It’s got its fair share of Disney-fied cheese, but there’s a good scene in the movie “Remember the Titans” where Denzel Washington – as T.C. Williams head football coach Herman Boone – gazes out on a summer evening over the school’s empty football field and tells a school administrator, “This is my sanctuary.”
Taken in its most simple context, Boone uses football as a means of temporary escapism from the more harsh realities and monotonies of everyday life. It resonates because it’s not much a departure for Hollywood to make – a sport indeed provides a very similar vehicle of escapism for many of us.
As it is, no matter your favorite sport, one of the best days of the year is the start of training camp.
Casual fans won’t start paying attention until the team starts winning, or at least until games become official. But for us diehards, the start of training camp signals the closing of the book on a long offseason and forgetting about whatever happened the previous season.
At the conclusion of every July, the diehard fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers pack the hillsides at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe to watch their team. And every February, nearly two decades of losing be damned, hope springs eternal again for Pirates fans as pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton. This past weekend, it was our turn.
It was the Start of Penguins Training Camp – one of our Hockey Holidays, right up there with Season Opener, Home Opener, Trade Deadline Day, Start of the Playoffs and Free Agency. These are the dates many of us mark on our calendars just as sure as we mark birthdays. Terrance Mann used baseball as a means to mark the time in “Field of Dreams”; we do much the same with hockey.
And so it was that many of us got ourselves up early and headed down to the Consol Energy Center.
That first walk up to the arena on a cool, crisp mid-September morning with hints of autumn in the air never gets old. Nor does that walk through the concourse and that first view of the expanse of the sheet of ice below, the sounds of skates cutting the ice, pucks clacking off of sticks on tape-to-tape passes or the booming echo of slapshots. It’s like that first time returning home after an extended time away, a chance to see old friends, rehash old memories and mark the time.
This is our sanctuary.
Drop the puck.
I only went to camp on Saturday so I missed the Sunday session, but here are some thoughts, dudes…
Malkin was absolutely flying. I know it’s just camp and it’s the first day and some of this is happening against players who junior-level prospects or ECHL fringe players. That doesn’t matter; he was everywhere. To put it simply, there was some sense of purpose and jump in his game that quite honestly was missing too many times from his game over the last year or two, and I say this as an unabashed Malkin fan. Again, it’s just one camp practice so only so much can be read into this. But it was great to see and if it continues, Joe Corvo should be worried.
The scrimmage on Saturday had him mostly on a line with Sullivan and Kennedy.
Because he’s played most of his career in the West, this was our first really good look at Steve Sullivan and he didn’t really disappoint. Sullivan is small, but he’s extremely quick – especially in his first two or three steps. He’s a guy who could create some big problems for opposing defensemen on those long breakout passes that the Pens’ defensemen tend to throw every so often. He has some absolutely sick hands. A strength of his game is his ability to get to open areas of the ice, and that could be good news for the power play. He could be good for 15-20 goals, with 25 a possibility if he stays healthy.
Kennedy. He’s got his fair share of detractors and criticism of his game is warranted. But it’s tough to deny that he fits this role and this system well. His job in this system is to get down the wing on the forecheck, cause havoc on the boards and hopefully pressure the puck carrier into a turnover and a scoring chance. His willingness to play that role the way Bylsma wants it opens up space for whatever center he’s playing with, and he’s got just enough skill to be a potential scoring threat while doing it. Paired with a center that defenses have to pay attention to like Malkin and we may see more of what we saw on Saturday – a presence on the scoresheet (two goals) and multiple chances created by hard work. His game has its issues and he can be a little bit one-dimensional, but he is an asset to this team in this system.
Joe Morrow. He came in with a reputation as a terrific skater and he certainly is that. In the admittedly limited amount of time I watched him, I also saw a player who seemed very confident with the puck. It’s easy to see why Shero and the scouts loved this kid. The incredible depth that this organization has on defense will serve his long-term development well. A few years down the road, he could very easily slide into that same type of role that Paul Martin currently fills as a mobile puck-moving blueliner.
The concept of patience should really hold true for Simon Despres as well. Talk of him being NHL-ready last year seemed to be off the charts at times. He’s probably got the best all-around game right now of any of the club’s defensive prospects, and he’s more naturally-gifted than anyone currently battling for spots on that third pairing. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to “NHL-ready”. That jump from juniors to the pros is a huge one, much less the jump from juniors to the NHL and that could be seen in some of his decision-making on Saturday. He got pressured into some turnovers and made some mistakes that defensemen in the process of transitioning from juniors to the pros tend to make.
Barring an early-season tryout like he got last year, Despres likely will (and probably should) start the season in Wilkes-Barre. There’s absolutely no reason to rush him and barring injury to one of the top four here, it’s not like he’d be playing in the top two pairings anyway. Shero may have taken care of this already, anyway, with the team carrying seven defensemen already on one-way contracts. There’s nothing horribly wrong with starting the season having Niskanen, Lovejoy, Engelland and Picard battle for the 5/6/7 spots. This gives Despres an increased role and, more importantly, the benefit of time to start his development as a pro in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this year.
Michalek mentioned plans to get more involved in the offense. Good. Seriously. Saw some of this from him during the latter half of the season. He’s got a good shot and has shown an ability to “place” the puck from the point.
Richard Park still seems to be very much the player that used to terrorize the Pens for garbage goals when he played for the Islanders a few years ago. Park still has great speed and could certainly be an asset on the penalty kill. But the established NHL depth in this lineup could mean he starts in Wilkes-Barre and becomes one of the first callups in the event of an injury.
Ditto Joe Vitale, who is one of the reasons Max Talbot is no longer here. We may not see him full-time in Pittsburgh until next year but he has a motor that doesn’t quit.
Another guy who could get squeezed out of the season-opening lineup in Pittsburgh is Nick Johnson. During Saturday’s session, he looked very strong on his skates and appeared to have added some speed as he really moved well on his way into the zone a few times. He also has no issues with driving right to the net. Like Dustin Jeffrey, his hands are pretty underrated.
Guys like Vitale, Park and Johnson are hindered by the fact that the team is currently carrying 12 forwards with one-way NHL deals. Tangradi and Jeffrey are still on two-way deals, but Jeffrey would need to clear waivers if he gets sent down. Jeffrey would never make it through waivers without getting claimed, so he’s almost certainly going to be the 13th forward on the NHL roster.
Somewhere out there, someone watched Fleury performance in the Saturday scrimmage – which was a dead ringer for Varlamov,2009 Caps-Pens, Game Seven – and floated the first dead-serious “Trade Fleury” suggestion of the year.
May have mentioned this last year, but it bears repeating: Tim Horton’s hot chocolate and a box of Timbits is the best food value in the arena. Hey, speaking of donuts, let’s set the mood for this next one…
Per Harrison Mooney at Puck Daddy, Big Buff reported to camp at 266 lbs., lighter than his reported weight of 286 when he was busted for boating while intoxicated earlier this summer.
No one loved the relocation of the Thrashers more than Winnipeg-area Tim Horton’s franchises.
Want to know why we never let Charles Wang and Garth Snow spend Friday night with a pizza, a case of Molson and the “Create Team” feature on NHL ’12? Because we get this (scroll down to the Islanders entry):
Good God. Didn’t the “random inclusion of black even though we never really used black before” fad die out five years ago? Ten years ago?
That said, hey, at least the black will hide the blood when Beej whoops up on Dippy again this year.