Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Drew Doughty. Claude Giroux. Nathan Horton. Tyler Bozak. David Clarkson. Jonathan Drouin. We’ve barely started and they’re already missing. They aren’t the only ones.
It’s hard to know how similar each case really is, because Obama isn’t as protected as NHL injury information. But, one thing is for certain, teams are beginning to wonder if off-season training is a bigger injury factor than they realize.
“It can be very hard to identify who guys are training with,” said Anthony Belza, Toronto’s strength and conditioning coach. (He would not specifically discuss Bozak or Clarkson.) “It’s important to ask questions about their routines, what they are doing.”
What concerns you?
“Anything to do with quantity over quality,” he replied. Belza and his contemporaries are asking more questions now: Are our guys getting enough post-season rest? How much are they working out? How much are they lifting? And, are they doing things that don’t help you with hockey? (Cycling is a big one, which we’ll address later.)
Canucks president Trevor Linden, who stayed in moderately decent shape after his playing career, stressed S.A.Q. (speed, agility, quickness) as the primary areas of concentration -- quick drills that improve your explosiveness.
For lifting, “Olympic-style: cleans, jerks,” he said. “I was a proponent of this when I played.”
Belza and team coaches can make off-season training suggestions and provide program ideas, but players are entitled to choose their own trainers. With many going home for the summer, very few are in range to be monitored -- especially overseas.
“In this area, (players) have the ability to control what they do,” Linden said. He pointed out that Kevin Bieksa, who tested very well at camp “used to do it his own way. This year, he worked with the team for the first time.”
The odd thing about many of the already wounded is they belong to a group teams wouldn’t be as concerned about: veterans who generally know what they are doing. The Canucks are like most of their brethren, focusing on those between 18 and 25. Those men are still maturing physically and need stronger guidance to make sure they are properly training.
Matt Nichol’s seen it from both sides. He spent eight years with the Maple Leafs and now runs the respected BioSteel camp in Toronto.
“None of my guys are injured right now, touch wood,” he laughs.
One thing he believes teams must immediately address is players who train specifically for the open-of-camp fitness testing.
“That’s a problem, especially with younger players or guys going to new teams,” he said. “If they don’t perform well, they’ll be called unfit or undisciplined in the media, may not get a spot or be looked-down upon. But many of these tests are out of phase with the actual act of the sport, making players ill-prepared for actual on-ice demands.”
When Nichol was in Toronto, he instituted on-ice testing at the start of camp, short-acceleration stops and starts. “At the end of the day, the real test is hockey.”
And, even though teams technically can’t tell a player what to do, they can, and should be more active.
“The money these teams are spending on analytics and salaries, they shouldn’t be cutting corners on strength, conditioning and wellness. I’ve done (strength coaching) jobs. I understand the pressure they are under when a team says, ‘Why is this player already injured or out of shape?’
“I’m happy to call a team and say, ‘Here’s what I do with your player, what do you do?’”
Nichol says some of the best at this are Anaheim, Calgary and Montreal. “More teams are good about doing that than bad.
“Players want to do what’s best,” he closes. “They want long and successful careers. They’re not always going to make the best decisions, so if they’re not going to get the best individual attention, they’ll look elsewhere.”
1. Boy, do teams hate hearing their players like bicycling. Linden is now an avid cyclist, but the Canucks are eliminating any emphasis on it. Vancouver did not do any such testing this year, newsworthy because the standard VO2 oxygen endurance battle is done on a bike. There is real concern about what it does to your hips, because it is contradictory to how a hockey player needs to use them.
2. Annual mention: Don’t get overly excited about unproven players in the first week of exhibition games. Wait until the rosters are cut and veterans really start playing, usually the second week. That said, Andre Burakovsky can really fire a puck.
3. Some young players I’m curious about: Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers. The big question is an easy one: listed at 168 pounds, is he physically ready for this? One NHL scout, who’s seen a ton of him, said, “He’s so hard to make contact on. Guys have been trying to run him for two years now and you are lucky if you get a piece of him. He sees the play developing so well and is so smart and fast it gives him time. He’ll make it hard for them to send him back.” Let’s see how he looks in week two.
