a professional tryout agreement.
"Every day is a tryout for me," Chiasson said. "Every day I've just got to prove that I belong and that I can earn a spot on the team."
Chiasson is not alone. Almost 60 players are on similar PTOs around the league, though it's not all unproven commodities and grizzled veterans trying to show they still have something left in the tank. Chiasson is one of 11 tryout guys 30 or younger with at least 100 games of NHL experience — an unusual result of teams paying stars more and relying on entry-level players.
Squeezing hockey's middle class
The result is squeezing hockey's middle class.
"There's extra bodies around," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, citing Vegas expansion as a positive. "There's good players that are still out there. ... That's just the way the market is for this year."
Experienced 20- and early 30-something players settling for PTOs is a trend in the NHL after 16 such players did it last year and 15 in 2015.
Chiasson and defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka are chasing contracts with Washington, Jimmy Hayes with the New Jersey Devils, Brandon Pirri with the Florida Panthers and Cody Franson with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Given that the salary cap has only gone up from $71.4 million in 2015-16 to $73 million last season and now $75 million, general managers don't have a lot of breathing room. Consider a team like Chicago has over $45 million committed to its top six players and there wasn't space available to offer Franson a guaranteed contract despite the 30-year-old defenceman having 205 points in 527 games.
Pirri understands the deal after the New York Rangers didn't tender him a contract. He's rejoined the Panthers at 26, trying to make the team like he was a youngster again.
"GMs, they're getting smart," Pirri said. "It's a no-risk move for them. For guys like us, we've got to be prepared and you've got to come into camp ready. It's an opportunity, and if guys aren't prepared, these tryouts are not going to be worth it and then there's no risk to the team. But if you go to the right situation, someone that believes in you and you perform, I think GMs are honest enough to give you that opportunity."
Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who drafted Pirri in Chicago and traded for him once before, spelled out exactly what he wanted to see from Pirri to earn a spot.
"We need a little offence, and we felt that was an important signing for us on a PTO that if he can come in and keep improving that he'll get an opportunity for us to score some goals," Tallon said. "They look at the opportunity as well. 'Where do I fit?' They look at our roster. And when we're trying to sign them to a PTO, we tell them that this is what we're looking for and if you do this, there's a good chance we'll sign you."
No guaranteed deals
Opportunity led Chiasson and Jokipakka to the Capitals, who lost six players from last season, Hayes to New Jersey after he was bought out by the Boston Bruins and defenceman Eric Gelinas to the Montreal Canadiens after they revamped their blue line and lost veteran Andrei Markov. But they don't have guaranteed deals in large part because young players are NHL-ready sooner than ever before.
"You look around the league and you've got these young guys that come in, they're 18, 19, 20 — they can play," Chiasson said. "I'm not sure that was the case five or 10 years ago, and now they come in and they're physically capable of playing the 82 season games, they can be effective for their team and they're good players."
Early development is a positive, but the NHL Players' Association is expected to take a look at so many established players on PTOs once rosters are set in October.
"There's beginning to be some anecdotal evidence that that's an issue we need to look at," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said. "And if indeed you have a situation in which the current system disadvantages veteran players, then obviously that's something the players are going to want to look at to see if there are changes that could be made, which would either remedy that or make the effect less significant."