The Biggest NHL Storylines to Follow During Training Camp
NHL training camps are underway, which means that the storyline machine is ready to kick itself into high gear. Big questions face teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks, and coaches will be looking for answers based on training camp and preseason play.
There's more than just roster spots and starting gigs up for grabs though.
The NHL will be testing hybrid icing during preseason games, and if the results are positive, we could see this change instituted as early as this season. Goaltenders will also be getting used to shorter leg pads in a mild attempt to increase scoring around the league.
Statistics appear courtesy of Hockeydb.com unless otherwise noted.
Taylor Hall Sliding to Center
According to Yahoo!'s player stat page for Taylor Hall, the Edmonton Oilers wunderkind took all of 53 faceoffs in 2013. He won 29 of them while losing 24. Hall could be entering the faceoff circle with increased frequency through the first month of the regular season, though, as new head coach Dallas Eakins looks for ways to ease the loss of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
With outlets such as NHL.com reporting that usual No. 1 center Nugent-Hopkins could miss the entire month of October after taking the surgery route to repair a consistently ailing left shoulder, Eakins is turning to Hall to fill the void down the middle.
Oilers Now recently conducted an interview with Hall, and the usual left-winger revealed that he had been instructed to work on his draws during the offseason.
I have been told to be prepared to play center at the start of the year... I've been told to kind of work on my faceoffs and just maybe be prepared to play center for the first four or five games, which is fine by me. I've always taken the side that if the coach wants me to play center, then I will.
No team in the NHL lost more faceoffs in 2013 than the Oilers according to NHL.com, which very much hurts an offensive-minded squad full of gunners like Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov.
While watching Hall's shift to center will be fun to watch during the preseason, it's unlikely he ends up performing worse in the circle than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who pulled down a .410 faceoff win percentage last season, according to Yahoo!.
Brandon Pirri Moves from the AHL to Top-Six NHL Forward
After three full seasons in the AHL, the 59th overall selection from the 2009 draft is ready to make his debut as a full-time NHL player. Brandon Pirri has been with the Rockford IceHogs since the 2010-11 season, and his point total has improved every year.
In fact, no one in the AHL scored more points than Pirri last season.
With the Chicago Blackhawks in search of a new No. 2 center, Pirri's breakout year couldn't have come at a better time. While Calder Trophy-finalist Brandon Saad will get a crack at the spot, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, no one would be surprised to see Pirri win the job by the end of training camp.
Pirri can dish the puck—there's no doubt about his ability to distribute at a high level. With Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp as the likely wings on the second line, passing will be at a premium. The young center posted a whopping 53 assists last season, but he's improved defensively as well.
It could be that aspect of his game that puts him ahead of Saad in the race to be the No. 2 center for the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Blackhawks assistant General Manager Norm Maciver recently spoke to ESPN about Pirri and how he's developed his two-way game in the AHL with Rockford:
When he first got [to Rockford], he was a very offensive player and we needed to round out his game. And I think the coaching staff [at Rockford] has done a real nice job the last couple seasons in terms of rounding his game and [making him] more of a two-way center.
The battle between Saad and Pirri for the top-six role will be one of the more engaging elements of the preseason for Chicago fans.
Patrick Roy's First Camp as Coach of the Colorado Avalanche
In case you were wondering exactly what kind of training camp Patrick Roy was going to run, Day 1 was a good indicator.
As per Adrian Dater of the Denver Post:
Patrick Roy stopped practice several times Thursday. At one point, he loudly summed up what happens when defensemen stand around in front of the net in odd-numbered situations.
"Useless," Roy boomed to onlooking Avalanche players and fans in the stands of Family Sports Center.
That should get the legs going.
It's little surprise that Roy was emphasizing defensive coverage during the first day of training camp. According to NHL.com, only three teams in the NHL gave up more than Colorado's average of 3.12 goals-against per game.
While Roy was aggressive during his first training session, he was also quick to praise and had some interesting comments about his general approach to coaching afterwards. As per Darter's article:
It's a team thing. You don't want the player to think he's the only one doing something wrong; you want the entire team to understand what we are looking for. I don't want to necessarily be the head coach of this team. I want to be their partners. I want to have an exchange with them, and feel they can have an open conversation with me on anything that we're going to do.
As training camp goes on, it will be interesting to see how the usually short-fused and ultra-competitive Roy handles his team.
