A topic I'm sure no one is familiar with is the Damien Brunner / NJ Devils tryout. It's kind of a big deal. It’s one of the more exciting tryouts of recent memory. A tryout, however, is exactly that - a tryout, and, if you continue to see both sides tossing around phrases such as "nothing is guaranteed" over the next few days, well, it isn’t. Tryouts certainly don’t always end up in NHL contracts. Sometimes they end up in contracts with other teams. There are a lot of different reasons a tryout may or may not work out. It doesn’t all just depend on the skill level of the player, but skill (not surprisingly) seems to be a driving factor in most cases. Two other elements that factor heavily in the decision to sign a tryout player or walk away are asking price and the needs of the team. Brunner is certainly near the top in terms of skill level and potential upside. So, it’s possible he may use this tryout as a springboard to another contract with a different team. It’s hard to say at this point. If it ultimately doesn't work out with Brunner, i don't think it would be purely because of the money. If anything, it will be a lack of space on the team. It’s possible it could be a combination of both a crowded forward grouping and monetary reasons. Or, none of this matters when he signs right out of camp.
This got me thinking about other recent Devils tryouts over the past few years, and how those ended up working out, so I decided to take a quick look back. For our purposes, I left out the fringe and non-NHL caliber players on tryouts. The success rate overall is actually not that high. Over the prior 3 training camps, the Devils had 6 NHL-ish caliber players in for tryouts. They ended up signing 2 of the 6 coming out of camp. One more (Steve Bernier) ended up signing with the team later, but was initially cut. 33% is certainly far from a sure thing as far as a tryout player ending up on a roster. I wanted to just recap all 6 of the players in question. Among them, there are a few good stories of success, but also examples of the various reasons that a tryout may not work out. I would say, of the four failures in question, three of them, perhaps all four, did not succeed due to the skill level of the player. Clearly, skill level is a big factor in tryout failures. One situation may, or may not, have had something to do with asking price (In my mind, it did, but after looking back, there were certainly other factors at play). In some cases, the roster space on the team came into play as well. In other cases, there was ample room yet no signing.
I’m going to talk about all of the tryouts here briefly, and then continue on to speak in more detail about Steve Bernier, who followed a little bit longer and winding of a path to get to where he is today with NJ.
Damien Brunner - Mike wrote a great post about the Brunner signing yesterday, so I won’t address that one at all here.
Mathieu Darche - Darche came in on a tryout with the Devils post-lockout, and must not have looked very good, because its not like the Devils were overcrowded up front last season. They actually started the year with the CBGB line as a third line because they had so little depth up front, and kept an 18 year old Stefan Matteau on the roster . Darche, a live body and a veteran NHLer, was not offered a contract, and instead opted to retire. As I said, I think if he really showed he could play at an NHL level, he would have been signed, rather than burning a year of young Stefan Matteau’s ELC.
2011- 2012 – Sykora , Stralman, Bernier
Petr Sykora – Sykora’s tryout was a huge success. It was a feel good story just when he made the team. Then, it turned even better when he played in all 82 games, scored 20 goals, and did a very solid job in terms of possession. He seemed to wear out and slow down near the end of the year, and was actually a healthy scratch in the playoffs a few times. He often found himself glued to the bench when a difficult defensive situation came up. Nevertheless, it was an awesome run, and it was great to see a hometown favorite like Sykora come back to the team years later and contribute in a very meaningful fashion. Certainly one of the best tryouts of recent memory.
Anton Stralman - Stralman attended Devils camp as a tryout, and no contract could be worked out with the team. Possibly because the Devils didn’t think he could add anything to the team, possibly because there was no room for him, or possibly because the price Stralman looked for exceeded what the Devils wanted to, or could, spend. I found this old post from TG talking about how both Pelley and Fraser were on one-way contracts at the time and would have had to clear waivers. I doubt this was the only reason, because I just don’t see the harm in exposing Mark Fraser to waivers if you think you can sign a better defenseman. Maybe they didn’t think Stralman was that good, or that he wasn’t worth 900k – 1mil+ range he was seeking. The Devils certainly needed an offensive defenseman and worked on filling that need well into the season through other questionable avenues (see Foster, Kurtis).
