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Thursday, December 4, 2008
Meet the Limbo Club -- players without a team, fighting against the clock

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

Yanic Perreault
Last season, Yanic Perreault led the league in faceoff win percentage. Now, he's without a team.
When Mark Parrish signed on with the Dallas Stars last month, the Limbo Club lost a member.

Limbo as in veteran players who remain without an NHL job, the likes of Yanic Perreault, Bryan Smolinski, Jocelyn Thibault, Glen Murray, Kevyn Adams, Martin Lapointe and Dan Cloutier -- brand names that got lost in the shuffle this past offseason.

They are the victims of a postlockout NHL that is growing younger and younger, victims of a salary-cap system in which teams have difficulty finding money for these types of veterans. It's like musical chairs -- when the music stops, not everyone will find a seat.

Parrish finally got back in by agreeing to a bargain-basement deal worth $500,000 for one season. The rest of the Limbo Club waits by the phone.

"I think the philosophy around the league is changing towards youth," Perreault, 37, told ESPN.com this week. "It depends on the team. Some don't want many veterans; others try to have a good mix. You have to find a place where you're a good fit."

So Perreault keeps working out and skating every day, hoping for a call from an NHL team.

Oh, sure, they could have been playing somewhere by now, just not in the NHL. They could have followed others overseas but chose not to.

Bryan Berard went to Russia, Martin Gelinas and Curtis Brown to Switzerland, Mike Johnson and Jon Klemm to Germany, Martin Rucinsky back home to the Czech Republic and Alexei Zhitnik to his native Russia.

There also have been two-way offers for some of these players: Start in the AHL, and we'll call you up, maybe.

"Some teams called, but the AHL definitely doesn't interest me," Thibault said. "I'm also thinking about my family. I don't want to live out of a suitcase. I've got three girls in school here [in Magog, Quebec]. If the offer is right, I'll definitely take a look at it, but I'm not interested in a two-way or things like that. I'm a little more selective of what I'd accept."

But as the calendar turned to December this week, the players' hopes took a bit of a hit.

"As you get into December, the chances get slimmer," Smolinski said. "You always hope, but that light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting a little smaller."

Here's a closer look at some members of the Limbo Club:

Kevyn Adams
After playing with the Blackhawks last season, Kevyn Adams still lives in Chicago with his wife and three kids.
The faceoff man
Yanic Perreault, a veteran of 14 NHL seasons, is biding his time in Magog, the same place as Jocelyn Thibault. In fact, both often practice together.

Perreault is far from bored.

"You won't get bored with four kids," he said with a laugh. "I'm certainly busy with the family, and that's enjoyable.

"I will tell you the break has done me good both mentally and physically in terms of recharging my batteries and being home with my family. That's the positive of the situation."

In the meantime, he's keeping fit.

"I'm skating four to five times a week, and I'm definitely in shape," he said. "We'll see what happens. Slowly but surely, some teams seem to be looking around and maybe realize they need a player. If there's an opportunity, we'll be ready."

Just two seasons ago, Perreault was skating in the NHL All-Star Game in Dallas. Now, he's looking for work. But he insists he's not bitter and hasn't given up hope just yet.

Last season, Perreault led the league in faceoff win percentage (64.33 percent) for the eighth consecutive season. One would think at least one NHL team could use that skill.

"Faceoffs are about puck possession, and that's important," said Perreault, who has 516 points in 859 NHL games. "And this year, there's also the rule that, at the start of a power play, the faceoff is always in the offensive zone. Faceoffs may be even more important now, and I think that's an aspect of the game I can bring to a team."

Perreault wants back in. Truth be told, he can still help a team.

The checker
Kevyn Adams, 34, still lives in Chicago with his wife and three kids. That's because, until the day before the roster was set this season, the Buffalo native thought he'd be back with the Blackhawks.

"Things caught me by surprise a little bit in Chicago because they told me, 'Hang in there, we're dealing with a salary-cap issue. It's going to get done,'" Adams said. "So I had every reason to believe I would get back there, but when they ended up not getting a deal done right before the season started, it kind of caught me by surprise and also put me in a tough spot because it was the last day before the roster was set.

"So, basically, I just decided after that to give it a little time and stay in shape and continue to train like I would have in the offseason, just to see what would happen."

Days became weeks, and still there's no concrete NHL offer.

"Obviously, here we are, the first week of December. Nothing's happened," said Adams, a veteran of 540 NHL games and a Cup champion with Carolina in 2006. "So I'm kind of getting ready to take the next step, what every player has to go through. You have to figure out what that is and how you're going to make everything work. So that's kind of where I am today."

