The New Jersey Devils are just about half way through training camp in terms of days and preseason games played. They have made only one set of cuts last weekend sending fourteen players to Albany and five back to their junior clubs. With over a week left and three more preseason games to go, the roster actually is getting closer to Head Coach Pete Deboer's (and Lou Lamoriello's) liking. There were a lot of questions coming into camp with young players and depth signings and those questions still hold water. Yet a new question has emerged - a question us fans did not see coming a couple weeks ago - a tryout player making the team. And not just any tryout player - former Devils veteran winger Petr Sykora. Does he get a NHL contract this season?
This isn't a unique issue at all. In fact, the Devils gave a veteran tryout a contract last year. His name was Adam Mair. It gave the Devils depth at center and a penalty kill specialist. The season didn't work out but I guess the signing did in retrospect with all the injuries. But that was last year and I'm about to vomit even thinking about it. This season is a lot different. Young players are ready to make the jump and play in defined roles this season - at least we think. There's a good amount of players vying for the bottom six to eight spots on the Devils roster, and Sykora has nothing to lose at this point.
Of course it's too early tell to answer that initial question without any grain of salt with it, but it needs to be discussed now. Sykora can make this team better, but he can hinder it as well. After the jump is more on Sykora and a list of pros and cons on the Devils giving him a contract for this season. Also after the jump is a poll question.
Sykora has played in two preseason games so far. He's tallied one goal and one helper with five shots. He's also a minus-2. His goal was in the first period against the Rangers up in Albany. He was good position around the outside the circle to get a pass from Adam Larsson from the point and his shot beat Henrik Lundqvist up high. What first created buzz was Sykora's hat trick in last week's scrimmage. Since then, he's been moving up in the depth chart.
Sykora initially knew his chances were low but was going into camp with a positive attitude. He was on a line centering Stephane Veilleux and Reid Boucher in the third practice group to start camp. In the scrimmage, Zubrus replaced Boucher with Sykora once again playing center. Zubrus set up Sykora twice and all three shots were glove side on Johan Hedberg. Two of the three were slap shots as well. Again, Sykora still knew it's a long ways away to get a contract. In the Devils first preseason game, he was on the third line with Veilleux and fellow tryout Steve Bernier. In the next game, he was moved to his natural position of right wing with Mattias Tedenby and Adam Henrique. Now for the last two days, he's been with Zach Parise and Patrik Elias.
It's not uncommon for a tryout player to get moved around during training camp, but Sykora is the only one this season that is actually moving up. Is this is a hidden sign? He's been impressive since other players have noticed him. So what does he bring to the Devils?
Right Wing/Center Depth - The Devils don't have many right wings. Kevin pointed that out a few weeks ago and with Zajac out, that's one less center as well. Sykora has practiced recently at both positions. It's never a bad thing to have too many of one position (look at the defense). If anything this is creating good competition (which is one of the reasons tryouts come in) during camp. Also, injuries happen and Sykora may be a better option than a player who may not be ready to fill the void.
More Offense (in bottom six) - Sykora has a great shot, there's no denying that. It's quick, deceptive and accurate. His career shooting percentage is 11.7% (Hockey Reference). If he does make the team, it's more scoring with what should be a more offensive, high-tempo team. Since the top six is mostly filled, Sykora may find himself on the third line. There are guys like David Clarkson, Eric Boulton, David Steckel, Vladimir Zharkov, and Rod Pelley that he may be lined up with. That list contains no one that has a shot or scoring capabilities like Sykora. This gives the Devils the potential to have three scoring lines - a much needed asset in today's NHL.
Veteran Presence - I know the Devils have plenty, but this is a pro. Let me explain. There are a few players I didn't mention above who may end up in the bottom six. Tedenby, Henrique, and Jacob Josefson when Zajac returns may need a veteran to line up with. I don't think guys like Clarkson or Boulton are the best fits. Sykora can compliment the young players both on and off the ice. It was noted that he was directing young players on where to be during the second preseaosn game. Also, what if these young players aren't ready to take defined roles? Sykora is learning DeBoer's system and it would be no problem if some of the kids need more time to develop in Albany.
2nd Unit Powerplay - it seems the 1st unit is stacked with players like Parise, Elias, Zubrus, and Kovalchuk. But can the Devils depend on guys like Palmieri, Clarkson, Tedenby and Josefson on the 2nd unit? Sykora would be a great fit to a powerplay that must produce this season. What better way to have another shooter?
Injury - Sykora suffered a concussion with the Minnesota Wild during the 2009-2010 season. Since then he has not played an NHL game. He went through waivers that year and no one picked him up. He played in 13 games in the Czech League (with a PPG average) and played in 28 games for Dynamo Minsk in the KHL last season. He's not a big guy either, so he's prone to injuries. Sure he's playing well now - but we have no idea how his conditioning and body is and how that may affect him 30, 40, 50 games down the road. Is that a risk the Devils want to take?
Age - He's not young either. He'll turn the dreaded 35 in November. Do the Devils sign another aging forward like they have in the past couple seasons (Rob Niedermayer, Dean McAmmond, Mair)? They just got rid of aging players - Do they really sign one back and defeat the purpose of making this a younger team?
Consistency - As I said, he hasn't played in an NHL game in over a year. He's injury prone and old. How will this affect his consistency. Sure he's scoring goals now, when it doesn't count. For all the pros I listed, it means nothing if he isn't consistent. He's had up and down seasons throughout his career. Do the Devils take that chance and hope this is a good year for him?
Defense - Sykora is far from a good defensive forward. If he is lined up with young players, he needs be responsible in his own zone. His last three seasons in the NHL he had a negative Corsi ON (-8.3 in 07-08; -9.88 in 08-09; -1.65 in 09-10) [Behind the Net]. That's not something I want to happen nor should the Devils. Let's hope he's old enough to play two-way hockey, but should the Devils even take the chance?
So in a matter of two weeks, the Devils have to ask themselves these questions and a bunch more on Sykora. Practices and games in this time will hopefully answer them - or give them enough to at least predict them. He's a low risk, high reward signing. If it doesn't pan out, the Devils can try to trade/waive him. If it does and he produces, then great.
Also remember, the Devils are on a budget. It was discussed when the Devils bought out Colin White and traded away Brian Rolston. What the budget is isn't known and it won't be. Does Lou even have the power (this seems odd writing this) to even offer him a contract ? Sure it would be around the minimum ($525k), but when it comes to a budget, it's up to Jeff Vanderbeek first.
So I ask you Devils fans - from what you have seen so far, do you give him a contract? What are some pros and/or cons you see that I didn't list. Let us know. Thanks.