The onset of cooler weather is a sure reminder that the NHL preseason is upon us. As players return from their favorite destinations around the world to their respective team's home city, the anticipation begins mounting for the upcoming season.
For die-hard hockey fans, it's a welcome respite from the hum-drum activities of the warmer months that are hardly as exciting to follow as the almighty puck on the ice. Baseball has its rightful place in sports and has its fair share of die-hard fans, but going from hockey season to baseball season is akin to changing from the express lane on the freeway to the geriatric lane.
While it may be easy to dismiss the NHL training camp and preseason as a relatively immaterial event, I would submit that it actually has a value-added role to play as a part of the overall season.
So, here are 11 reasons preseason games are important to every team.
The offseason is a time for players to do the three Rs: Rest the body, renew the mind and reconnect with friends and loved ones.
This much-needed break begins immediately following six months of a brutal season. They end up skating hundreds of minutes on the ice, logging thousands of miles of air travel and sleeping in a countless number of strange hotel beds.
As time approaches for the opening of training camp and the preseason games get rolling, we find out very quickly who is out of shape and sluggish. Did they add an extra "R" to the "three R's," such as "reward thyself daily with all-you-can-eat baklava"? Needless to say, that extra "R" will need to be shed in preparation for the regular season.
Alexander Ovechkin: Are you ready to give up baklava and get in shape?
Every team tries to load up on new talent during the offseason, hoping to fill the gaps that were so apparent previously. Millions of dollars in lucrative contracts are offered to top-caliber players from other teams who have been traded for one reason or another.
Wishful thinking prevails as each team thinks it has brought in new blood that will automatically solve all the problems of the past. If this were true even half the time, it would make for a decent return on investment.
Brad Richards: Welcome to the Big Apple. Can your performance top Broadway?
When a season goes down the tubes, blame is quick to go around the franchise. It is not unusual for star players to get an earful for falling short of lofty expectations. Goaltenders get no mercy for losing performances that become a pattern. General managers take it on the chin for poor draft choices or lack of effective trades to bring in players.
However, there is one position that gets more heat than any other and that is the position of head coach. The buck stops with the head coach when things get squirly in the win-loss columns whilst getting barely any credit for fielding winning teams.
As such, the "revolving door" practice of hiring and firing coaches remains a mainstay in the NHL. Anticipation crescendos when a coach gets axed and new one is ushered in. Then the excitement builds over the new coaching staff and optimism bristles in the air at preseason games and into the regular season.
Coach Paul DeBoer: Welcome to Jersey where hockey is taken a lot more seriously compared to the land of white sand and palm trees!
Los Angeles Kings
All the wheeling and dealing to acquire "just the right players" in an effort to improve the results on the ice can be for naught if there is no team chemistry. Boys have to be able play nice in the sandbox with one another and on the ice, too.
The diametrically opposite terms "selfish" and "selfless" take on a new meaning as players jostle for playing time, scoring opportunities and seeking attention. Are personal statistics or team statistics more important? A glimpse of what is to come in the regular season is revealed in the preseason games.
Los Angeles Kings: So, you think a Hollywood-style makeover with an infusion of new players will net you the Stanley Cup, huh?
The time-tested recipe of drafting and developing young prospects over a period of time has arguably yielded the surest route to high-caliber players in the NHL. This remains a staple for most teams for developing the players of tomorrow.
Yet general managers sometimes get the temptation to trade high draft picks for already developed and proven talent so as to get immediate results. However, this comes during desperate times and at a very high price. This practice is not sustainable over the long haul and can only be called upon once in a blue moon.
The preseason helps flesh out prospects that will make the fancy big-league team versus heading back to a much more modest environment consisting of marathon bus rides instead of luxurious jet travel.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: So, you think you're ready to play for the Edmonton Oilers, eh?
A team's chances of winning a game or a championship are directly tied to the talent between the pipes. The goaltender's position is undoubtedly one of the top positions to sure up if a team is to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup.
Some GMs subscribe to this theory wholeheartedly and are willing to pay an extremely steep price for a proven and talented goaltender. Others relegate the goaltender position on their list of priorities in favor of other positions. The preseason reveals which approach is going to work or not work for that matter.
Ilya Bryzgalov: Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love where the love is conditionally tied to your performance!
When a team has a man advantage on the ice, there should be hardly any excuses for not converting and scoring power-play goals at least one-third of the time. Successful teams over the years have been opportunistic in this regard and virtually stolen games from seemingly better teams five-on-five.
The preseason gives targeted players a chance to quarterback power plays and make a statement. Due to the relative infrequency of power plays, the chemistry and teamwork of players is constantly tested.
Vancouver Canucks: In case you didn't get the memo last season, power-play goals do count in the playoffs, so don't let your foot off the gas pedal too soon!
If there is ever a time to test a team's physical conditioning, it's with a man short on the ice. The penalty-killing unit can be seen huffing and puffing as they try to stymie the other team's power play unit.
The preseason reveals much in the way of a team's capability as a penalty killing unit with respect to coordination, communication and execution.
Montreal Canadiens: Thank you for perfecting the art of penalty killing in the playoffs last season. Encore, s'il vous plait?
The blue-liners of a team have the undulating task of protecting their goaltender and keeping the puck as far away from their goal as possible. Offensively gifted defensemen are able to contribute to goals scored by their team and also act as stalwarts in their own zone.
Action during the preseason helps ferret out which defensive pair is the best together and what their capabilities are in relation to the opposition's strengths.
Nicklas Lidstrom: Yes, sir! No one dare cross your blue-line! Hear you loud and clear!
Without a decent offense, a team will sputter, especially if the goaltender is uninitiated. The intriguing thing to watch in the preseason games are the much-anticipated lines that are purportedly "perfect" on paper. While coaches have deliberated for many days and weeks regarding the make up of their lines, it only takes a few minutes to blow that up and start tweaking the lines.
Players get shuffled from one line to another and sometimes from wing to center and vice versa as they oblige grudgingly to playing "musical chairs."
Corey Perry: Congratulations! What's next? Score more goals and win more trophies?
A random Detroit Red Wings fan
The No. 1 reason preseason hockey is important is because each team has a civic duty to mercifully rescue die-hard fans out of "hockey purgatory" that we are subjected to during the ghastly offseason.
Without hockey, it seems as though the earth stops turning and time comes to a stand still. The sight, sound and feel on the eve of the preseason can literally resuscitate die-hard fans back to life.
Fellow die-hard fans: I need a good survival kit for the offseason. If you have any ideas, let me know!
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