Training camps are opening around the NHL with a little more elbow room than usual.
Thanks to the World Cup of Hockey, more than 150 players and almost half the league’s head coaches weren’t on the ice with their NHL teams at the start of camp this week. The Chicago Blackhawks are barely recognizable without Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, Marian Hossa and coach Joel Quenneville. The Washington Capitals don’t have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or coach Barry Trotz and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“Really weird,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Friday. “I was looking out on the ice and something doesn’t seem right. We’re obviously light on numbers, so that’s kind of strange. You’re used to having just swarms of guys everywhere and it just doesn’t feel that way this year.”
This is the first time since 2004 that the NHL has held a preseason tournament, and that event happened on the eve of the lockout that canceled the entire season. Camps were already opening later than usual because of the World Cup, and the first preseason games begin Sunday when the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues have split-squad games in those cities. The real games begin Oct. 12.
There isn’t much time to get everyone on the same page. Perhaps that’s why Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan raced back to be on the ice Friday.
“This is my responsibility to run this team and I love to do it,” said Sullivan, who was an assistant for the U.S. team. “I’m excited to be a part of it. I didn’t want to take any time off.”
Many World Cup players are being afforded a bit of time off before reporting to work. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan expects U.S. players T.J. Oshie, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen on the ice Monday.
The 82-game season is a long enough grind that guys aren’t rushing back if they don’t have to.
“I know a lot of the guys, at least the American guys, have talked about taking a few days off then going their teams,” Kane said Thursday. “I’ll go back to Chicago and see what’s in store and talk to (GM Stan Bowman) and Joel and kind of get a feel for what they want me to do, what’s best for me.”
Players from whichever teams lose in the World Cup semifinals this weekend won’t be far behind. In the meantime, their absences open the door for others.
“It’s good for guys who typically wouldn’t get a look in camp to show the coaches and scouts and staff what they can do for the future if something happens,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Paul Martin said. “For the most part, the guys that are gone are guys who can step right back in and be the players that they are for this team. There’s not anything that we’ll be lacking as far as chemistry. It just gives other guys a chance to step up and see what they’ve got.”
The same can be said for coaches. Toronto’s Mike Babcock was able to check in on the Maple Leafs when they reported for physicals Thursday and is in touch with assistant Jim Hiller every day, just like Capitals associate coach Todd Reirden is with Trotz, a Babcock assistant with Team Canada.
Reirden was a finalist for Calgary’s coaching vacancy, so running camp in Trotz’s absence is more on-the-job training for a head gig.
“Todd’s done a great job,” MacLellan said. “He’s a good communicator. He’s at the point in his career that he’s ready to take on more responsibility and he’s getting interviewed for head-coaching jobs.”
However strange these first few days of camp are as coaches and players trickle in, Babcock doesn’t think there are any disadvantages to this different year.
“When the guys are no longer in the tournament they’ll take some days off and rejoin the guys,” he said. “I just think it’s a win-win situation for (everyone). Anyone that can be involved in the World Cup should be involved in the World Cup because your growth individually and for your team is positive. And then, you know a few days of those veterans in training camp without me, they probably cherish it.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.
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