Sutter, Watson headline intriguing players headed to camp on PTO

In this Feb. 4, 2019, file photo, Vancouver Canucks' Brandon Sutter moves the puck during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Matt Slocum, File, AP)

In the salary-cap era, it has become more and more difficult to earn NHL roster spots at training camp. Most teams have already spent to the max in the off-season. Teams have re-signed their own players, or dipped their toe into the waters of free agency, draining their bank accounts in the process.

For players remaining on the open market, their only option is to sign a tryout agreement with a team and head to camp attempting to earn a contract.

Here’s a look at some interesting names attending camps on a PTO:

What’s a “PTO”

“PTO” stands for professional tryout contract in the NHL. When players are extended an offer to attend training camp on a PTO there is no guarantee how long their tryout will last. Having said that, players on tryouts are generally given an opportunity to prove themselves in exhibition games. Sometimes the tryout lasts until the end of training camp before a decision is made whether to sign the player to a contract or release him from his PTO.

The longer a player lasts at training camp, the more exposure he receives. Scouts from other organizations are attending exhibition games. If the player ends up being released from his tryout, but had a productive training camp, he might have caught the eye of another team who could be interested in his services.

Candidates on a PTO

Zach Aston-ReeseCarolina Hurricanes

The former Maple Leaf scored 10 even-strength goals for Toronto last season. He averaged just shy of 11 minutes per game of ice time. It’s possible Aston-Reese could be seen as a potential depth scorer on the Hurricanes roster.

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It’s more likely he could earn a contract as a checker who is willing to throw his body around and block shots. Aston-Reese was credited with 163 hits last season, which would have led the Hurricanes.

He’s also willing to block shots. His 43 shot blocks would have been second most by a forward on the Carolina roster.

Max ComtoisVegas Golden Knights

For whatever reason things didn’t work out for Comtois in Anaheim. The Ducks selected Comtois in the second round (50th overall) in 2017. He appeared in 210 games for the Ducks, scoring 38 goals 48 assists. His most productive season was (2020-21) when he scored 16 goals and 33 points.

Comtois could add another “power-forward” style player to the Golden Knights lineup. He was credited with 81 hits last season, which was second most amongst Ducks forwards.

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The change of scenery might also re-ignite him offensively. If he earns a contract and produces around 15 goals and 100 hits for the season, it would be a win for both the player and the organization. Especially considering Comtois is only 24 years old.

Danton HeinenBoston Bruins

Heinen on a tryout with the Bruins makes sense. The team and the player are very familiar with each other. Heinen understands the Bruins’ culture and expectations. He was originally drafted by Boston in 2014 (116th overall).

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Heinen has a history of having a productive offensive season, followed by a steep drop-off the following year. He scored 18 goals and 15 assists for Pittsburgh two seasons ago. Last year he only produced eight goals and 22 points.

Heinen has some bump to his game. He was credited with 7 hits last season. Considering he only averaged 10:45 ice time per game, it’s a statistic that should increase with more of a role.

Something else to consider is the fact Heinen played for Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery at the University of Denver. The stars could be aligning with this tryout scenario. I expect Heinen to get a long look at Bruins camp.

Brandon SutterEdmonton Oilers

The Oilers have significant salary-cap constraints. The organization would have to waive a player, or trade out a contract, to open up space for any new money.

Having said that, Sutter is a nice story to keep an eye on at Oilers camp. It’s widely known he suffered from Long COVID. I’m positive he has battled to get himself ready for this challenge.

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If Sutter catches on with the Oilers it would be in a depth role. Likely a fourth-line contributor who can take critical faceoffs in all three zones when asked.

Austin WatsonTampa Bay Lightning

Watson averaged 10 minutes of ice time in Ottawa last season. He was credited with 165 hits! He dropped the mitts 12 times and ended the season with 123 minutes in penalties.

With Patrick Maroon no longer in the fold, Tampa could be looking to add some grit to the bottom of their lineup with Watson.

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