4. New Jersey’s Adam Larsson. Just 128 games played in four seasons since being the fourth player taken in 2011. Is he still a part of the Devils’ future? “Oh yes, very much so,” president & GM Lou Lamoriello said. “You have to be patient with young players.”
5. Under-the-radar name to keep an eye on: Kings forward Andy Andreoff. He is no longer waiver-exempt, so if Los Angeles tries to send him down, he’d have to clear through every other team. Very unlikely that happens, as a few of them like his AHL-polished game. So, does he stay? Or does L.A. make another move to keep him?
6. Again, it’s early, but took a detailed look at Alex Ovechkin’s first-period shifts during Sunday’s exhibition game against Buffalo. In the defensive zone, he dutifully went right to defending the slot when the puck was on the opposite wing, staying there until responsibilities or a change of possession took him elsewhere. It will be interesting to watch him (and the Capitals) transition from there, lower than we normally see him.
7. Asked a few other executives what they thought about Bobby Ryan’s decision to wait before committing further to the Senators. Response: several variations of, “That’s a bad spot for Ottawa.”
8. It’s critical for organizations to be honest with themselves in these moments. That can be very difficult, because you’re excited about a new season, the moves you’ve made, the optimism that comes at this time of year. But you have to ask yourself some honest, hard questions. The first is: Why do we think he’s hesitant now and can that really be repaired in enough time to get a new deal done? If the answer is no, then you’ve got to ask when the player’s trade value is highest.
9. That said, the Senators’ brief public spat with Marc Methot shows they are being realistic. There’s frustration because he wants to stay and they want to keep him, but there’s always a limit to how much guys are willing to leave on the table, even for a hometown discount. Methot is like Ryan. You can’t let him go for nothing, and other clubs took it as a sign that if Ottawa can’t get this done, they will deal him, as a defenceman is likely to be moved from that roster.
10. The tough thing for the Senators is there “isn’t much money in the system right now,” as one capologist said. Teams are tight to the cap and/or their budget, so it’s harder to make deals.
11. After everything the Sharks went through this summer, one player indicated the message at the beginning of camp was simple and unmistakable: “We’re here to win.” Not much talk of rebuilding. This will be a fascinating team to watch.
12. A lot of talk on the weekend about new defensive responsibilities for the Maple Leafs. (The Score’s Justin Bourne did an excellent breakdown of last year’s foibles.) One of the keys, apparently, is the team will not “swarm” until the puck is stopped or the puck carrier under control. Last year, the swarm began beforehand, which led to breakdowns.
13. Joffrey Lupul on Toronto’s late 2013-14 collapse: “It’s not the right mentality to say I'm over it, let's focus on the next year.” This is in direct contrast to how the Maple Leafs handled their Game 7 defeat to Boston the year before. They said they were moving on and weren’t thinking about it. I’m a big believer that teams have to address these things and not duck them, which is how the Bruins reacted to their 2010 meltdown to Philadelphia.
14. Why did CSKA Moscow GM Sergei Fedorov reach out to make sure it was known he did not offer Ryan Johansen a contract? “I like to be a responsible manager that doesn’t interfere too much with NHL business,” he said. “Whenever I’m thinking of signing someone, I call two NHL GMs. I ask them if an NHL team is going to sign that player or not; we want to see if he really wants to play in the KHL.” Fedorov believes Johansen is not really interested in going to Russia, something confirmed by his agent, Kurt Overhardt.
15. Fedorov also pointed out the NHL/KHL transfer agreement is up at the end of the season. “In my opinion, I’d like to see the (two leagues) start making conversation. But we don’t have agreement (in Russia) in that regard, between people who can bring that bridge together.” This is always a tricky negotiation, as it forces both leagues to honour each other’s contracts.
16. In the middle of all this, the NHLPA sent out a memo to agents reminding them to be careful about sending players there during the Ukraine crisis. They were reminded that there are government sanctions in place and needed to be aware of them if considering a contract with a Russian person or business. It wasn’t about avoiding the country, but a recommendation to go the extra mile before signing anything.
