Jimmy Hayes is the first player to be invited to this year’s training camp by the New Jersey Devils on a professional try out (PTO) contract. The benefit of a PTO is that a player can come to camp, play in preseason games, and do so without the commitment of a contract. Effectively, the player is playing for one and the team’s roster is not impacted unless they offer a deal. It remains to be seen as whether Hayes is the only invited player for this year. As we await any potential signings (Will Butcher, Damon Severson), let’s take a quick look back at the recent history of other players brought into camp on PTOs. They can be summed up as those who were good enough to make it and those who effectively are footnotes in the team’s history.
The Good or PTOs that Went on to Play in the NHL After the PTO Ended
Lee Stempniak - 2015
Lee Stempniak was probably the first name that comes to mind when it comes to successful PTO’s. The journeyman winger came in on a try out in 2015, earned a roster spot, found his way on a productive top line with Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri, and was traded to Boston for two draft picks - one that became Evan Cormier and one that was traded for Mirco Mueller. The Devils effectively brought in someone for next to nothing, signed him to a cheap deal, and not only was flipped for two assets, but also managed to become an important player and New Jersey’s top scorer when he was dealt.
Steve Bernier - 2011
Steve Bernier was drafted in the first round of the vaunted 2003 NHL Draft. Unlike many of his fellow first-rounders, it was looking like Bernier’s NHL career was at an end of sorts. In a way it was as he didn’t make New Jersey out of camp - he signed a deal with Albany. But as fate would have it, the Devils needed wingers and so Bernier would eventually get a NHL deal. The 2011-12 regular season for Bernier did not have much home to write about: one goal, five assists, 23 shots, and 32 appearances. But by the playoffs, he was the right winger on the notorious CBGB line - a fourth line that did enough to keep opponents at bay and chipped more than a few of his moments. Bernier’s biggest moment may have been that infamous major penalty in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but Bernier’s NHL career was revitalized with that postseason. Bernier was a regular on New Jersey for another three seasons - including a surprising 16-goal, 16-assist 2014-15 season. Bernier signed a two-year deal with the Isles afterwards as the 32-year old winger continues to be a bottom-six contributor. The PTO in 2011 helped him get his career back on track.
Scott Gomez - 2014
Scott Gomez was reviled by the Devils fans for years. He did sign a big deal with Our Hated Rivals. As his career declined after that big contract - the move to Montreal was where it all started going really south for him - booing Gomez was just a matter of course. Needless to say, it was a bit of a surprise when he joined the Devils’ camp in 2014 on a PTO. Gomez did well to keep up but he was not initially awarded a contract. Gomez did not hang up the skates, though. He worked out in New Jersey in the hopes that a spot would open up. When injuries hit the team in December, Gomez was signed and instantly added some needed center depth. It did not take long for the Devils fans to start cheering him. That he put up seven goals, 27 assists, and did not get creamed in the run of play for 58 games made it easier. His return to the Devils was a pleasant surprise in a playoff-less season. It also likely gave him an opportunity to extend his career for another season as he signed with St. Louis in October 2015.
Anton Stralman - 2011
Talk about the one who got away. You probably know Stralman best as Viktor Hedman’s effective defensive partner. But after a lackluster 2010-11 season, he was just available. The Devils brought him in on a PTO to see what he could do. Stralman displayed signs of the offensive skillset he would be known for. But the Devils did not have room on their blueline to take a chance on him, so he was free. Our Hated Rivals,. who saw plenty of Stralman from preseason games, picked him up in November and began to appreciate what he could do aside from putting up points. His ice time and usage grew in three seasons with New York, leading to a significant contract with Tampa Bay. There, he has truly blossomed. Technically, he’s a footnote for New Jersey but given the PTO led to an effective NHL career, he’s in this category.
Damien Brunner - 2013
Talk about the one that made sense at the time but turned out awry. Back in 2013, the Devils were down a Kovalchuk and were missing a Parise. They needed scoring help. Damien Brunner was available and I argued in favor for it. While he was seemingly protected in Detroit to hide the flaws of his game, he demonstrated the offensive skills and production I thought the Devils needed. He would come - first on a PTO. The Devils presumably wanted to see him in action first before agreeing to any deal. They were impressed enough to sign him to a two-year deal worth $5 million before the end of preseason. That is much more than what most players get after a successful PTO. Brunner’s time in New Jersey did not live up to the hope or the hype. It ended with Brunner passing through unconditional waivers during the 2014-15 season. Again, it could be argued this wasn’t good as a whole; but it was a player signed from a PTO.
