For the first time since he played junior hockey, forward Scottie Upshall is entering the latter stages of September not knowing where he will be spending the hockey season.
It’s a trend that seems to be becoming more and more common around the league as young forwards push for the spots of veteran players. But it gives teams like the Blues an opportunity to add beneficiary pieces to their rosters.
“There’s an abundance of us that have played many years and still feel we have things left in the tank and have stuff to prove,” said Upshall. “It puts things into perspective. It’s a time in your career when you realize the game can’t be taken for granted and you have to continue to work and continue to get better.”
Upshall, 31, is one of two veteran players joining the Blues in camp on a professional tryout contract, more commonly referred to as a PTO. The other, 35-year-old center Scott Gomez, like Upshall, is a veteran of more than 12 NHL seasons. The tryout contract is a common tool in today’s NHL as it is a no-risk, high-reward situation for both parties. The team offers only a spot in camp and in unique situations will extend a contractual offer if the player is a fit. If not, the player can be released to sign elsewhere or pursue other options. For a player, it’s a chance to showcase their ability.
“There are a lot of guys in this situation,” said Gomez. “It doesn’t matter if you have a contract or not. You have to make them want to keep you. That’s the bottom line.”
Gomez and Upshall offer varying styles of play. More of a playmaker, Gomez flashes nifty hands and a unique passing ability. His 747 points, 567 of them assists, in 1,045 games say as much. The center also boasts two Stanley Cups from his stint with the Devils in the early 2000s.
Upshall plays an intense, in-your-face type game that warrants him being more of a nuisance to the opposition than a scoring threat.
The Blues believe both could fight for roster spots.
“(Gomez) is an old-school centerman,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock. “He’s a throwback to where every team had two of those on their team. That position has changed but I think because of his speed and pace, he can make plays off of that. He’s smart and that’s what he has to do is play his game. He’s going to give it a real go here.
“Upshall to me was as advertised. High energy, really hard player, fast, in your face. That’s a good fit for the way we want to play.”
Gomez agreed with the coach’s assessment.
“I’m not the best fourth-line, get up the ice and check them, but if you put me in a position to pass the puck and set someone up to score, I am going to do that,” Gomez said.
Both Upshall and Gomez have had similar careers, each splitting time between five NHL teams. Gomez earned a job with New Jersey last season off a PTO. Upshall is new to the tryout scenario.
“I have watched other teammates come in on PTOs and play really well and make the team and have great years,” said Upshall. “With an abundance of us, maybe it’s a good time to change.”
A spot with the Blues is ideal for the two players who are both happy to be in St. Louis for camp, but there may not be room on the roster for both with young players pushing for spots. Upshall seems to be the better fit for a club trying to get over the hump.
“Everyone is so competitive now,” Upshall said. “You look at the teams and the difference between making the playoffs and not is a point here and a point there. Guys making the team, it’s maybe doing one thing better than another guy.
“You see young guys come in and if young guys can’t do it, they want us to push them and push for spots.”
The plethora of youthful talent in the Blues’ locker room made St. Louis an intriguing fit for Upshall, who was an assistant captain with the Florida Panthers. He wants to be a voice in a room that could perhaps use another.
“I feel like that’s exactly what I would be able to bring to the table and that’s who I am,” Upshall said. “I’ve been there. I know how to lead and help these leaders do this job.”
And of course, at this stage of his career, he wants to win.
“This, for me, I felt this stage in my career, I have made it to the conference finals once, been in the playoffs four times,” said Upshall. “I’d like to be part of something knowing from the get-go this team means business. Their goal here isn’t just to make the playoffs. I have been a part of that in the past. Here, I feel this team wants to win the Presidents Trophy; this team wants to go on a 20-game win streak. This coaching staff sets a precedent where they have a mandate for how they want us playing. That was a big-time deciding factor.”
Neither Upshall nor Gomez knows where he will be after training camp. The push to prove begins Tuesday with the first games of the preseason. Right now, the two are just enjoying the competition and realizing their careers can’t be taken for granted.
“I’m just happy to be in this organization right now wearing this jersey; it’s a great jersey to wear,” said Upshall. “This team speaks for itself the way they play hockey and I’m proud to compete for a spot here. This game gets tougher and tougher. As you get older, you can’t take this game for granted.”