Tough decisions of the forgotten free agents

One of these players has a contract until 2021 that pays him $8,000,000 next year. The other one might not get offered a $550,000, one year deal. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For players like Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the opening of the free agent market meant being courted with ridiculous sums of money to play for just about any team they wanted. For others, the opening of the free agent market is a little less rosy.

I'm not talking about Calgary Flames fans, either.

No, the people for which the days surrounding July 1st are among the toughest they'll ever face are the guys who are praying for a phone call rather than expecting it. For the (former) Senators, it's guys like Jesse Winchester and Matt Gilroy. They're players who are reaching that point in their career where they're too old to be a prospect, but too young to believe their window of opportunity has fully closed.

There's a difficult decision to be made for these players right now, and one that gets harder with each passing day. If they don't get a one-way NHL contract -- and the time that's passed suggests that might be the case -- what route should they take? Do they opt for a two-way deal with an NHL club and try to earn a job out of training camp? Or do they decide to go overseas and play in Europe?

There are pros and cons to both routes. Sticking in North America gives you the chance to make the team out of training camp, and also keeps you closer to the NHL organization and makes you easily accessible in the case that they need a call up. Unfortunately, you're also making less money and spending a lot more time on buses than you would in Europe.

Europe generally offers players more money, a chance to play in some of the world's great cities, and the kinds of cultural experiences you won't find in Abbotsford or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. On the other hand, you're away from your family and friends, and have to deal with adjusting to this new culture. You're also more or less declaring that you've given up on the NHL, and that your days in the best league in the world are over. Now, that may be a touch over-dramatic -- players do make their way back from Europe to play in the NHL again -- but it's certainly the road less traveled.

When we think of players leaving the NHL, we tend to think of players retiring at the end of a long career. They've decided to hang up their skates because they've hit an age where they don't think that they can perform up to their own high standards, and teams believe their best days are behind them. We tend to forget that most players aren't leaving the NHL by choice, or because they're well past their prime. Some of them are still young and fully capable of playing in the NHL. Some players just don't get another phone call.

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