Five professional tryout hopefuls to watch as 2017-18 approaches

Only a handful of pre-season tilts remain until the 2017-18 regular season is upon us. And while most NHLers might be using the exhibition schedule to simply prepare for the grind about to begin, another group of skaters is hoping to turn this slate of the year into a full-time NHL gig.

Fifty-eight skaters are currently participating in NHL training camps on professional tryout agreements, according to CapFriendly, all of whom looking for one more shot at remaining in the big leagues. Though the majority of the league’s PTO participants likely won’t land deals for the 2017-18 campaign, last year’s crop of hopefuls proved just how valuable some of these names can eventually be.

Rearguard Eric Gryba re-joined the Edmonton Oilers camp on a PTO last season, hoping to stick with the team after one year in Oilers colours. He managed to earn a one-year, $950,000 contract for 2016-17, which he parlayed into a subsequent two-year, $1.8-million deal this summer.

Veteran winger Kris Versteeg also suited up with the Oilers on a PTO during last year’s camp. After a strong showing, the Lethbridge, Alta. native opted to sign with the Calgary Flames instead, inking a one-year, $950,000 contract. Finishing 2016-17 as the Flames’ fifth-highest goal scorer, Versteeg netted a one-year, $1.75-million follow-up deal to remain in Calgary.

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With a new group of PTO skaters gunning for a similar result, here are a few interesting tryout situations to watch as 2017-18 closes in:

1. Cody Franson, Chicago Blackhawks
Former Toronto Maple Leafs defender Cody Franson showed some promise during his time with the blue and white, posting a trio of 30-point seasons that seemed to suggest he had plenty of offensive potential in the tank. That production dipped over the few seasons that followed his Leafs tenure, however, culminating in a 19-point effort in Buffalo last season.

Now skating with the Chicago Blackhawks, Franson reportedly spurned guaranteed one-year offers for a chance at sticking with the Western Conference powerhouse.

He won’t be unseating Chicago’s marquee defensive talents, but the fact that the Blackhawks’ blue line is undeniably top-heavy leaves the door open for Franson. After the club’s elite top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Blackhawks have a bottom four in flux with both Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson not returning this season. In a limited, second- or third-pairing role, Franson could be an intriguing fit.

2. P.A. Parenteau, Detroit Red Wings
Journeyman P.A. Parenteau revived his career during his own time in Toronto, posting his second career 20-goal campaign in 2015-16 – at 32 years old for a Leafs team lacking elite talent, no less. The 2016-17 campaign was a tougher go for the veteran. Parenteau posted 13 goals through 59 games with the New Jersey Devils before a trade sent him into a limited role with the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Nashville Predators.

Parenteau is currently skating with the Detroit Red Wings, a promising choice given the current state of the club’s offensive depth. Detroit saw only one player top 20 goals last season (Tomas Tatar) and the club’s second-highest goal scorer in 2016-17 (Andreas Athanasiou) has yet to sign with the club as he reportedly considers a jump to the KHL. With the Red Wings in need of depth scoring and Parenteau bringing a veteran nose for the net, an opportunity may open up for the 34-year-old.

3. Jared Cowen, Colorado Avalanche
Originally selected with the ninth pick in 2009, Jared Cowen’s NHL tenure hasn’t exactly panned out as expected thus far. A tumultuous run with the Ottawa Senators ended with a nine-player trade in 2016 that sent the rearguard to Toronto. Cowen has been outspoken about what transpired after that move, calling his brief time with the Leafs “a joke of a process.”

Looking for a fresh start, Cowen has earned a PTO with the Colorado Avalanche, who are likely looking for any help they can get after posting the worst campaign in franchise history. The Avs have already shown they’re open to giving players like Cowen a shot at redemption, having taken in former Oilers No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov on a modest one-year deal. A steady showing from Cowen during camp could earn him a similar shot, though it remains to be seen whether the big-bodied blue liner can keep up with Colorado’s quick-footed squad.

4. Brandon Pirri, Florida Panthers
At one point, Brandon Pirri seemed to be one of the most intriguing hidden gems in the NHL. In 2014-15, Pirri posted a supremely odd stat line of 22 goals and just two assists in 49 games, doing so during his first go-round in Florida. The career-high effort understandably turned heads, with Pirri’s scoring pace putting him on track for more than 30 goals over a full 82-game season. He took a step back in his follow-up effort, however, posting 11 goals through 52 games before getting shipped out of town in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

After lacklustre stints with the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers, with whom he posted a combined 11 goals through 69 tilts, Pirri is back in Florida, hoping to get another chance with the Panthers. Landing that shot won’t be easy, as many of the names that Pirri worked well with back in 2014-15 are no longer around. However, if there’s one team willing to grant the 26-year-old one more season in the big leagues, it’s likely Florida, the only club to truly see him at his best.

5. Jimmy Hayes, New Jersey Devils
Another member of that same Florida squad, Jimmy Hayes, is also going through the PTO training camp grind at the moment. Hayes showed plenty of promise during that same 2014-15 campaign, posting 19 goals and 35 points for the Panthers, his best showing to date. It wasn’t enough to keep Hayes in Florida, however, as the club traded him to the Boston Bruins in the summer of 2015. Hayes’ production dipped to 13 goals and 29 points the following season, before he posted just two goals and three assists through 58 tilts in 2016-17.

Despite that sharp decline, Hayes still has much an NHL general manager might find appealing: exceptional size (he tips the scales at six foot five, 215 pounds), plenty of miles left in the tank (he’s 27 years old, and hasn’t logged significant minutes since 2015), and some decent past numbers on his résumé. Suiting up on a PTO with the New Jersey Devils, who posted the third-fewest total goals in the league last season, Hayes could serve as a decent depth scorer to round out the up-and-coming Eastern Conference club.