Canton’s Wisniewski could be NHL-bound after Olympics

Stephen Whyno
Associated Press

Pyeongchang, South Korea — The next flights Brian Gionta and James Wisniewski take could land them back in the NHL.

As the longtime NHL veterans try to win a medal for the United States at the Olympics, their agents are talking to teams about getting them contracts once the tournament is over. Gionta and Wisniewski will have about a day and a half to sign between the end of the Olympics and the deadline to be eligible for the playoffs. They are ready to jump back in.

“If somebody wanted me, I’m ready to go,” Wisniewski said Monday. “Hopefully I can come out here and have a great Olympics. It’s not like I’m going to be expensive. You don’t have to give up future considerations. I’ve played in the highest level for over a decade and now playing in the Olympics, so it’s not like I haven’t been playing good, competitive hockey.”

Not far removed from the NHL, Gionta and Wisniewski are drawing interest to sign for the rest of this season. Gionta could give a contending team some scoring in a top-nine role on right wing, and Wisniewski is a right-shooting power-play defenseman who, correctly, would come cheap.

“Gio, he looks like hasn’t missed a beat,” forward Brian O’Neill said. “He hasn’t played that much hockey this year, but he looks as sharp as ever. It’s a testament to their work ethic, and it’s not a coincidence they’ve had such great careers. They take their health, their fitness, extremely important and they’re ready to go and James Wisniewski’s in the same boat as Gionta. … I’m sure they’ll have a couple of offers once the Olympics are over.”

Gionta played the most recent of his 15 seasons in 2016-17 and has been practicing with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans. Wisniewski was limited to 15 NHL games since March 2015 because of knee injuries and has since played in the minors, Russia and Germany.

Neither player feels ready to call it a career, and neither looks finished. Wisniewski might not have the burst of his youth, but coach Tony Granato said the 33-year-old “can still shoot it,” and the 39-year-old Gionta is zipping around in practice with the U.S. college kids.

“He looks pretty young,” 21-year-old forward Ryan Donato said. “He’s one of those guys that although he may have a lot of NHL experience and played in the league for a long time and played with my dad even, he’s one of those guys that always keeps the energy up and is flying around during practice and probably is one of the guys that’s still in the best shape out of all of us, too.”

Gionta feels fresh and in game shape after playing in the pre-Olympic Deutschland Cup in November and one game for Rochester. The U.S. captain has been planning for the Olympics since the summer but has spoken with agent Steve Bartlett to prepare for the tight turnaround to try to get something done before the afternoon of Feb. 26.

“We have been in touch with a few teams that have expressed interest, but they know my main focus is over here and we’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it after the tournament’s over,” Gionta said. “This is the focus now, and when this is over, I’ll look to that.”

Wisniewski has been looking to get back since the Carolina Hurricanes bought him out in the summer of 2016. Three ACL tears in his right knee and most recently one in his left knee slowed Wisniewski but didn’t stop him, and he said playing in Germany and preparing for the Olympics brought back his passion for the game.

“Finally it paid off,” Wisniewski said. “If I would’ve had to hang ‘em up on that, it would’ve been pretty disappointing, but now it’s a dream come true for me.”

As Wisniewski lives out the dream of being an Olympian, he certainly sees it as a showcase for NHL scouts and has thought about what the 36 hours after the final could be like.

“Hopefully we’re playing for the gold medal and then what a better way than to sign another NHL contract,” Wisniewski said. “It’s really up to me. I’ve got to show that I can play and catch somebody’s eye.”