Monday, September 22, 2008

NHL's camping season underway

The physicals have been taken, the rookie games complete and the first few days of full practice are under their belts, so for the NHL's player pool (well those that aren't still actually sitting beside a pool trying to decide if they want to play anymore (hi mats), it's as they say Go time.

From Anaheim to Washington and all the letters of the alphabet in between, the dawn of the 2008-09 season is almost here.

New faces have taken up new colourful uniforms, old owners are trying on some prison greys and the age old question still remains on everyone's mind, just how bad will the Leafs be this year.

The National Post spent the weekend contemplating just that mission, as Bruce Arthur suggests that they have to get worse before they'll get any better, a sentiment that should do wonders for the always fragile psyche of the Leaf Nation.

The Leafs head into training camp as a team that is seeking to reinvent themselves, a wish that Leaf fans probably participate in as well, though in the Leaf fans imagination perhaps this years Leafs could look more like the Leaf teams of the sixties or better yet, maybe they could look like the Habs teams of the sixties, seventies, eighties and maybe even the nineties...

Speaking of the other Canadian original sixer, the Habs who had such an enjoyable playoff roll last season are looking forward to getting this campaign under way. It's a season that the Montreal media observers feel depends on where Alex Kovalev factors himself into the line up. If he becomes a dominant player again, much like he showcased at times last season, then many see the Habs making giant strides this season.

Should he step back from the leadership role and become more of a participant rather than a motivator then many suggest that the Habs will remain stagnant this year. Montreal is perhaps one of the toughest markets in the NHL, the fans are knowledgeable and not afraid to share an opinion or two or three.

Sliding through a season in Montreal has never been acceptable, and after showing that they are once again ready to challenge, sliding backwards certainly won't find favour with the fans at the Bell Centre or the tens of thousands more that follow the team without having to step inside the rink.

In Ottawa they've banished off some of their more disappointing participants and look to the new year with the same zeal as every other season of late, for Ottawa fans that means a regular season of rising expectations and if their lucky, a post season that won't follow previous trends.
To that end, the back end has seen a major shakeup, with only Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov as names that have any kind of history with the Sens. Off into exile, is the mercurial Ray Emery who now will be counting rubles and the days until he can return to the NHL a changed man with a working alarm clock and hopefully a better driver.

The exodus on defence began a few years ago with the departure of Zdeno Chara and again this off season as Wade Redden found the lights of Broadway to his liking. Newcomers Jason Smith, Brendan Bell and Filip Kuba will try to bring a new attitude to defending the Senators zone, all while making sure that the puck gets up to a Senators forward group that will be feeling more pressure this season than ever before.

For Winnipeg this is another year of hope and renewal, another chance to exorcise all those old ghosts. Oh wait, what's that? Ooops sorry, we're still waiting there aren't we, and judging by the last media soundbite provided by expansion commentator Wayne Gretzky, they may be waiting a long time in the Manitoba capital before the NHL comes a calling again. (You may however wish to get in line early for season tickets for Hamilton, which Gretz gave his blessing to earlier this month).

Sorry Jets fans, we'll catch up with you again next season, don't forget to cheer loud for the Coyotes when they arrive in town on Wednesday....

Down the road in Calgary, it's all about Todd and whether the Bertuzzi experiment will take the Flames to the next level or help to contribute to a complete retooling. Bertuzzi who has never been particularly fond of the media will once again become the focus of an ever vigilant press, a major shift from those carefree days post Vancouver, spent in Anaheim and other NHL outposts previous to his settling in with Calgary.

So far the media has focused in on Bertuzzi's bid to become lighter and more agile, giving a fair amount of press to his official weigh in over the weekend, providing it with the kind of attention that they show on the TV program the biggest loser.

For the record, Big Bert clocked in at 226 pounds, a good 24 pounds lighter than when he was prowling the ice on behalf of the Vancouver Canucks. Flames fans are still trying to wrap their minds around the idea of actually cheering for Bertuzzi, who earned a special place over the years in in many Flames hearts as public enemy number one.

He begins the process of becoming the fan favourite as the Flames roll into their pre season schedule. If all goes according to plan the next boos he hears will be when Bertuzzi suits up in a Flames uniform in Vancouver or Edmonton.

Up the highway they're not really thinking too much of Bertuzzi at the moment, instead with a new and monied owner firmly in control, Oiler fans are looking to the future and a return to that City of Champions title.

The quest for the top however will most likely be in installments rather than in one fast paced delivery. The Edmonton Oilers are once again talking a lot of promise, while mindful of the setbacks along the way in the last few years.

Not since the young pups named Gretzky, Messier, Anderson and Fuhr were skating on The Northern Alberta indoor pond has youth been the message that it is today in Edmonton. Potential is the word and head coach Craig MacTavish is even boldly suggesting that a division title is within their grasp.

Of course, we must note the calendar date is September 22, we'll check back in about six months or so and see how things have gone. But for today, hope gushes eternal and the gusher is wearing Blue and Gold.

Out Vancouver way it's all about programs, get your programs, can't tell a player without a program. Wholesale changes seem to have been the nature of the off season, as familiar names made their exits and less familiar ones decided that Vancouver might just be a nice spot to park on the NHL merry go round.

All except one particular name, as Mats Sundin took unrequited love to a whole new level as he sat and thought over the Canucks 20 million dollar, two year offer. Still thinking, ( we think) and still on the table (we think), there hasn't been any progress on the Mats front since new GM Mike Gillis got everyone all excited with his offer early on in the summer, leaving Sundin to sleep on the offer , with Rip Van Winkle still in slumber the Canucks head into camp with a potential spending spree to come should Sundin not sign on the west coast.

With no Mats on the dotted line and a Markus out of town and playing elsewhere, the quest now it seems is to find someone to wear a C on a Canuck uniform. With Naslund and Morrison relocated and longtime leader Trevor Linden retired, Alain Vigneault now sees the opportunity for a new culture of leadership to develop.

How quickly his new group seizes the opportunity could go a long ways towards letting us know if this will be an enjoyable or horrible season for Canuck followers. Should it be the former and not the latter then Gillis and company will have been able to buy some time as they retool their machine.

If however, things get off on the wrong skate from the get go, then this will be a very long, nasty and uncomfortable season for the coach, GM and owner, not necessarily in that order.

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