Sounds to us as if Adams is leaning toward retirement.

Jocelyn Thibault
After serving as a backup for the Sabres last season, Jocelyn Thibault has yet to sign with an NHL club in 2008-09.
The goalie
Jocelyn Thibault, 33, lives in Magog (90 minutes east of Montreal) with his wife and three kids. He appears once a week on a French television hockey show in Montreal and has kept in shape in case the phone rings.

"I skate a few times a week and work out for sure," he said. "It's all you can do right now."

The former No. 1 goalie in Montreal and Chicago appeared in only 12 games as a backup last season in Buffalo. Despite his 238 career NHL wins and relative young age, there have been no real takers.

"You start to prepare yourself that maybe you won't get that phone call," Thibault said. "You keep your ears open and you keep working out and you keep in shape, but on the other side of things, I'm not a person that's stuck in the past. I focus on what's ahead. If I get a chance to play again, I'll take it. But if not, we're certainly getting ready for the next step."

Still, given the rash of injuries to NHL goalies this season, namely to New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, it's hard for him not to get his hopes up once in a while.

"You don't wish anything bad on anyone, but obviously, when a goalie gets hurt, suddenly you find yourself pedaling a little harder on the bike," he said. "You keep yourself ready."

He's not going to wait forever.

"I don't want to close any doors," Thibault said. "But here we are in December, and I don't know what the other guys told you, but it's not easy. I don't know if I can wait around like this for another year and a half."

Thibault seems ready for life after hockey, although he's still keeping the door open just a crack.

Bryan Smolinski
Bryan Smolinski may have played his final NHL game last season in Montreal.
The two-way center
Bryan Smolinski lives with his wife and three kids in Birmingham, Mich. The 36-year-old realizes that career regular-season game No. 1,056 last season in Montreal might have been his last in the NHL.

"You always wonder when it's going to come to an end," Smolinski said. "You know, it's bittersweet right now. Bitter for the fact that you're not playing; you miss the trials and tribulations with the fellas. But sweet because you get to relax and be at home and spend quality time with family."

He has not given up. If a team calls in the next few weeks, he's a go. But he had hoped it would happen earlier.

"I gave it a timeline of the 10-12 game mark," Smolinski said. "That's when teams assess what they have and what kind of direction they're going to go in. You always think that phone might ring. I know some guys have gone down to the AHL, but I think those guys are little bit younger."

As with the other guys in his situation, there have been offers of a two-way deal, but that's not terribly appealing to Smolinski.

"I don't think I have the sacrifice in me to leave the family for that," he said. "I don't think it's in my family's interest. I mean, it could happen, you never rule anything out, but I feel I owe it to my family that that doesn't happen."

He knows it might be over.

"To say I'm OK with it, I don't think so," he said. "But it's going to happen sooner or later."

Like Thibault, he'll stay ready for the phone call, but he's also beginning to accept his fate.

The leader
Martin Lapointe, 35, lives in Chicago with his wife and three kids. He was in Mexico on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.

Lapointe, who won two Cups with the Red Wings and played 991 regular-season NHL games, garnered some interest from two NHL teams in the offseason, but nothing ever materialized.

Then, the waiting game began.

"It's always harder by the time you're in December," his agent, Gilles Lupien, told ESPN.com on Thursday. "But he told me Monday he's still working out, so we'll see what happens. We'll keep trying into January."

The injured
  • Glen Murray, 36, lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., with his wife and three children. The veteran of 1,009 regular-season NHL games had ankle surgery Nov. 11, so he's probably out for the rest of this season. But next season?

    "He would like to play, assuming that he can be 100 percent injury-free," his agent, Anton Thun, told ESPN.com. "We are taking a wait-and-see attitude pending his rehabilitation from the ankle surgery."

    In the meantime, the NHL Players' Association has filed a grievance against the Boston Bruins at the request of Murray and Thun. They believe the club did not have the right to buy Murray out of his contract in the summer because they believe he was still injured and unable to play at the time of the buyout.

  • Dan Cloutier, 32, lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, with his wife and infant child. His brother, Sylvain Cloutier, is the coach of the local Central Hockey League team.

    Cloutier, whose best seasons were in Vancouver during his 10-year NHL career, had surgery a month ago to repair a torn labrum in his hip.

    "He hasn't lost the dream," his agent, Roland Thompson, told ESPN.com. "But we'll wait and see what happens in his recovery."

    The NHLPA also has filed a grievance at the request of Cloutier and Thompson against the Los Angeles Kings, charging they were not in a position to buy him out of his contract last summer because he wasn't physically fit to play.

    Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.