School is nearly back in session for NHL teams.
The majority of training camps open Friday and there’s no shortage of excitement to be found around the league. Believe it or not, there might not be any team more anxious to get back at it than the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“It’s kind of like school – every kid will tell you he doesn’t like school and yet every kid’s dying to go because they want to see their friends,” Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told The Canadian Press in an interview. “The greatest thing about hockey besides the game is the interaction between the guys.
“I can tell you our guys are all excited.”
Four teams broke camp earlier this week while a couple others will get going on Saturday.
The Red Wings and everyone else open Friday. Detroit will spend the first five days in Traverse City, Mich., before the start of its pre-season schedule.
In the past, teams reaching the Stanley Cup final were left with an extremely short summer. That isn’t really the case for the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins thanks in part to training camps starting a week later this season.
Detroit’s championship team returns virtually unchanged. Additions include Marian Hossa and Ty Conklin while Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake have gone off into retirement.
Even still, Babcock will have some decisions to make in the coming weeks because the team has a glut of players at each position who are eager to take on more of a role.
“Our camp is going to be just like normal,” he said. “We’re going to go there and create normalcy and we’re going to have good battles for jobs.”
There really aren’t any openings on a Montreal Canadiens team that finished first in the Eastern Conference last season and added Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque over the summer.
Instead, one of the main things coach Guy Carbonneau hopes to accomplish at camp is helping his team try and manage expectations.
There is already no shortage of those for a franchise hoping to win a 25th championship during its centennial season. Carbonneau expects his players to be feeling it from the get-go.
“There’s always nervousness I think when you start every season,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you had success or not (the year before) – nobody wants to have a bad season.
“We made a lot of strides last year, I think we improved a lot. We made some great transactions this summer to help our team and to improve our team, so I think everybody’s anxious to start to prove that last year was not a fluke.”
They enter training camp with the unofficial title of Canada’s best team. Of course, the Ottawa Senators are hoping some off-season changes will get them back to that level and the Calgary Flames look like a good bet to make the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
The Edmonton Oilers are on the rise and should also challenge for a post-season spot while fans in Vancouver and Toronto hope that their teams will perform better than many are predicting.
At this time of year, rightly or wrongly, there is hope to be found in all 30 NHL cities.
Take Columbus, for example. The Blue Jackets enter their eighth season with as many playoff appearances (zero) as any expansion team, but an off-season of changes has coach Ken Hitchcock hoping that’s about to change.
He’s been “antsy” for a few days to get working with the many new faces on his team.
“Mentally and physically, our team is really ready to go,” said Hitchcock. “I’m sure a lot of other teams feel like that, but we’re the unknown team.
“When you change as much of our roster as we’ve changed, we really are the unknown team here in the West. I don’t think anybody really knows what we have right now – we’re probably the only ones who have some type of idea.”
Hitchcock expects R.J. Umberger to give his forward unit a boost and is “excited and curious” to see how defencemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman fit in.
It’s probably a good thing that Tampa was one of the teams to get an early start on training camp this week because coach Barry Melrose has a lot of new pieces to slot into his lineup. The team has been almost completely overhauled since owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules took the helm in June.
One of the few remaining constants is Vincent Lecavalier, who has been given back the captaincy he first held for parts of two seasons between 1999 and 2001. He thinks the NHL’s worst team from a season ago is ready to make strides.
“We had a tough last season and I don’t think we were a 30th-place team, but we have to bring everything back to basics and go from there,” Lecavalier told reporters in Tampa. “I will do my best to do that.”
Some teams already have injury concerns.
The St. Louis Blues announced Thursday that defenceman Erik Johnson will miss the first weekend of camp with a right knee injury, the Dallas Stars say blue-liners Sergei Zubov (four weeks, hip) and Philippe Boucher (day-to-day, foot) are on the mend, and the Carolina Hurricanes open camp without top forwards Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams.
Brind’Amour is expected to be back before the start of the regular season but Williams will miss as much as six months while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
The Hurricanes had hoped Williams would return to the form that saw him twice score 30 goals and will now be looking to guys like Chad LaRose, Ryan Bayda and maybe even Jeff O’Neill – who is at camp on a tryout – to step up.
“It sets us back a little bit,” said Carolina GM Jim Rutherford. “You can’t replace a player like Justin, but when you’re starting out right from camp it certainly gives somebody another opportunity.”
What the Red Wings want more than anything is the chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The franchise is already the class of the current generation, with four titles in the past 11 years and a string of 17 straight seasons with a winning record. The Wings are hungry for more, too.
“With our team, we’re getting prepared and we’re just going to re-establish our work ethic and our structure and our foundation at training camp,” said Babcock. “Our guys are pumped up and ready to go.
“A whole bunch of them said to me: ‘Enough of this stuff, let’s get playing.”‘
Babcock has been thinking the same thing for quite some time.
He spent more than seven weeks at his lake home in Saskatchewan this summer and had plenty of opportunity to look to the future. Last season’s championship is already far from his mind.
“The greatest thing for me is that I had the Cup in July,” said Babcock. “So you got be with it, it left, and let’s get on with it.
“Let’s get on with trying to win it again.”