Petr Sykora - 2011
Like Gomez, this was the return of a former well-known Devil. Unlike Gomez, Sykora was not nearly as reviled. The Czech winger was brought in on a PTO in 2011 after spending the 2010-11 campaign with HC Plzen of the Czech league and Dynamo Minsk of the KHL. He was looking to get back into the NHL and he did so with his first NHL team. Sykora made team out of training camp and signed a deal before the beginning of that season. Sykora would go on to provide a good amount of secondary scoring as, well, a secondary winger in the lineup. He put up 21 goals, 23 assists, and 170 shots in 82 games. While the points were good, over the course of the season, it became clear that if Sykora wasn’t producing, then he wasn’t adding much. His defensive and off the puck game declined and he wasn’t as quick as he once was. As such, he was not used as much in the 2012 Cup run. Sykora called it a career after the 2011-12 season. While it didn’t have the storybook like ending as it did for Bernier or Gomez, a PTO player getting a deal and putting up 44 points isn’t nothing to discount either.
Other PTO’s that were signed and played for the Devils includes Tyler Kennedy (2015 camp, signed near the end of November 2015) and Jordin Tootoo (2014 camp, signed in October 2014). Ryan Carter came into the Devils’ camp in 2014 on a PTO, but ultimately signed with Minnesota for that season.
Anders Lindback and Brian Gibbons - 2016
In 2016, the Devils had two players come in on a PTO. Brian Gibbons was the forward. The small (5’8”) center was signed by Ray Shero out of Boston College in 2011 and went right into the AHL. He worked his way up and made his NHL debut in 2013-14 with Pittsburgh, making 41 appearances and putting up 17 points. Gibbons was a free agent and decided to sign with Columbus. While he appeared for the Blue Jackets, he only got into 25 games and appeared in 26 with Springfield. Gibbons signed a NHL deal with the Rangers but ended up in Hartford for all of 2015-16. He came to New Jersey on a PTO in the hopes of getting a deal. He got one - an AHL only deal and so he stuck with Albany all of last season. The good news for Gibbons is that he was re-signed to a NHL deal so it is possible he could make his New Jersey debut in 2017-18. Assuming he does well enough in Binghamton to warrant a call-up, of course.
Whereas Gibbons is a footnote but could become a success of sorts, Lindback was a curiosity of a PTO then and now. Last year, the Devils’ goaltending depth was Cory Schneider, Keith Kinkaid, Scott Wedgewood, Ken Appleby, and MacKenzie Blackwood, who was eligible to play pro hockey. Lindback was a veteran, sure, but the Devils didn’t really need him around. Especially with some of his really ugly save percentages in the past season. Wedgewood didn’t tear his labrum at that point, so the Devils had five potential goalies already in their pro system. So I don’t think he was really necessary. That’s who they ultimately went with. When Wedgewood went down, Blackwood and Appleby became the goalies for Albany. Lindback was in New Jersey for a few minutes in the larger scheme of things and that was it.
Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Renat Mamashev - 2014
The 2014 training camp had more PTOs in recent memory than I can recall. While Gomez, Tootoo, and Carter eventually received NHL contracts, these four were just in for camp and that was that.
Kaberle played all of 2013-14 with HC Kladno after splitting the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season between them and Montreal. The offensive defenseman was a success in Toronto but what made it work faded away after he was bought out. The Devils brought him to see if something could be re-kindled but there wasn’t so there was no deal. Per Elite Prospects, Kaberle did appear in two games for Hartford on a PTO (I don’t know how that worked) but he would play out the penultimate season of his career with Kladno before finishing his career with HC Kometa Brno in 2015-16.
Komisarek was once a NHL All Star. Namely because Montreal fans stuffed the ballot box in 2009. The defensive defenseman eventually made his way to Toronto but a career full of hits combined with the general decline of speed, awareness, and effectiveness on the puck led being out of contract in 2013-14 with no interest. He came into New Jersey on a PTO but it was apparent that he was done at that point. Komisarek called it a career that January after a further lack of interest, went back to Michigan, and has went into coaching. He is now Buffalo’s player development coach per Elite Prospects.
Ruslan Fedotenko was an effective depth forward for much of his career. However, after the lockout shortened 2013 season, Fedotenko played with Donbass Donetsk of the KHL in 2013-14. After 17 points in 46 games, he sought to return to the NHL. With little interest, he agreed to a PTO with New Jersey to see what he could do. While he made it in some preseason games, the Devils were not interested. He was clearly a declined, aging player at the NHL level with little to offer. So they released him. Fedotenko would play in North America in 2014-15. A PTO with the Iowa Wild led to a deal and he would sign with Minnesota for 2015-16, where he largely played in Iowa. Fedotenko retired after that season as per Elite Prospects, ending 12-years with the NHL.
