Rejoice, hockey fans. Training camp is upon us, which means the dog days of the off-season are over, pre-season contests are in the offing and the regular season is drawing ever closer. The wait is almost over.
But before we can get to the meaningful hockey and the meat of the season, there are some decisions that will have to be made. There will be position battles, rookies turning heads and earning extended stays through training camp and – what we’re focusing on right here – a few veteran players who will be seeking work by showing throughout the pre-season that they’ve still got plenty to contribute.
Which of those players from the latter group, the ones entering training camp on professional tryouts, will be able to earn work next season, though? The list of those attending continues to grow, but there are only several who appear to stand a legitimate shot at a contract for the 2019-20 season:
Michal Neuvirth, G – Toronto Maple Leafs
When he was up with the big club last season, Michael Hutchinson played well. In his five appearances, he posted a .914 save percentage, 2.64 goals-against average and while it was over limited action, he was inarguably the better of the two backups the Maple Leafs iced last season.
The thing is, though, Neuvirth has a much greater track record and his career numbers outshine those of Hutchinson, albeit somewhat marginally with the former boasting a career .910 SP as opposed to the latter’s .908 SP. The big difference between the two keepers, though, is experience. Neuvirth enters camp with 257 NHL games under his belt and he’s been a full-time backup for the past decade. Hutchinson, on the other hand, has been up and down for each of the past two seasons and has only three campaigns in which he was a full-time NHLer on his resume.
It’s likely that Neuvirth, so long as he has a decent camp, is the Maple Leafs’ backup next season, with Hutchinson acting as the third-stringer.
Joe Morrow, D – New York Rangers
Morrow has lived life on the fringe of a few bluelines throughout his career. He got his first taste of the bigs with the Boston Bruins, later spent some time on the Montreal Canadiens back end and most recently plied his trade as a fill-in on the Winnipeg Jets’ defense corps. Now, he’s trying to find himself a new home in New York. It won’t be easy, but there are a couple of reasons why Morrow, 26, has a shot.
First and foremost, there’s an opening, albeit a small one. The top half of the Rangers’ defense is set, with some combination of Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal and Adam Fox likely to skate top-four minutes. Once Anthony Deangelo signs, five spots are filled. But that leaves a battle for the sixth- and seventh spots, and chances are that will boil down to some combination of Libor Hajek, Brendan Smith and quite possibly Morrow, who is a right shot and might fit New York’s system better than Smith. Morrow can move the puck, he skates well and he has a bomb. He’d be a cheap depth option on a one-year deal.
Stefan Noesen, RW – Dallas Stars
The 2011 first-round pick – he was taken 21st overall by the Ottawa Senators – hasn’t been able to find a consistent NHL fit. Instead, he’s had runs in and out of the lineup for a couple of clubs, most recently the Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils. His time with the Devils was fairly successful, too, all things considered. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games for New Jersey in 2017-18, and he managed to chip in three goals and eight points in 41 games during an injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign. If he’s put into the right situation, he can be a 10-goal, 20-point player again, and the Stars could very well provide such a situation.
There is, however, one roadblock for Noesen, and that’s the depth in Dallas. With Stars 2018 first-round pick Ty Dellandrea knocking on the door, there’s something of a logjam up front, particularly with Jason Dickinson, Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau and Mattias Janmark also competing for minutes. There’s also the matter of Dallas having limited cap space. But if Noesen makes an impression, he can fight for time as a 13th forward, possibly bumping someone such as Justin Dowling into the minors.
Drew Stafford, RW – Minnesota Wild
He’s getting on in years and he’s far removed from his best years in the NHL – his last season with at least 10 goals came in 2015-16 – but the 33-year-old Stafford still has what it takes to be a bottom-six fit with some offensive upside. In fact, he produced enough in that role that he was kept around in New Jersey for the past two seasons, during which time he chipped in 13 goals and 28 points in 116 games for the Devils.
So, would Stafford be an every-game option for the Wild? Likely not. If anything, he’d be part of the roster as a 13th or 14th forward. But as an injury replacement, Stafford has value, particularly if Minnesota wants to take this year to give their prospects an extra season in the AHL to round out their games before forcing them into regular NHL minutes. He’s not likely to climb higher on the depth chart, however.
Troy Brouwer, LW – Florida Panthers
This all comes down to fit and how Joel Quenneville envisions his roster. As it stands, Brouwer faces challenges similar to those of Noesen, which is to say there’s players vying for depth spots on the Panthers’ roster and only so many jobs to go around. For example, Denis Malgin, Jayce Hawryluk, Dryden Hunt and Aleksi Heponiemi are all youngsters who want to skate regular minutes this season, but there’s likely only room for two in the game-to-game lineup. If Brouwer, 34, makes the team, he takes minutes away from one of those players.
The thing is, though, Brouwer might be the most effective bottom-six contributor of that bunch. In 75 games last season, across which he averaged 12:41 for Florida, Brouwer scored 12 goals and 21 points, and he’s likely good for similar production this season. Does that put Brouwer ahead of the others? It very well might, particularly given his familiarity with Quenneville, who coached Brouwer for a few seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks.
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