Either way, Stralman stayed on with the team and kept practicing after the tryout contract expired in hopes of inking a deal. He finally was rewarded when he signed a contract with our Hated Rivals. This is a good example of how a tryout contract can sometimes not work out, but parlay into a contract with a different team for the player. The best situation for an unsigned player looking to showcase his skills is clearly to get into camp and show what he can do. Stralman certainly did all the right things by biding his time and staying with the team past the start of the season, still unsigned. On the other hand, its not like he really had anywhere else to go, except back home.
Steve Bernier - Interestingly enough, the Bernier tryout did not really look like any sort of success right away. In fact, he did not make the team out of camp. Then, Albany signed Bernier to an AHL deal on October 27th. He played 15 games for Albany, and then broke his thumb.
Clearly, the Devils liked enough of what they saw out of Bernier in Albany. Or, there was just that much of a desperate need up front for a forward. Or, little of both. But, he was finally signed to an NHL deal on January 30, 2012 – pretty much right after he healed from his injury.
Bernier put up 1 goal and 5 assists in 32 games, and added 2 more goals and 5 assists in he playoff run. Notably, he had that unfortunate major boarding penalty on Rob Scuderi that led to the unraveling of the Devils in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Fortunately, however, the Steve Bernier story did not end there with NJ. The former first round bust had made good, and was rewarded with a new, and well deserved, 2 year one-way deal.
2010 – 2011 - Marcus Nilson, Adam Mair
Marcus Nilson - Nilson was an NHL veteran and former Florida Panthers first round pick. Nilson was playing in Sweeden the year prior, and was trying to get back into the NHL. He stayed with the team for a few weeks, and was then sent home near the end of the month.
Adam Mair - Mair came into camp on a tryout and ultimately made the team, although he waited until past the start of the regular season to finally ink a contract. Mair played in 65 painful to watch games, putting up 1 goal and 3 assists, and getting out-possessed in such a manner that could only be bested by Tim Sestito. Yeah, Tim Sestito played 36 NHL games that season. AARHjsrfeuwrgBLURGAgetog.
MORE STEVE BERNIER:
Bernier turned his first half-season with NJ into a more successful second season. He played all but one of the 48 games, and, despite the shooting woes of most of his teammates, Bernier’s shooting percentage actually rebounded to a serviceable 9.1 %, allowing him to post 8 goals to go with 7 assists for a 15 point season. Certainly, these are not staggering offensive numbers, but I would call the offense a pleasant surprise in Bernier’s case. I think most of us, going into last season, probably doubted he could score 10 goals in 82 games. He managed to tally 8 in just 47.
Steve Bernier has become an important part of this Devils team. For one, he is a great fit in Pete DeBoer’s system. He is a big body who goes into the dirty areas and plays a tough physical game while still possessing the puck at a decent level. He has flashed a little skill at times to show his value is more than just the vague and elusive "grit". While his possession numbers aren’t overwhelming, they are much better when he plays away from Stephen Gionta. Interestingly enough, Ryan Carter saw the same sort of jump in his possession numbers when playing apart from Gionta. Incidentally, playing with or without Ryan Carter seemed to really have no effect on Bernier, or Carter, for that matter.
As we work our way through a training camp with the deepest set of forwards in recent memory, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Bernier’s spot is not really one that’s in question. He is a Devils type of player. He does all of the little things that the team asks of their forwards. He is a very good embodiment of the "interchangeable parts" both DeBoer and Lamoriello spoke about earlier this month. With or without Brunner on the team, I see Bernier being an important and consistent part of the fourth line this season. I am pretty excited about the possibility of seeing him with some better linemates this season as well. Yesterday, Mike suggested an Olesz-Josefson-Bernier fourth line, which sounds delicious.
Out of everyone on this list of recent Devils tryouts, I think there’s little question Petr Sykora is the feelingist feel good story that ever felt good. Adam Mair was the only other player who made the team as a tryout, but I don't think I can talk any more about his Devils season without breaking another keyboard. The most useful of all, so far, may just be tryout failure turned success turned momentary playoff scapegoat turned key interchangeable part, Steve Bernier.