Come July 1, you can expect a great many of the top free agents to be on their way to new locales. In fact, chances are the likes of John Tavares, John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk and Ilya Kovalchuk have all signed on the dotted line well before the first fireworks are set off to celebrate Canada Day.
But as signing season wears on, roster spots dry up and salary-cap space gets tight for those ready and willing to spend to the upper limit, and we could see the recent trend of veteran skaters having their signings pushed back into late in the season continue. Ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, it took the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Scottie Upshall, Cody Franson and Daniel Winnik until mid-September or early October to finally find a fit on a roster. And that’s not to mention the others, such as Brooks Laich, Roman Polak, Tanner Glass and David Booth, who had to play their way into contracts by way of tryout agreements.
So, which NHL veterans could have a tough time finding work ahead of the upcoming campaign? Here are five players who may wait around on the open market until late in the summer or need a PTO to prove they’ve still got what it takes:
KEVIN BIEKSA, D, 36
The past year has been one of the most trying of Bieksa’s career, without a doubt. Heading into the expansion draft last June, there was talk of Anaheim potentially buying out the veteran rearguard in order to shake his no-movement clause. When that didn’t come to pass, though, the Ducks headed into the season with his $4-million cap hit on the books and the situation didn’t look up at any point during the campaign.
Was Bieksa still somewhat useful? Sure, but his production dipped and he scored just eight points, all assists, in 59 games and his lack of speed became an issue at times. In fact, coach Randy Carlyle felt the better option was sitting Bieksa rather than playing him on several occasions, and even when Bieksa was in the lineup, his ice time was diminished. After averaging a full-season career-low of 18:45 per game in 2016-17, Bieksa’s ice time dipped down to 18 minutes this past season. Add to it that he’s about to celebrate his 37th birthday and there’s a good chance that while some teams may kick the tires, it could very well take a solid training camp showing for Bieksa to land a contract next season.
JOEL WARD, RW, 37
A pair of solid seasons as a Washington Capital landed Ward a three-year, $9.825-million pact with the San Jose Sharks, but a solid start in the Bay Area turned into a tough time this season. After debuting with a 21-goal, 43-point performance for the Sharks, Ward’s statistics took a steep dive to 10 goals and 29 points during the 2016-17 campaign and he followed that up with a mere five goals and 12 points in 52 appearances this season. Worse than Ward’s numbers, though, was that he lost the trust of the coaching staff.
After skating as a steady middle-six winger for the better part of the past five seasons, Ward was relegated to the fourth line for much of the 2017-18 season. He averaged less than a dozen minutes per game, was a healthy scratch just two outings into the campaign and sat out nearly two dozen games throughout the season. That includes the post-season, too, as Ward didn’t dress once in the Sharks’ five-game series against the Vegas Golden Knights. Ward had to fight hard to get his shot in the NHL, and it appears as his career winds down, he’s going to have to battle equally as hard to stick around in the big leagues.
JOHNNY ODUYA, D, 36
A useful cog in the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense corps for two Stanley Cup runs in 2013 and 2015, Oduya has since bounced around the league. First it was off to Dallas, then back to Chicago, followed by a stint in Ottawa which took him to Philadelphia by the time the 2017-18 season came to a close. So, if he’s been seen as valuable enough to acquire by four organizations, how do we know Oduya’s going to be up against it when it comes to finding a fit next season?
Well, consider that after averaging 20-plus minutes on a Stanley Cup contender, Oduya was barely a sixth defenseman on the lowly Senators. Then, once he was traded to the Flyers at the deadline this season, coach Dave Hakstol only saw fit to dress Oduya on one occasion. He skated 12:22, sustained a lower-body injury and didn’t suit up again for Philadelphia in the regular season or playoffs. At the potential cost — he signed for a $1-million base salary and another $1-plus million in bonuses last season — it’s safe to say teams looking to bring Oduya will likely want to do so at a discount.
LEE STEMPNIAK, RW, 35
Stempniak is the very definition of an NHL journeyman. Across his 909-game career, he has skated for 10 different franchises, and he played for six different clubs across a span of three seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16. That’s why it was somewhat refreshing to see Stempniak land a two-year deal that kept him put with the Hurricanes over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, after some solid contributions as a middle-six winger in 2016-17, Stempniak missed more than half of the 2017-18 season due to injury and the winds of change blowing in Carolina mean he’s likely on the outs.
Having to enter into a season on a professional tryout isn’t exactly unprecedented for Stempniak, either, so it’s not a stretch to suggest that’s his next stop on his own personal NHL carousel. He made his way onto the New Jersey Devils by way of a PTO ahead of the 2015-16 campaign and that turned out to be one of the best seasons of his career. He’s a worthwhile gamble if he can stay healthy. Oh, and something to watch: if Stempniak signs on with a club for which he hasn’t previously played, he’ll become only the second player in NHL history to play for 11 different organizations.
CAM WARD, G, 34
There are, at most, maybe half-dozen teams who will be searching for an experienced backup when this off-season rolls around, and with a number of No. 2 netminders likely set to push their way up from minor-league systems, there could be even fewer teams willing to fork over money to a veteran goaltender this summer. That said, even if a team were looking to sign a keeper with some NHL experience, one has to wonder where Ward would even rank on that list given that of the 65 goaltenders to play at least 82 games since 2012-13, Ward’s .906 save percentage is tied for the third-worst mark in the league.
Look at the other options on the market. Carter Hutton could be available after a standout season in St. Louis. Jonathan Bernier has starting experience and was decent in relief in Colorado. Then you have the likes of Kari Lehtonen, Ondrej Pavelec and Jaroslav Halak on the market, and none of this is to mention younger second-string options such as Michael Hutchinson, Harri Sateri, Laurent Brossoit and Scott Wedgewood. It’s difficult to see where Ward fits in, and with his contract up in Carolina, it might be tryout or bust for Ward.
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