We've reached the point in the summer where general managers actually start to answer calls from the agents of mediocre hockey players (hurray!), and mediocre hockey players get to start figuring out where their careers are headed.
After July 1, there's a slow and steady trickledown effect in pro hockey, and it's not as simple as "sign the best available player, then the next best available player, then the…."
"Next best available player" gets a little blurry when one guy is 26 and played for El Mira and the other is 23 and skated with Victoria. Sometimes you need to get them on the same ice to compare.
NHL teams are set in stone (well, 97 percent anyway) before a single player shows up to camp, but at the AHL and ECHL levels, it can work a little differently.
Lower down in the system, you have a better chance of actually taking someone's spot, especially if they aren't some prized prospect. Because of this, getting a tryout at the level above where you played the previous season is a goal during the summer (if you can't get a contract), but so is signing a deal with a team in the league below as an insurance policy.
As general managers start to solidify more and more of their roster's Difference Makers, they're able to see at which positions they're weakest, and start to extend a multitude of tryout offers in hopes that someone can swoop in and fill their need. They can always sign someone, but you don't want to give a contract to a guy you aren't sure about, so the tryout thing makes sense.
As a player (and an agent) your job is to figure out which team is the most sincere in their insistence that you could claim a job out of camp.
There's a two-fold problem with discerning which team that is. Teams in the AHL like to get a look at as many ECHLers as possible, so if they need call-ups they have some idea what they're ordering when they call the guy. Knowing that, you want to avoid being one of the guys who's unknowingly trying to shine "just in case, for down the road."
Secondly, is that you can never be sure of the plans of other players. Lots of guys have European options, more players may decide to come battle for that spot or two at the last second … there's just too many variables to be certain you're choosing the right place.
It's a crapshoot.
So, like every single other guy out there, you wait as long as possible before making that final decision on where to tryout (to make sure there isn't much time for the situation to change), which in the end does nobody any good. It's why if you can't sign a contract at the level you want in the next few weeks here, it starts to get un-fun.
The dance drags on. You have to think: If the NHL fires up in mid-to-late September, then AHL camp can't fire up until October (as the best AHLers stick with the NHL the longest), the ECHL can't start until mid-October, and all the way down the line (yes, there are more leagues below that).
All the while you're keeping an eye on who's getting cut and who's sticking to figure out your odds and if you made the right decision. Maybe you're one of the guys getting pushed down the ladder.
In 2007-2008 when I started at New York Islanders camp, I was a part of a group of about six players who had signed (mine was a two-way AHL/ECHL contract) somewhere in the organization, and had the distinct honor of getting told it's time to ship out to the level below until my services were needed ... twice. I was in training camps with those guys (Michael Haley included) from mid-September until nearly November.
A one-way AHL deal was my goal, and when it didn't come some time around now on the calendar, I knew I was in for that ride.
It's a confusing, hectic time for guys that just aren't quite good enough. Uncertainty reigns supreme, and all you want is to be able to answer the question:
"Where are you playing next year?"
It's "check my phone 15 times a day to see if my agent called" season. Each day he hasn't gets more stressful.