17. The Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline reported Monday that Overhardt’s most recent proposal to the Blue Jackets was two years and $9.4 million. What I’d be very curious to see is the breakdown of season one and season two. I wonder if the way he structured it was a lower salary (closer to what the Blue Jackets were hoping) in season one, but a big raise in season two. Why? Because Johansen is eligible for arbitration next summer and that bodes well financially for him.
18. If you look at Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract, yes, he had a Vezina Trophy season and established himself as a franchise cornerstone. But he was headed towards arbitration eligibility, and, for a club, that is a losing proposition for a lot of reasons. So, the Blue Jackets took a financial leap. That second season is the hurdle. Wonder if anyone would be happy with a one-year deal.
19. Speaking of Bobrovsky, Columbus can extend him at any time. It doesn’t sound like there’s been a ton of conversation, yet.
20. There was a rumour last week Boston was going to try to extend Johnny Boychuk instead of trading him. The principals would not comment, but my information is that an extension is not being discussed. You can certainly see the rationale. He’s a valuable player as the Bruins ponder life after Chara, which is why it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team does have a conversation with him about this before any trade.
21. At a season-ticket holder event last week, GM Peter Chiarelli was asked about unsigned free agents Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. “It’s my intention to have these players playing for the Bruins,” Chiarelli said. “They’re not going anywhere.” The team’s cap issues are well-documented, which is why it’s believed the Bruins have offered both players a one-year deal in the $1.25 million range. For Krug, that’s a pay cut, especially when you factor in his bonuses. Boston is undoubtedly trying to convince the two this is a one-year thing, but, to this point, that has not worked.
22. Linden, on what he learned from his players during off-season conversations with them: “They are most excited about having guys in the room that want to be there. That’s probably the most important thing.” That quote probably sounds worse on your computer screen than it did out of Linden’s mouth, but I understand the sentiment. Between Ryan Kesler and the goaltending controversies, there were constant distractions about who was coming and who was going, even if some of those players weren’t trying to cause them. No more.
23. Linden took pains not to discredit anyone who is no longer there (“this is not an indictment of Roberto Luongo, he was in a tough spot”) as did his returnees. “(The core players) never pointed fingers at the coach or anything else,” Linden added. “They were looking at themselves; not blaming anyone. With all of the distraction gone, they just want to have a good season.”
24. One more thing from Vancouver’s president: Asked what will be the biggest on-ice difference in his team, he replied, “Last year, there was too much separation. There were three forwards, and then two defencemen. It’s hard to score like that.”
25. At some point, there will be discussion about bringing back the overseas Premier Games for 2015-16. But we’re not there now.
26. Arizona GM Don Maloney said he’s had some conversations with Antoine Vermette about staying with the Coyotes, and will continue to do so. Not sure how far down the road the two sides have gone, but the team clearly values him and will try to make it work. Vermette is unrestricted after this season. Maloney added he usually ends contract discussions once the season begins, “but Antoine is mature enough to handle talking through the year” if need be.
27. The Coyotes hoped to add some brawn on the blueline during the summer, but the market price was not palatable to them. They were disappointed with how they defended in 2013-14, which is their foundation. “We can skate and move the puck, but can we defend when we need to defend?” the GM said. He believes the answer is yes, that they will be “more in line with who we are” this season. “It’s all about mix, chemistry, coaching, goaltending and talent next in line.”
28. While they are intrigued about the possibilities of Sam Gagner within their structure, hoping for a next step from Mikkel Boedker and want to see if Max Domi and/or Henrik Samuelsson are ready, the GM was blunt about Mike Smith’s importance. “We need him to carry the load and get us back to the playoffs. It’s black-and-white. If he’s where he can be, he makes the difference.”
29. Finally, the Coyotes are committed to giving Brandon Gormley a real chance to play major minutes. Dave Tippett trusted him in some crucial situations last season, but it sounds like he’ll get even more responsibility now.
30. Sadly, the odds are not great for a Kimmo Timonen return if he’s going to have a constant battle with blood clots. Years ago, when Dmitry Yushkevich was in Toronto, he was out the lineup with the same malady. To get back in, he offered to sign a waiver releasing the team from liability if anything happened to him. The doctors (and lawyers) wouldn’t consider it.