NHL HARD KNOCKS? MORE LIKE CAMP COZYOne-way, guaranteed deals do not spark competition

I’m daring Garth Snow and Scott Gordon. If a challenger out-works and out-plays an incumbent and therefore earns his position, I want to see the GM and coach of the Islanders give a player with a two-way contract an opening night roster spot over a player on a one-way deal.

 

For example, if Trevor Smith, Jesse Joensuu, Andrew MacDonald or veterans like Greg Moore or Matt Moulson have a superior training camp over – just throwing out some names here – Jeff Tambellini or Blake Comeau or Freddy Meyer, reward them with an NHL job. Send the NHL-signed player to the minors.

 

Doesn’t happen very often in the NHL.

 

Don’t confuse the battles currently raging in National Football League camps with job competition in the NHL. In the NFL, if someone gets out-worked and out-played – or doesn’t come to camp in shape – he doesn’t get paid. He gets cut. His non-guaranteed contract is worthless.

 

In the NHL, the cash is guaranteed. The Islanders have some young players with one-way deals – they get paid their NHL salary even if sent to the minors – despite failing to prove they are everyday NHL contributors. Tambellini is the obvious case. The Islanders also have veteran Jon Sim, entering the final year of his one-way deal.

 

With Sim, the Islanders have demonstrated they will waive and demote a player on a one-way, but the Sim case was about a player not committing to a coach’s program. I want to see what happens if a player truly earns a spot in camp over a player on an NHL-only deal.

 

It would be quite a victory for an Islanders prospect or determined AHL veteran. It would be quite a statement for Snow and Gordon to make.

 

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Imagine being told in your career search that you’re one of 55 people in the running for 22 jobs. However, at least 18 of those contenders already have contracts for positions and the other spots are pretty much nailed down. That’s kind of what life is like at an NHL training camp. Hard knocks? Not really.

 

More than 55 players will travel to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan next month for Islanders camp. Only 21 or 22 will make the Islanders’ lineup. Based on one-way contracts and other matters, the team is essentially pre-picked.

 

Don’t worry: between his world class skill level, box office drawing power and his maximum Entry Level contract that puts the Islanders above the cap floor, John Tavares will make the big club. Fellow entry levelers Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey will also make the club. So the NHL roster is all but finalized.

 

Of course, training camp is another chance to look at Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan and other prospects. The Saskatoon camp will also have the subplot of tough forward Matt Martin trying to prove he’s worth what his agent is asking for, not what the Islanders are offering.

 

But the Martin drama at camp is as rare as it is unfortunate. With the advent of prospect camps, there isn’t as compelling a reason to “look at all the kids” at traditional September training camps. The process is overrated. Scott Gordon is an honorable gentleman who has time for all of his players. But in the short-term life of an NHL coach, it’s human nature for Gordon to focus more on this season’s roster than project where a Hamonic or a Casey Cizikas might fit in his system in a few years.

 

Some teams – as the Islanders have done in the past – conduct pre-camp workouts to look at their prospects and farmhands before assigning them back to junior or the AHL. These “rookie camps” enable the coaching staff to get to more manageable numbers before the main show begins. The last I heard, the Islanders are not having a rookie camp on Long Island before leaving for Saskatoon. There will be some rookie games out west.

 

The Islanders are also not involved in any pre-season rookie tournaments, a great way to learn what your prospects can do against real competition. Boston, Toronto, Ottawa and Pittsburgh are having their kids hit each other in Kitchener from Sept. 6-10. Eight teams – the Rangers, Carolina, Atlanta, Detroit, Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota and St. Louis – will watch their prospects battle in a tournament in Traverse City.

 

One assumes the Islanders are satisfied with their July prospect camps’ effectiveness in the development process.

 

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The uphill battle can be a source of frustration for AHL players on two-way contracts who often believe – some with good reason – that they could get a goal a game in the preseason and skate through a wall and still not make the club. This reminds me of a funny scene a few years ago in training camp in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

 

I was out one night at the one good bar in town. They had this band that did incredible covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Easily more than half of the 50 players in camp were there, and it was getting close to their 11:00 pm curfew. The first intrasquad scrimmage was the next morning. For some players, that was their best opportunity to bid for a job.

 

The Islanders GM and coaches decided they wanted to come out for a drink and play a few games of pool, so they called me and my colleague to let us know. It was their way of extending a courtesy to the players; since it was going to be after 11:00 pm by the time they arrived via taxi, the players might want to take our hint and get the heck out of the bar.

 

Just about all of the players appreciated the gesture and headed for the team hotel. A few waited until the honchos showed up, bolting for a pre-arranged back door.

 

One player, a strong AHLer young enough to still dream of the NHL, decided he wasn’t going to leave. Bitter that he had no realistic shot to make the team (that was his view), he decided he was going to finish his drink. I couldn’t believe it. This guy had a game in the morning, a chance to make his mark.

 

But he didn’t see it that way. He was one of those AHLers who felt there wasn’t anything he could do to make the Islanders. So he stayed for a while past curfew, in full view of management. Before he finally staggered out, he said something that had us spitting up our beers. Told once again that he should really get out of the bar, he said, “What are the Islanders gonna do – cut me twice“?

 

We still joke about that line. The player was complete horsebleep in the scrimmage and now makes a  nice living as a point-a-game player in Europe. I’m told there aren’t any curfews, and the beer is especially good there.

 

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