Here we go! Training camps have started and the exhibition schedule will get underway this weekend. Players will begin taking their physicals, learn their coaches' new systems and start competing in scrimmages shortly. However, some prominent skaters won't be available to take part in that process because they don't have contracts. Restricted free agents like Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers, Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, Cody Franson of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Cody Hodgson of the Buffalo Sabres and Jared Cowen of the Ottawa Senators won't be attending camp until they sign with their respective teams.
A common thread among these players is that they are coming off entry-level deals, with the exception of Franson. They have played in important roles for their teams even though their careers have been brief and they are looking to cash in on long-term deals. However, their employers would prefer to sign them to shorter term "bridge" contracts and give them a chance to prove that they are worth the investment of time and money.
There's always a concern that negotiations could drag and these holdouts could extend into the regular season. Fortunately, teams have a chance to audition replacements during training camp and assess where they stand in order to move forward in the best way possible. The absences of Stepan, Pietrangelo, Franson, Hodgson and Cowen will open up opportunities for others to step up and help fill the void.
New York Rangers
Derek Stepan centered New York's first line last season and he led the team in scoring with 44 points (18 goals and 26 assists) in 48 games. He was very productive during his first three seasons with the Rangers, recording 56 goals and 140 points in 212 contests. Stepan is believed to be seeking a five- or six-year deal worth around $5 million per year, whereas New York is reportedly looking at a two-year contract worth $2.75-$3 million per season. The Rangers don't have much cap space left which is complicating talks as well.
If Stepan and the Rangers can't find a middle ground, the team will need another center to step into their top-six group. Brad Richards is an obvious choice and he's expected to get an opportunity to bounce back this year after a turbulent, lockout-shortened season. He was a healthy scratch during the playoffs and is motivated to get back on track. Without Stepan, it's reasonable to believe he will be leaned on heavily. New head coach Alain Vigneault's offensive approach should help Richards in 2013-14.
Another player who could get a more prominent role with the Rangers is Derick Brassard, who was acquired from Columbus last season as part of the Marian Gaborik trade. The 25-year-old pivot looked revitalized after the deal and he picked up 11 points in 13 games with his new team. Brassard also had two goals, 10 assists and 22 shots in 12 playoff outings. His playmaking skills would be a great addition to a scoring line and he will probably get his fair share of power-play time as well.
St. Louis Blues
Alex Pietrangelo has established himself as a superb all-around blueliner during his short NHL career. He exploded for 43 points in his first full season and followed that up with a 51-point season in 2011-12. Pietrangelo plays in all situations for the Blues and he averaged over 25 minutes per night during the lockout-shortened campaign.
The void he leaves on St. Louis' back end is sizable to say the least, so the Blues will use a committee to stand in for him during his absence. Steady defender Jay Bouwmeester can eat up some of Pietrangelo's minutes, while Kevin Shattenkirk will absorb his power-play quarterback duties.
St. Louis also gave former Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney a professional tryout to attend training camp. If he ends up landing a contract, he could be a serviceable player on a strong team, as long as he can put his past injury woes behind him.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are right up against the cap following an off-season spending spree. Hefty contracts were given to unrestricted free agents Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson. Toronto also gave restricted free agents Jonathan Bernier and Carl Gunnarsson raises, while adding Dave Bolland's contract to their payroll via a trade with Chicago. The flurry of moves didn't leave them much money left over to re-sign second-line center Nazem Kadri and emerging defenseman Cody Franson. The Leafs have inked Kadri to a two-year deal worth $5.8 million and now they will turn their attention to Franson.
Franson was also given an opportunity to prove his worth last year after he was finally given a chance by Toronto's new coaching staff. He produced 29 points in 45 games to finish the 2013 season in a sixth-place tie among NHL defensemen in scoring. Franson looked comfortable while quarterbacking Toronto's power play as well.
Franson's time on the man advantage will probably go to mobile rearguard Jake Gardiner and his vacancy may give top prospect Morgan Rielly a better shot at opening the 2013-14 season in the NHL. If Rielly can't land a roster spot with the Leafs, then he'll return the junior ranks.
Cody Hodgson served as Buffalo's top center last season alongside star forward Thomas Vanek and captain Jason Pominville until he was traded to Minnesota. He concluded the 2013 campaign with 15 goals and 34 points in 48 contests. The Sabres are not deep at center, so Hodgson's absence for the start of camp will result in plenty of auditions for the top line.
Tyler Ennis has played center and the wing for the past two seasons and he could move up to replace Hodgson. He will need to improve his defensive play, though, if the Sabres plan to match their first line against the opposition's best players. Steve Ott could be a more logical choice for that reason. He can play a rugged game and he's strong on faceoffs. He also earned the trust of coach Ron Rolston last year and started to chip in more offensively when he got increased ice time after the dismissal of Lindy Ruff.
Mikhail Grigorenko is projected to play with the Sabres in 2013-14 as well and he could get a shot at increased minutes, too. Ville Leino, who played in the middle during his first season in Buffalo, could be another option. However, he's likely to stay on the wing since he didn't make the smoothest of transitions to playing center that year.
Jared Cowen missed the first 41 games of the regular season in 2013 after he had surgery on his hip. The 22-year-old defenseman had 217 hits, 56 penalty minutes and 17 points in 82 games with Ottawa during the 2011-12 campaign. He brings a physical dimension to the Senators' defense corps that was missed during his absence last year.
The Senators did a good job of filling in for Cowen and Erik Karlsson during the truncated season. Players like Eric Gryba and Patrick Wiercioch should be able to step up again with Cowen's status in doubt. Gryba would bring some grit and Wiercioch could chip in offensively, given the opportunity. Since their games are similar, Gryba might stand the best chance of being paired with Chris Phillips.
Another defender who could move up the depth chart is summer signing Joe Corvo. He posted 17 points and 71 shots in 40 games with Carolina last season, while averaging 18:45 of ice time per contest. He's willing to accept a lesser role with Ottawa in 2013-14, but the absence of Cowen could give him a shot at a top-four spot.
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