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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – For Devin Setoguchi, there is no promise of tomorrow with the Los Angeles Kings
A bad practice or a bad game, and the former 31-goal scorer could find his way home. This is the life of a veteran on a professional tryout (PTO) and Setoguchi knows this. He understands where he is in his career ,and that he needs to break through during these weeks in order to continue playing in the NHL.
“I mean, when you’re on a PTO, you never know which day could be your last day,” Setoguchi said. “You just go out and play and you leave it all out there and you can’t hold anything back.”
The 29-year-old Setoguchi last played in the NHL on Nov. 22, 2014 with the Calgary Flames. After that season – where he also spent time in the AHL with the Adirondack Flames – Setoguchi entered rehab for substance abuse.
Last season, Setoguchi went to the Toronto Maple Leafs on a PTO and didn’t make the team. This led to him eventually landing in Switzerland. But after a year in HC Davos and a hard summer of training, he’s ready for one more push to make an NHL roster.
“He can still play at a high pace,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “Not all players have the great desire to do that every day. He’s still here, so that means he’s got a good assessment. It doesn’t make sense going farther than that. Came in in good shape, came in and played a pace, came in and played the way that we need to play. Just continue to every day just try and help him and give him some direction, and then he takes the ball.”
In 2005, the San Jose Sharks took Setoguchi was the eighth overall pick in the draft. He flourished almost immediately with 31 goals and 65 points in his first full NHL season in 2008-09. But after then, he never touched 22 goals. Setoguchi was traded to the Minnesota Wild in the deal that brought Brent Burns to the Sharks after the 2010-11 season. From then on he didn’t score more than 19 goals in a season. In his last full NHL season, in 2013-14 with the Winnipeg Jets, Setoguchi scored 11 goals.
He signed with the Calgary Flames before the 2014-15 season and tried to put them at ease on the contract by promising them he would be sober during the deal. But in an interview with Sportsnet last year he noted “that (sobriety) lasted all of a couple of weeks.”
Setoguchi opened up further in a recent interview with The Hockey News on how he completely lost his way while he was out with a hernia during 2014-15.
It all caught up to him April 1, 2015. Back in St. Louis, two and a half months after his surgery for a follow-up medical exam, he got sick. His stomach started to burn and he was coughing up blood – a result, he later learned, of a stomach ulcer and liver problems he had developed from all the drinking. Despite swearing off booze earlier that day, Setoguchi was shaking so badly on the way to the airport that he headed straight to the bar. “I ordered a double Jameson and boom, shot it back, had another one, shot it back,” Setoguchi said. “I sat there for an hour until the floodgates opened and I started bawling. I just sat there and I cried and I cried and I cried. The bartender said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but keep pouring me drinks.’ ”
His flight out of St. Louis departed without him.
Later that day, Setoguchi called Dr. Brian Shaw, co-founder of the substance abuse program endorsed by the league and the NHL Players Association. Setoguchi said Shaw told him he had to continue to drink until he got into rehab or the alcohol withdrawal could kill him.
After Setoguchi completed his stint in rehab, he said he weighed 230 pounds – far above his typical playing weight of 200. He slimmed down before training camp, but said he wasn’t in hockey shape.
“I was out for like three months, but I had to lose 30 pounds, so I lost 30 pounds, but that’s not hockey training,” Setoguchi said. “That’s a lot of cross training. A lot of little diet supplementary stuff. It’s not building a lot of muscle. You’re losing fat to try to slim down so I wasn’t able to gain strength so I was really on a different training schedule than I would be for a hockey player.”
After the Maple Leafs released him from his tryout, Setoguchi signed in Davos where he found some peace, both in his life and in his game. He didn’t need to deal with the day-in-day-out grind of the NHL. He didn’t have to face constant questions about his career drop-off. Instead he could just play hockey pressure free and enjoy life. There he notched 11 goals and 13 assists in 30 games played.
“The ice is bigger over there. The guys skate really well. It’s kind of an open game so there’s a lot of skating. Not much physical contact, but you’re always moving and I think that definitely helped – especially where I played. Our coach really wanted a high pace every game and it definitely helped out,” Setoguchi said. “I was just able to play and get back to loving the game and I had been in a dark place for so long, almost a year, that it was nice to just go play.”
As this offseason neared its end, the Kings offered Setoguchi his tryout. Assistant general manager Rob Blake had played with Setoguchi with the Sharks and believed the forward could at very least come to camp and try to prove he still had NHL level skill.
“I didn’t want to head back overseas, I didn’t want to give up on a dream over here so I waited, and waited and waited. Fortunately enough Blakey gave me a chance,” Setoguchi said. “He talked with (general manager) Dean (Lombardi) and it just so happened that it worked out.”
Under normal circumstances, the Kings would have been a tough fit for Setoguchi. The team is usually pressed up against the salary cap and features top-six scoring depth on the wing.
But several players from LA took part in the World Cup, which enabled Setoguchi to get more ice-time initially in training camp. Winger Marian Gaborik was injured in the World Cup semifinal game, which likely increased Setoguchi’s chances of at least getting a longer look as the Kings try to replace Gaborik during an estimated eight week healing period. Through three preseason games, Setoguchi has a goal and an assist and appears to have a real shot to make the team.
“You’re looking at he’s still here, and it’s the way the league is now,” Sutter said. “There are a lot of players on tryouts, and there are always a handful that earn contracts strictly based on training camp, and there are always a lot of guys that don’t. That’s the way it is now.”
The Kings will open the season at San Jose next week, which is where Setoguchi’s wife currently located and his home is based. He’s thought about what it would be like to return there as a member of an NHL team, under contract.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to see (my wife) next week in the opening game,” he said with a smile.
But he then caught himself, remembering there was still a lot of work ahead of him before he makes it that far. Even though it’s just a week, a lot can happen between now and then.
“It would be ultimately sweeter if I open it up there, but it’s so far away. Right now you can’t look ahead,” he said. “I have to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully I’ll get my shot.”
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