The Seguin and Benn Connection
Jim Nill's reign as the general manager of the Dallas Stars hasn't been either quiet or passive. Coming out of the Detroit Red Wings organization as a highly touted and sought-after GM, Nill knew that strength down the middle was a must for teams looking to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Or in the case of the Stars, teams just looking to make it back to the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade.
Nill aggressively sought to upgrade the center position and did so in a flurry of action across a 24-hour period. While adding Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley was noteworthy, the star of Nill's acquisitions was the talented but belabored Tyler Seguin.
Jamie Benn—a natural wing—spent a lot of time at center in 2013 and Nill wanted to change that. He brought in Seguin strictly to play with the bruising winger. Dallas Stars Inside Edge asked the GM if he had acquired the young pivot to play with Benn. Benn said, "That's correct. We're looking for someone who can play with [Jamie] Benn. It's a position we wanted to fill, it's a natural position for Tyler and he’s looking forward to playing it."
So forget everything you think you know about Seguin as a wing and Benn as a center. Things in Dallas are turning around, and the Seguin and Benn connection is only the beginning.
John Tortorella in Vancouver
It's breaking news to no one that John Tortorella had a troubled relationship with the media in New York while he coached the Rangers. What many pundits forget was how outstanding the coach was with the media while he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Somewhere between those two versions of Torts is likely where he'll fall as the new head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
Try as he may to stay dry, Tortorella has already made waves with several statements. Before he'd even had his first session with the team, he commented on what he'd be expecting from Daniel and Henrik Sedin for the upcoming season. Recently, he had this to say to NHL.com regarding his star players and shot blocking:
It’s about little things, protecting a puck, eating a puck on the wall when you can’t get it out instead of turning it over. Those are all little details we'll go over and I think that’s how you develop it. Blocking shots, I know that just lights a fire — you just play defense because you block shots — but blocking shots develops a culture, and when you have a Sedin blocking a shot, watch what the bench does. It's 10-feet tall. All those little things help develop who you are as a team.
Fair enough, but as Harrison Mooney of The Vancouver Sun points out, blocking shots isn't exactly what the Sedins are known for. The author did a little quick math and came up with the following result:
In total during Alain Vigneault era, the Sedins have blocked just 189 shots over seven regular seasons (Henrik 106, Daniel 83); for comparison, Ryan Kesler blocked 188 shots, just one fewer, in his last two seasons alone. In other words, it’s not really the Sedins’ thing.
How the star forwards respond to the new coach's demands will not only be the defining story of the preseason for Vancouver, but the season as a whole.
Veterans on PTO Contracts
With the salary cap sinking to $64.3 million this season, it shouldn't surprise anyone that a lot of aging veterans have had a problem finding both money and opportunities with NHL teams as free agents. There's no jobs and a lack of cash to go around, which has created the perfect storm of inopportunity for the likes of Ryan Whitney, Radek Dvorak and Mathieu Garon.
All three of those veterans have accepted PTOs—or professional tryout contracts—in an attempt to secure a job (any job) with a professional team. They are hardly alone, however.
According to CBS Sports, the Florida Panthers have extended PTOs to both Tim Thomas and Ilya Bryzgalov. The former was considered one of the best goaltenders in the world two seasons ago. The latter was considered the end-all-be-all to the goaltending woes of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Now neither can find work in the NHL.
The same goes for Vaclav Prospal, who led the Columbus Blue Jackets in scoring last season. Ditto for Brendan Morrow, who was a prized trade deadline pickup only a few months ago.
It's a tough time to be a veteran in the NHL, and more PTOs are likely to materialize as the preseason wears on and early injuries occur. Ron Hainsey couldn't find an open spot until the Carolina Hurricanes found out that Joni Pitkanen was going to miss the year, as per various outlets such as USA Today.
Carolina quickly signed the veteran defender to a one-year deal though. From the official site of the Hurricanes:
Ron is an experienced, two-way defenseman. He was very interested in joining our team this summer, and was patient as we waited for updated information about Joni Pitkanen’s injury. We are happy to be able to solidify our defense with a player of this caliber at this stage.
Hainsey is one of the lucky ones, as several longtime professionals are still out of work.
Testing of Hybrid Icing
If that video doesn't make you cringe, nothing will.
Joni Pitkanen will miss this entire season due to this particular injury according to NHL.com, which was suffered during a race for the puck on an icing play. Since the Carolina Hurricane broke his heel here, the talk of hybrid icing has intensified.
