The Pittsburgh Penguins really didn’t gamble when they invited Brian Boyle to training camp on a professional tryout last fall.
After all, they weren’t risking much more than cost of housing him for as long as he stayed in camp.
Of course, there also was no guarantee that investment would have even a modest return, considering that Boyle was 36 years old and had sat out the previous season.
But Boyle defied the odds, earning a spot on the roster and a contract that paid the league minimum of $750,000. He went on to make a solid contribution throughout the regular season, putting up 11 goals and 10 assists in 66 games and being a core member of one of the NHL’s top penalty-killing units.
And while the Penguins apparently have not tried to bring Boyle back, it’s conceivable that Ron Hextall and his staff would consider inviting some other unaffiliated NHL veterans to participate in their preparations for 2022-23.
Especially when, with just a month to go before training camps open, there is such a large contingent of forwards capable of filling a bottom-six/penalty-killing role available.
The Penguins, of course, already are a bit over the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling of $82.5 million — precisely how much depends on how one configures their roster — and have more than enough candidates to stock their fourth line.
However, a free agent who would earn a contract during camp likely would sign for the league minimum (or close to it), simply because he wouldn’t have the leverage to demand much more. (Remember, these are guys who have been available since mid-July, and still haven’t caught on anywhere.)
What’s more, the Pittsburgh Penguins have four forwards — Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald, Ryan Poehling and Drew O’Connor — who are scheduled to be paid $1 million or less, so his entire salary would come off the NHL books if he were assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Heinen isn’t a penalty-killer and doesn’t figure to be in the fourth-line mix, while O’Connor is exempt from waivers for another year, but the Penguins would risk losing either of the other two if one or both were sent to the minors.
Whether that’s a gamble Hextall would be interested in taking isn’t known, but if a case could be made that a free-agent invitee has outperformed someone already under contract, would losing the latter really be an issue? Especially when the tryout candidate actually might have a slightly lower cap hit.
The NHL’s relatively stagnant salary cap likely is the primary reason so many capable role players remain on the market; CapFriendly.com puts 14 teams above the ceiling and four more within roughly $1 million (or less) of it.
Clubs have prioritized getting key players under contract — witness the Pittsburgh Penguins giving deals to Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell — and many have exhausted their cap space in the process.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone on the market today will be a viable tryout candidate in mid-September.
Some will sign a contract before camps open, and others might simply decline to attempt to earn a position via a tryout, especially those who have had a steady job in the NHL for a number of years and who, under normal circumstances, would have been signed weeks ago.
A few might not even care to settle for the kind of salary a player on a tryout can expect to receive if he’s able to play his way onto an NHL roster, although there certainly are less lucrative ways to make a living.
But if Hextall opts to extend a tryout offer or two, here’s a sampling of the guys who might be worth a look, presented in alphabetical order:
Zach Aston-Reese — His inability to capitalize on scoring chances can be exasperating at times, but he’s a reliable defensive winger and quality penalty-killer. The Pittsburgh Penguins obviously know what they could expect from him.
Cody Eakin — A good two-way center who, at 31, has shown he can contribute on a shorthanded unit. He scored 22 goals for Vegas in 2018-19, although such prolific offensive output is an aberration.
Tyler Motte — Motte, 27, plays a high-energy game and is an effective forechecker who can kill penalties and chip in with an occasional goal.
Riley Nash — A standard-issue fourth-liner who kills penalties and is good on faceoffs. And who, at 33, tends to be a stranger on the scoresheet.
Brett Ritchie — He’s been frustratingly inconsistent and doesn’t kill penalties, but Ritchie has size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and a penchant for physicality that would add a dimension to the Penguins’ collection of forwards.
Evan Rodrigues — Coming off a 19-goal season that was an 82-game testament to his versatility, Rodrigues still being unsigned is one of the biggest surprises of this free-agency season. He merits a significant increase on his $1 million salary of 2021-22, but probably shouldn’t count on getting it.