The NHL pre-season provides its fans with the ultimate in mixed emotions. Sure, we’re all happy that hockey has started up again in earnest, but it also marks the start of a 19-day period of meaningless hockey before the puck drops for realsies. And after already having gone without hockey for three months, that’s one forced march that can sometimes seem to take forever.
Between last Friday and Oct. 3, the NHL will have played a total of 111 of them from Shanghai to O’Leary, PEI. And that doesn’t even include all the rookie tournament games that took place prior to that. The vast majority of them won’t mean a lick, aside from giving a lot of young men who will never appear in an NHL game the opportunity to say they wore a big-league sweater. But it’s apparently one of those necessary evils, or at least the teams that make these boondoggles part of their season-ticket packages would have all of us believe.
With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to set down some ground rules and boundaries for watching these affairs. So, in the spirit of service, here is THN’s Guide to Watching Pre-Season Hockey:
1. If anyone asks you to pay more than $25 for a ticket to a pre-season game, laugh at that person and walk away. If that person asks for anything remotely approaching face value, you might want to inquire about his or her state of mind. If you are offered a free ticket, you might want to bargain with the seller to have him/her chip in for your parking, gas to the game and concessions.
2. It’s OK to get a little excited about how rookies play in these games. So when Jesperi Kotkaniemi sends a teammate in alone with a no-look backhand pass, then follows that up by scoring on one knee on a one-timer, as he did in his pre-season debut against a New Jersey Devils’ split squad Monday night, that’s a good thing. Kotkaniemi played to mixed reviews in the Canadiens rookie tournament and it was important for him to show the people in Montreal what he is capable of doing on a bigger stage. Remember, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin took a risk in selecting Kotkaniemi third overall and in a market like Montreal, it’s always good to allay those concerns early.
3. It would not be wise too get too worked up about the performance of minor league players. When I was at the Toronto Star in the late 1990s and early 2000s covering the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Leafs has a prospect by the name of Donald MacLean. Great kid, worked hard, had a wonderful attitude. For three years straight, he came in and lit it up during the pre-season. His performances would inspire headlines such as, “Starry, Starry night for MacLean” and make fans think that maybe this would be the year he would break through and make the team. Alas, MacLean played a total of 41 games for the Los Angeles Kings, the Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes before finishing his career in Europe. By the time his career ended, he had played for a total of 19 professional teams.
4. William Nylander is not, repeat not, holding out. Nor is Miles Wood in New Jersey, Sam Reinhart in Buffalo, Nick Ritchie in Anaheim and Shea Theodore in Vegas. A holdout is when a player has a valid contract and refuses to honor it. All five of these players are restricted free agents without contracts, and therefore have absolutely zero contractual obligation to report to camp or play in any pre-season games. They also have the right to ask for whatever amount of money and term they believe they are worth, just as teams have every right not to give it to them. These are players stuck in a netherworld. With no arbitration rights, they are basically at the mercy of the team that holds their rights and their only form of leverage is not to report to camp.
5. Put zero, repeat zero, stock in wins and losses. For young players, the pre-season is all about making an impression. For veteran players, the main goal is to avoid injury and not put on too many miles that might catch up to them later in the season. Coaches are trying to implement systems and they’re willing to watch players make mistakes that lead to goals if it provides a teachable moment. There is absolutely zero correlation between a team’s performance in these September games and how it will do in the regular season.
6. Try to stay patient. October is coming.