PTO’s about making the most of opportunities

Alexis D'Aoust (Photo: Mark Newman)

📝 by Patrick Williams

“PTO” is one of the most common pieces of American Hockey League lingo.

Those professional tryouts, as they are officially known, fill the transactions page on daily, even hourly. Press releases go out each day to announce a new PTO in Providence or Bakersfield or in any of the AHL’s 31 depots. The move becomes another line in the game notes.

These players serve a crucial, if sometimes overlooked, role for teams patching the roster holes that open regularly in a league constantly sending talent on to the National Hockey League. The length of a PTO contract is 25 games, but it can be terminated at any time. So some of those names come in for a week ― or maybe even only a weekend ― to fill a roster spot on a team dealing with recalls or injuries. A game or two on a busy weekend with an unfamiliar team is not much time to make an impact.

But it is an opportunity in the NHL’s top development league. So keep it simple to, if nothing else, at least leave a good impression for another audition down the road.

“Go play your game,” Manitoba Moose head coach Mark Morrison advises. “Show us what you have. We try to give them freedom to do that.”

Other players go on to earn further commitment. Maybe another PTO is offered or perhaps even a full AHL contract. Entering this season, forward Marcus Vela had just six AHL games to his name, and they had come back in 2018-19 with the San Jose Barracuda. But a strong start to his season with Toledo of the ECHL piqued the Hershey Bears’ interest. So the Bears added Vela via a PTO on Dec. 21. Five weeks later, Vela had his name on a new AHL contract for the rest of this season and has become a useful part of Hershey’s lineup.

Keith Aucoin’s pro career began in the now-defunct United Hockey League. He parlayed a 30-game AHL opportunity in 2001-02 into a playing career that featured two Calder Cup championships in Hershey, a 2009-10 scoring title and league MVP award, and 145 NHL contests. Aucoin was selected for induction into the AHL Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2022.

Or take Mike McKenna, one of the most heralded goaltenders in AHL history. He joined the Norfolk Admirals on Jan. 22, 2006, won his first AHL game that same day, and earned six more games that season. That sample size set up another AHL opportunity the following season before he became an AHL mainstay in 2007-08.

A PTO with the Lowell Lock Monsters in 2005 for Matt Hendricks began a run through five AHL clubs before he played 607 NHL games. Jason Jaffray spent most of the 2004-05 season on tryouts before signing an AHL contract with Manitoba, and eventually reaching the NHL with Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg.

So these deals, far from being a dead end, can become something much more.

Nick Hutchison (Photo: Jonathan Kozub)

For most players on a PTO, such as forward Alexis D’Aoust, they migrate from one team to the next regardless of organization. The 25-year-old D’Aoust played 99 AHL games in his first two pro seasons, splitting that time between Utica and Manitoba. But then he found himself in the ECHL in 2019-20 before the COVID-19 pandemic ended that season. A year in Slovakia followed before he signed with Trois-Rivières, Laval’s new ECHL affiliate, for this season.

While D’Aoust has yet to skate with the Rocket this season, he has gone into Place Bell with the Belleville Senators and Providence Bruins. When COVID-19 hit everyone hard in December, the P-Bruins found themselves in need of help the night before a road date in Laval. They found a fit in D’Aoust, who had played 90 minutes away with Trois-Rivières the night before and has 15 goals and 30 points in just 28 ECHL appearances this season. His first AHL goal of the season came in that Bruins-Rocket contest at Place Bell against the Laval Rocket on Dec. 17.

Then it was back to the Trois-Rivières for nearly two more months before the Lehigh Valley Phantoms had a spot to fill. On Feb. 13, D’Aoust played a Trois-Rivières road game at nearby Reading before signing a PTO with the Phantoms for their game the following afternoon.

Following a two-and-a-half-week audition with the Phantoms, D’Aoust signed in Grand Rapids two days later ― his fifth PTO this season. In his Griffins debut March 5, head coach Ben Simon had D’Aoust on the ice in the final two minutes protecting a 2-0 lead on the Iowa Wild. D’Aoust’s empty-net goal sealed that win before another loud Van Andel Arena crowd, and he has been in Simon’s lineup since then.

“I think I have to be consistent,” D’Aoust said of trying to regain full-time footing in the AHL for his career. “Every game I play, I’ve got to bring energy to the team.”