The last of the four was the most unknown at the time and truly a footnote. Whereas Kaberle, Komisarek, and Fedotenko had long NHL careers, Renat Mamashev was an outsider. Here’s his profile page at Elite Prospects. Unless you’ve followed Russian hockey, then you probably didn’t know who he was in 2014. Despite one season with Moose Jaw of the WHL, Mamashev was a Russian defenseman who played his entire professional career in Russia. After several seasons, Mamashev tried to give the NHL a shot. This September 18, 2014 post by Rich Chere at NJ.com provides some insight as to who he is. Mamashev played well enough to catch Lou’s interest that summer and that led to the PTO. Mamashev did not really do much in camp and he certainly did not make the team. I don’t know if Albany was ever an option; he went right back to the KHL, joining Sibir Novosibirsk. He is still active in the KHL - also unlike Kaberle, Komisarek, and Fedotenko.
Mathieu Darche - 2013
The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season did have a short training camp in mid-January. The Devils had two players on a tryout basis. The first was Stefan Matteau, who already an entry level contract at the time. It was just to see whether he’d play in the NHL or not. He would. The other was veteran winger Mathieu Darche. He was 36 at the time and he was just looking for a job of some sort. Darche spent most of his career in the AHL, popping up in the NHL here and there. He was never much of a scorer at the NHL level, he certainly did not impress from a possession standpoint, and he was not known for much. Darche would be released from his PTO and, as per Elite Prospects, retired from hockey days later.
Marcus Nilson - 2010
It is not easy to find past players invited on PTO’s. The earliest I could find on this site was Marcus Nilson in 2010. He spent most of the 2000s in the NHL with Florida and Calgary. He was similar to an energy player. He didn’t score a lot. He wasn’t necessarily a good skater or good at moving the puck. But he played with plenty of vigor and he did well enough to at least hang in the NHL for over 500 games. After 2008, Nilson gave the KHL a shot with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He didn’t do so well there as he went back to his first professional team, Djurgardens IF in Sweden in 2009-10. Nilson fared much better there with 51 points in 53 games and making the Elitserien All-Star team in that season as per Elite Prospects. So much so that he was able to come to New Jersey on a PTO. The then-32 year old Nilson did so and, well, didn’t impress at all in camp and preseason. He was released before end of the September and went on to re-sign with Djurgardens. Nilson played with them and HV71 before retiring after the 2014-15 season.
Other footnotes, or players that received PTOs but did not sign and therefore are kind of easily forgotten that they were here, would begin with Thomas Nesbitt. Nesbitt was first in New Jersey’s camp on an amateur try out in 2010 before a real PTO in 2011. He didn’t make the team in both cases. The 2011 tryout list also included J.T. Barnett, who played for a while in the WHL, didn’t make it on a PTO, and then had an ECHL career before going off to Europe.
While I’m certain the Devils have had players come to camp on PTOs before 2010, since that year, the Devils’ success rate has not been too bad. Out of 19 players brought in from 2010 to 2016, nine of them did sign with the NHL in that season. You can mark it ten if you think Gibbons is a success of sorts for at least getting a deal with Albany. While Lee Stempniak and - despite not benefiting New Jersey - Anton Stralman were the best players among them, the Devils did unearth multiple players who helped out in their own way at the time. It also feels a bit good knowing the PTO process led to an extension of some careers as well. (And this is a possibility for Hayes.) Yes, there were misses and, in retrospect, they weren’t any real surprises given that the players were not under NHL contract and presumably did not receive any NHL offers before getting the camp invite. The Devils took a look, declined, and moved on. There weren’t any real regrets among the footnoted players. If there was any real disappointments in retrospect, then not keeping Stralman. I know there wasn’t really room, but it’s all I have on that side. Brunner failing to live up to his contract was independent of the whole decision from the PTO, in my view. All the same, the Devils have found some success in the past six years from PTOs.
With Jimmy Hayes and potentially others coming in, there could be more. It will be up to Hayes and whoever else is invited. They’ll have to show to the coaches and management that they can contribute, they can fit in, and that they still belong at the NHL level. For their sake, I hope they do the best they can with their opportunity. It will be a success if they do get a deal, regardless of if it is with the Devils or not.
What do you make of the Devils’ recent history of players coming into camp on a PTO? Would you agree on who was good as a PTO and who ended up as a footnote? Was there anyone I missed, especially before 2010? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about PTOs in the comments. Thank you for reading.