The league acted with haste to try and prevent these devastating injuries, and will test the new icing rule during the preseason. As per a report from USA Today:
The NHL will test a potential new icing rule during preseason games. If the defending player reaches the faceoff dot before the offensive player on an icing play, the whistle will be blown. If it appears the attacking player can reach the puck first, the referee will allow the race to the puck to continue. The rule could be adopted in the regular season if testing goes well.
The AHL tried the icing rule for 564 games according to an NHL.com report, but the test was discontinued in January of this year so that players going between the AHL and NHL could play under a uniform rule book.
Toronto's Goaltending Battle
Taking up the mantle that Chris Osgood left behind as the goaltender who can't get any respect in the NHL, James Reimer must once again prove that he is the No. 1 goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs after the team traded for Jonathan Bernier.
Reimer expressed confusion after Toronto made the deal, telling Slam Sports, "I was a little surprised when I heard about the deal. There had been talk about bringing in a veteran. But to bring in someone of a similar age, well, obviously they have their reasons."
If the 25-year-old netminder is aggravated, no one can blame him. He was arguably the main reason that Toronto made a playoff appearance for the first time since 2005, posting an immaculate .924 save percentage and a solid GAA of 2.46.
Reimer is no stranger to this sort of adversity. He just believed he had put it all behind him with an outstanding 2013 campaign. Back in 2011, he suffered an awful concussion after Brian Gionta elbowed him in the head.
He bounced back from that to secure the starting job, only to be bombarded with lines of questioning surrounding management's desire to bring in a veteran like Roberto Luongo or Miikka Kiprusoff. Neither of those deals materialized at the deadline, and then suddenly Reimer was put on blast when Bernier was brought to town.
To what, push the incumbent to new heights? No position battle will have quite the same feel to it as the off-put Reimer tries to prove once and for all that he can be the man for Toronto.
Who Will Score for the Columbus Blue Jackets?
The Columbus Blue Jackets made a surprising push to the playoffs in 2013 on the back of incredible play from Sergei Bobrovsky. It's likely the goaltender will come back to earth a bit this season, so he's going to need a bit more offensive support than the Jackets managed last year.
Columbus was the fifth-worst offensive team in the NHL according the the league's official site. If the upstart Jackets hope to make another run toward the postseason, they'll need more goals from their young players.
Cam Atkinson is undersized but capable of putting up strong numbers. He was an elite goal scorer while playing in the college ranks, and he posted some outstanding goal totals in the AHL as well. In 89 AHL contests with the Springfield Falcons, Atkinson notched 49 goals.
Not too shabby.
Matt Calvert could also start pitching in more in the offensive end, and Ryan Johansen—the 4th overall selection in 2010—is finally starting to fill out his 6'3" frame.
Then there's Marian Gaborik, who will likely be motivated by his expiring contract to fill up the nets.
The top six in Columbus isn't set in stone, and strong training camps from the likes of Atkinson and Calvert could go a long way toward cementing their increased roles with the club.
Goalies Getting Used to Smaller Leg Pads
Goalies will be paying a bit more attention than usual during training camps this year. They have a bit of an equipment adjustment to deal with. As per NHL.com:
The previous rule, instituted prior to the 2010-11 season, was that a goalie's leg pads could not go higher on his leg than 55 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. So if a goalie's upper-leg measurement was 20 inches, which is roughly the average number in the NHL, the pad could not go higher than 11 inches above the center of his knee.
That number will now be 45 percent, so the same goalie will be able to wear a pad that goes no higher than 9 inches above his knee.
Will this small but noticeable change bolster scoring around the league?
The idea is to create more space for shooters to go five-hole—an area that has been all but sealed off totally as more goaltenders lean toward the butterfly style.
Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks spoke to Pro Hockey Talk about the changes earlier this summer:
They feel a little bit shorter, yeah, but it’s not too much of a big change. I'm sure there will be a bit of an adjustment period, but it’s something I've gone through and the other goalies have gone through before.
I just hope it’s not something that leads to injuries. With a shorter pad, hopefully we'll have a good limit for knee pads so guys don’t get hurt.
Longtime NHL goaltender J.S. Giguere was a bit more candid in his response to the new rule:
Coaches and GMs, you guys want that, you've been asking for more goals [through the] five hole. So if your goalie gives up a goal five hole, you need to take a breath and remember that you asked for it.
Fair enough Giggy. We'll get our first idea of how the pad reduction impacts scoring during the preseason, so it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.