How did Simon bring D’Aoust up to speed quickly to enter the Grand Rapids lineup on short notice?

“We showed him basic systems with [the Iowa] forecheck and our D-zone coverage,” Simon explained. “Whenever a kid comes in like that, we don’t want to overload them with too much information, have them kind of thinking and being hesitant with their play. We want to see how they can think, how they can react, their hockey sense, and go from there.

“I thought [D’Aoust] was reliable defensively, which is important as a coach [for] a new guy coming in, to start to earn a little bit of trust and build your body of work.”

Forward Shawn St. Amant had divided his first four seasons between the AHL and ECHL before going abroad in 2020-21 to Romania. Back in North America this past fall, the 25-year-old forward racked up 15 goals and 23 points in 29 contests with Trois-Rivières. When COVID-19 hit some of the Laval roster in mid-February, the Rocket plucked St. Amant for a trip into Syracuse. He scored in that Rocket debut, picked up three assists the next afternoon against Rochester, and has gone on to nab six points (two goals, four assists) featuring as a regular in 14 AHL games for the Rocket.

“I didn’t know where I was going to play this year,” St. Amant said of his offseason. “I decided to come back to North America. I think it was a good decision for me.

“I’m trying to make my way up in Laval.”

Shawn St. Amant (Photo: Laval Rocket)

Another forward, Nick Hutchison, has made himself useful for the Moose since joining the club Feb. 17. The second-year pro had put in his first five AHL games in January with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins before returning to the ECHL, where he has exploded for 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists) in 31 games. This weekend with Manitoba he potted his first two AHL goals, one of them breaking open what became a 6-1 win against the Belleville Senators on Saturday night in Winnipeg.

But sticking full-time in the AHL, let alone the NHL, is a formidable challenge. No one knows that more than a goaltender trying to land one of 60-something AHL jobs at that position. Between December 2014 and December 2015, Pat Nagle signed nine separate PTO’s with five different AHL teams: Lake Erie, Rochester, Grand Rapids, Utica, and Stockton. Last month Nagle, now on a full AHL deal with Lehigh Valley, represented the United States at the Olympics in Beijing.

AHL head coaches are well aware of what PTO players can encounter.

“It’s very difficult,” said Hartford head coach Kris Knoblauch, who has signed 10 different players to tryout contracts this season. “They come in and right away, they’ve got whole new systems, personnel, linemates, a new coach to worry about. They need a little bit of structure, they need to know the details of what we’re doing with our systems.

“They’ll get a short description of what we’re doing. You don’t want to give them too much, because you don’t want to take away their instinct. You want them to play on that.”

Bringing in a goaltender, a position that relies so much on communication, adds another wrinkle for a team.

“You try and bring them in, especially the [defensemen],” Henderson Silver Knights blueliner Derrick Pouliot said of the integration process. “You try to talk to them a lot, get a feel for how he is playing the puck, try to give him some confidence.”

And like the new kid in school, a welcoming group helps on and off the ice. A strong Manitoba dressing room provides that welcome committee for someone like Hutchison.

“We have an unbelievable core group,” Morrison emphasized, “and a group in the dressing room that helps everybody new or anybody that comes into this group from a PTO, from the ECHL, or anywhere else.

“They do it themselves. And you know, that goes from our captain [Jimmy Oligny] right to Jeff Malott, [Cole] Maier, [Nicholas] Jones, [Johnathan] Kovacevic, I could go through the whole group. Those are good people, and they bring people into that group real fast. So off the ice, that’s what happens. On the ice, that helps them as well, because they feel comfortable.

“I talked to [Hutchison] about it a little bit, and how he was feeling. Just touching base with him. He said he’s never had more fun, so that’s a credit to our group.”

“Just kind of getting to know him personally [is key],” said Kovacevic, a third-year defenseman with the Moose. “Having them over, playing some games, whatever it might be. But just something like that with new teammates, I feel like that goes a long way.”

Find a niche. Play one’s game, but stay within the lines. Fit in. That is the mission. For players like D’Aoust, Hutchison, St. Amant, and so many other would-be AHL players, these opportunities are about forcing a team’s hand.

“I’ve got to show the organization that I want to stick there,” D’Aoust stressed, “and they have no other choice than that.”

Said St. Amant, “I’m just trying to take the opportunity and make something great out of it.”