The limelight at training camp shines brightly on potential stars as they go through the paces of playing their way onto or off of National Hockey League rosters.
But lingering in their considerable shadows are the players whose hype has since passed them by, that is, if they ever had any hype at all. Fringe prospects make up the majority of the initial invitees to training camp, whether they be late-round picks, free agent invitees, other team’s cast-offs or players who are continually on the cusp of an NHL roster.
Examples are legion and fall into a variety of different categories. Many of their careers read like a veritable road map of injuries, blown opportunities, set-backs and listings of minor league cities. There are former first-rounders like Jason Ward and Nolan Baumgartner, whose injury-riddled careers have held them back from golden opportunities. Then there are former highly-touted prospects like Cameron Mann and Alexei Tezikov who are still trying to translate their unending potential into NHL paychecks.
These players, and many others from around the globe, are always present in large numbers at the beginning of camp but dwindle in number as the days pass and the cuts progress, many of them an afterthought in the whole process. However, patient teams with an eye for talent and offering the right situation can occasionally unearth a diamond or add depth to their rosters.
Jay Leach is starting to become a veteran of the training camp process and is still looking for his opportunity to climb the ranks in the Phoenix Coyotes’ system. Recently turned 23, Leach is four years removed from being drafted 115th overall out of Providence College in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. With no previous experience above the East Coast Hockey League, it wasn’t surprising that he was also among a group of early cuts from the team Sept. 23.
Last season, his first of professional hockey, Leach was the victim of circumstance and ended up with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL. The Coyotes split their American Hockey League franchise, the Springfield Falcons, with the Tampa Bay Lightning, meaning spaces on the defence corps are limited and Leach took the hit and a demotion.
“With the situation in Springy, a player like me couldn’t get enough playing time to develop and impress, so I was sent to (Mississippi),” said the 6-foot-4, 232-pound defensive defenceman. “I’d hopefully like to think I’m still there on the radar, but you know there’s always guys coming up so I just have to keep playing hard I guess.”
Marty McSorley, the new head coach with the Falcons, may ultimately hold the fate of Leach in his hands when he finishes assembling his team. A former punishing defenceman with a questionable future as a hockey player himself, he knows the situation guys like Leach are in and how a single opportunity can change a career.
“I think some of the guys may feel like the clock is running and that they really have to make the best of their opportunities,” said McSorley. “I have had kids that say to me, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever it takes to get a look,’ and I admire that mentality. I admire that they care that much and are committed to working towards that.”
For Leach, he knows he still has some time on his side to make the eventual NHL dream. His concentration right now is on learning the tricks of the trade from McSorley and as he says, how simplifying his game can actually add to his game. But by the same token, he’s wary about being lost in the shuffle or labeled a fringe prospect.
“There’s many cases where these guys get into the (NHL) at 28, so I just gotta keep playing,” he said. “Obviously it would be easier to be in this situation if I was 20, then 23, but what can you do? I can’t turn back time.”
He knows that now is the time for him to take advantage of any opportunity to advance his career into the AHL, and he hopes McSorley will give him that chance. For his sake, he may have found the right coach at the right time.
For the others, as the season nears closer and the cuts come quicker, many of those familiar names fall by the wayside of NHL teams, as they cut a swath through their respective rosters and form their lines. Another season, another set-back for many of them. But for those who have an opportunity thrown their way, it is theirs to take advantage of as they now hold their own fate in their hands. And to have that control is all they could ask for.