This morning was pretty surreal.. Nice chilly morning in Traverse City, Michigan, walking into Centre Ice, getting checked in, and setting up right along outside the half-boards.. Off in the distance you can hear Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson diligently sharpening skates, and you see executives from the team scurry around in final attempts to make sure everything is in order for the Red Wings faithful to file into the bleachers to finally watch their favorite hockey team make steps to starting the new season.
With this year's training camp, we see a lot of the same faces. Some more welcome than others, but with that comes some fresh new faces. New coaching staff, and some camp invites. Head coach Mike Babcock didn't hesitate with his squad, as soon as they took the ice, it was time to get down to business. His drills were high-intensity, and paced to where it was almost a chore to watch at times. I think that's my favorite part about Babcock, his practices move so fast, yet he gets shit done. Period.
The first thing that stood out to me was who was skating together. Pavel Datsyuk was skating with Darren Helm and Tomas Tatar on his wings, which I found to be absolutely brilliant to watch. Pavel's creativity matched with two spark-plug speedsters on the outside has some potential to wreak havoc on any defense in the NHL. Along with that we saw Stephen Weiss centering a line with Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader. This is a big deal mostly because Stephen Weiss is in a desperate situation to bounce-back and become a role player for this team. That role is a solid and consistent second-line center. His line looked very good, I thought. Weiss looks like a guy who is finally healthy, he skated well and hustled hard. Abdelkader looks like he's gotten a bit faster, and is ready to keep improving as far as his offense goes.
"It felt pretty great for being the first controlled scrimmage/game in almost nine months. I feel healthy, I got no pain, and I feel like I'm just gonna keep better and better as long as I can stay healthy."
"This could have effected my whole career, so to rehab this injury over the summer and get back on the ice is huge."
It sounds like Stephen Weiss is well aware of how important he could be to the team, and is positively looking at where he is now, and that the past is the past.
On the other end, seeing Henrik Zetterberg skate with Johan Franzen and Daniel Cleary was something else. Keep in mind, folks, these are just camp lines. They are subject to change, of course. Anyways, Henrik's line looked good. Zetterberg and Franzen had pretty shootout goals during the scrimmage:
Mule looked really good, skated well, showed a lot of flashy moves. It's good to see the guys having fun with each other. It warms my cold, blackened & dead heart. Zetterberg spoke to the media after practice and gave some interesting insight about how things might fare with line combinations, at this point it sounds like anything is possible..
"I don't know if I'm going to end up on center or on the wing, and neither does Helm or Sheahan, but that's a good thing to have.We have a lot of good forwards on this team." "[Cleary] had issues with his knee last year, but he worked hard in the offseason and looks a lot better. I like playing with Danny a lot."
A lot of the drills that were being run by Babcock today seemed to be of the same facet, and that's zone entry and puck management while in each zone. Players spent their time carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, and it is apparent that the team is trying to shake the "dump & chase" mentality.
"[Tatar] Works hard, he competes hard, he has an infectious personality, he makes plays, and he's a good player. We know Pavel and Z are high-end players, but we need more of that. This team is not going to fall off at all, but we could use more top-six forwards, so we're trying to find them and when we do they have to earn it."
Babs was very vocal in that if any prospect is to make the big club off the bat, they'll need to earn it in training camp and exhibition. When I asked if top prospect Anthony Mantha's injury gives other prospects a better chance at making the big club, he replied with a stern "Absolutely not." This goes both ways, for offense and defense. Babcock commented on how he thought defenseman Brendan Smith has really settled down into a solid role with the team, and when asked what helped him get there, Babcock wouldn't give a full-on answer, but he hinted at the fact that he was paired with Niklas Kronwall, and that may have something to do with it.
Coming off of a 3-year contract extension over the summer, forward Tomas Tatar came into today with a different mindset than years past. He knows he's earned his spot, and now he wants to show the team that he can be that top-line winger with electricity in his veins. Tats looks fit, and was carrying the puck with extremely good poise and control all day long. When I asked Tomas about the difference with this year and last year, the obvious point of discussion was the Olympics. "At the start of the year I was kind of afraid because I wasn't playing in the NHL, so I was worried it might affect my Olympic start, but the coaches for my team told me not to worry and that they believed I would get my chance and in the end I did get my chance." Tomas also commented on the fact that it will be his first NHL season where the schedule isn't so packed due to the Lockout or the Olympics. You can tell he is excited to be a Red Wing, and is ready to be a part of the core going forward.
I think a lot of players are excited to have a regular schedule, one that isn't so compacted to fit the Olympics, or meet a 48 game season like we had with the Lockout. I think something like this will help in the long run, especially if the team runs into an injury bug.
As the weekend goes on, I'll try to keep my eye on other players, including the younger ones who will be starting in Grand Rapids. But boy, am I happy hockey season is back. Just watching the team skate again fills you with life. Cheers, friends.