“That’s our goal and I think it’s realistic,” Penguins defenceman Darryl Sydor told The Canadian Press.
A year ago the Penguins opened camp with the modest goal of challenging for a playoff spot after finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference the season before. On Thursday, camp opens in Pittsburgh with much loftier aspirations after last season’s 47-point improvement in the standings, the fourth largest single-season turnaround in NHL history.
Sydor, Pittsburgh’s most important off-season addition, knows he’s catching on with a team on the rise.
“I feel fortunate to get thrown into a situation like this where I think we have a great opportunity to win,” said Sydor, already a Cup winner with Dallas and Tampa Bay. “Obviously the youth and the talent is here and the knowledge of where this team wants to go, it’s very exciting.
“It’s my 16th year in the NHL and I’m still nervous going into training camp.”
The puck will actually drop for the NHL’s first pre-season game as well on Thursday night, when the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks host the rival Los Angeles Kings.
The two southern California clubs got a jump on the rest of the league by opening camp earlier this week in preparation for their two regular-season games Sept. 29-30 in London, England.
For the Ducks, Thursday’s pre-season game is the first of seven over an 11-day period leading up to London.
“Is it ideal for preparation? Probably not,” Ducks GM Brian Burke said of the trip overseas. “Could you do without the fatigue of coming back? Probably. But unless some teams answer that call, then we don’t get to play these games. It’s a chance for us to market our game internationally. To me it’s a no-brainer.
“The inconvenience or difficulties it poses for your team, you’ve got to find a way to get over those.”
Up the highway from Anaheim in San Jose, the Sharks open camp Thursday feeling like this could be their year.
“This is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been in the league,” said star centre Joe Thornton. “I’m so excited. I’m 28 now and I’m ready to win and ready to do it all. I’ve been waiting for this day now for three months now. I’m just really really excited and pumped up.”
They’re not talking Cup in Washington and Chicago but there’s finally some buzz in those cities on the eve of camp.
The Capitals are a sleeper pick by many to make some hay this year. The additions of top centre Michael Nylander, defenceman Tom Poti and forward Viktor Kozlov via free agency plus the arrival of highly touted rookie forward Nicklas Backstrom bolsters a Caps team with a young and emerging core led by Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, not to mention the top-notch goaltending of Olaf Kolzig.
“I think Washington could be a darkhorse team that could get into the playoffs,” said Senators top centre Jason Spezza. “They made some good acquisitions in the off-season and they had a pretty good base of young guys so they could be kind of a team that might sneak up and make the playoffs.”
In Chicago, a youth movement led by highly touted youngsters Jonathan Toews and Jack Skille and 2007 first overall pick Patrick Kane has the Blackhawks believing they’re on the right track. Star winger Martin Havlat has been skating with the Blackhawks for the past couple days and feels the enthusiasm.
“I just got back on Friday and the feeling of the guys is pretty good,” said Havlat. “Already the look of the team is much different than we had last year.
“We’re excited to get going.”
In Columbus, head coach Ken Hitchcock opens his first camp with the Blue Jackets on Thursday after taking over the team 20 games into last season. Being there from Day 1 at camp is no small factor.
“It’s huge,” Hitchcock said.
It means being able to start from scratch on the systems Hitchcock wants to implement as well as lay out his expectations for the different players on his team in one-on-one meetings.
“Our biggest challenge right now is that no one in the National Hockey League – including us – knows what our team is,” said Hitchcock. “The reason was that we had significant people out for an extended period of time. All those people are healthy and going at it now.”
Hope abounds at this time of year. Good or bad, every team looks at the positive until the losses start piling up in October.
“I think every team right now is sitting here anxiously awaiting training camp hoping they’re a playoff team,” Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said on a recent conference call. “I’d like to believe we can compete for a playoff spot. But that’s why we play these games. We have 82 games coming up. …
“I think the league, with the new rules package, with free agency as it is right now, you just never know. I think it’s very, very evenly balanced. Parity is here. It’s probably here to stay.”