At 27, Kyle Wellwood is in the prime of his career. He spent the past five seasons as a full-time NHLer with Vancouver and Toronto and has shown himself to be a useful offensive player.
But when training camp opens Friday, he’ll be trying to prove to the Phoenix Coyotes that he’s worthy of a contract.
Wellwood is one of several established NHL players who was unable to secure stable work over the summer and will be heading to training camp on a tryout. The most important aspect of his job search was finding a team who was willing to play him as a centre on a scoring line—something he knew wouldn’t happen with the Canucks.
“I just wanted to get an opportunity to play with some good players and get a chance to maybe play a little more,” said Wellwood. “It was a long summer trying to find a spot. Phoenix has got some great wingers and a great team here already. I’m hoping to come in and add something.”
There’s no guarantee he’ll get the chance. The Coyotes centre position got a little more crowded earlier this week when Eric Belanger signed a one-year deal, joining Martin Hanzal, Vernon Fiddler and 21-year-old Kyle Turris under contract.
But the easygoing Wellwood says he won’t spend much time worrying about where he fits on the depth chart. Instead, the unrestricted free agent simply plans to be one of the best players at camp, leaving general manager Don Maloney little choice but to keep him around.
In that respect, it’s similar to how he’s always approached this time of year.
“I haven’t been in the position too often where I knew how things would work out,” said Wellwood. “The only difference is I don’t have anything to fall back on. I’m just going in and trying to earn my way into a contract.”
He’s hardly alone. Veteran forward Bill Guerin has appeared in more than 1,200 NHL games and will be on a tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers; former Rocket Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo is hoping to revive his career by making the Dallas Stars; and centre Brendan Morrison hopes to earn a chance to return to the Vancouver Canucks.
Agent Mike Liut believes that players have a better chance than ever to parlay a professional tryout into an NHL job. He spent the summer trying to negotiate a deal on Wellwood’s behalf before lining up the Coyotes opportunity for his client.
“The idea of going to training camp without a contract, that used to be a bit of an exercise in futility,” said Liut. “But recently, it’s kept you in the game and up to speed. We all know that if you miss training camp it’s a long way back. …
“If you’re an older player and you want to keep playing, this is what you have to do.”
Liut says that Wellwood has options available to him in Europe if he isn’t able to stick with the Coyotes. One thing that kept some NHL teams from offering him a contract over the summer is his size—Wellwood is generously listed at five foot 10.
Still, his goal totals the last two seasons were 14 and 18 despite largely being used in a third-line role by the Canucks.
“There were some teams that recognized his skill and said ‘We’re looking for a bigger centreman in that position’—which I chuckled and said ‘You and everybody else,'” said Liut. “That animal isn’t out there. You can’t go down to the store and buy that player.”
Wellwood is ready to hit the ground running.
He spent a lot of time working on his conditioning in the off-season because he knows he’ll have to be sharp right from the moment the Coyotes hit the ice on Saturday. There’ll be no time to ease in.
“I’ve gotten better at it over the years,” said Wellwood. “Certainly as the summer went on and it looked like I was going to have to go somewhere on a tryout, I had a little more dedication in getting ready for exhibition season and camp.
“I’ve got to show that I can be a good quality player for a team.”
Wellwood has spent the last week in the desert skating with some Coyotes players. He’s currently living at a hotel and hopes to make a strong enough impression at training camp to book his ticket on the plane to Prague, where the Coyotes will open the regular season with two games against Boston.
“It’s going to be close,” said Wellwood. “Things change pretty quickly. You’ve got to make sure you’re prepared to show your stuff when you get the chance.
“You never know what’s going to shake loose.”
Here’s a look at some of the players with NHL experience who will be on tryouts at training camp:
Anaheim—Joe DiPenta, Stephane Veilleux.
Atlanta—Enver Lisin, Kyle McLaren.
New Jersey—Marcus Nilsson.
N.Y. Rangers—Garnet Exelby, Ruslan Fedotenko, Alexei Semenov.
Phoenix—Shane Hnidy, Kyle Wellwood.
San Jose—Andreas Lilja.
Vancouver—Brendan Morrison, Peter Schaefer.