After a long offseason and a dissapointing finish, it was a surprisingly enthusiastic atmosphere today at Nationwide Arena for the first day of on-ice practices for the 2010 Training Camp. Baloons, bunting, and banners decorated the McConnell street entrance, while greeters warmly welcomed fans as they came through the doors and offered a souvenir t-shirt to the first 1,000 through the gates.
On the main concourse, the Jackets showed a great deal of forethought and planning, with a youth street hockey rink set up just past the main escalator, a bouncy castle for kids who, younger or older, might not be as interested in hockey as the rest of the family, and for the adults, concessions stands were open to provide orange juice, water, fruit, donuts, and the all important eye-opening coffee. Compared to the previous training camps held at the Dispatch Ice Haus, with few bells and whistles and the only refreshments coming out of the gatorade machine, it was a very pleasant change.
When I arrived this morning, just after the doors opened at 8:30, there were already at least 400 people there.
By 8:45, 15 minutes before the team would hit the ice, the designated seating sections (113 and 114) were full, and fans had started filling in 115 and 112.
When Tomas Kana and Dalton Prout became the official first players out onto the ice at 5 minutes to 9, they were greeted by well over 1,000 fans filling the lower bowl from 111-116. When I asked one of the ushers, I was told they didn't have an official count, but they believed that over 1,500 people turned out this morning.
Well done, Jacket fans. Damn well done.
The 9:00-10:45 skate for Group A included the prospective "kid" line of Filatov, Brassard, and Voracek, R.J. Umberger, Sammy Pahlsson, Marc Methot, Kris Russell, Mike Blunden, Andrew Murray, and Mathieu Garon, who were out and skating at 9:00am sharp. Perhaps the best moment of the morning was when Rostislav Klesla stepped out onto the ice for the first time, and after a general murmur of recognition, the crowd rose to their feet to deliver a standing ovation for the defenseman, welcoming him back after his season was cut short so cruelly last fall.
After stretches and a few warm up skates around the rink, the coaching staff began drills that looked much more like actual game situations than previous camps run by Ken Hitchcock.
The first drill of the day featured a full set of forwards and defensemen starting in their own zone, taking a pass from the back boards, skating up ice, making a transition pass across the neutral zone, then driving to the net and taking shots on the goaltender. Derick Brassard would score on the first run-through of the drill, taking a neat pass from Filatov and firing a laser past camp invitee Daren Machesney.
Other drills included working on set piece situations, such as a powerplay unit drill where a forward would set up on the side boards, send a pass back to the point, and the point making the decision to either shoot or pass to the opposite point, who would then shoot. Forwards would collapse in after the initial board play to take advantage of rebounds or potentially redirecting shots.
Another drill set two full sets of D and forwards against each other, starting in the "defensive" zone - the offense was expected to start at the blue line and advance on the net, while the defensive side was expected to get the puck away from them and exit the zone (the "finish line" appeared to be the red line) before the offense could force them to turn it over.
D-men and forwards also took some "one on one" drills, where a puck was set up at the boards in the neutral zone, and they were expected to compete for possession of the puck, battling along the boards to see who could advance the puck into or away from the target zone.
Klesla and Brassard had an impressive battle during the one on one practice, jockeying for position and really throwing their bodies into each other as Brassard came down the far side of the boards, before Brass was finally able to put a move on the Czech d-man and break away before snapping off a shot on goal.
In fact, for someone who spent a great deal of the summer rehabbing his injuries, I was impressed at how physical the veteran defender was - he and prospect David Savard were two of the most physical players on the ice for group A, unafraid to throw their bodies around. Marc Methot also had some good checks, but the aforementioned pair were playing at a bit higher compete level than the others around them.
Speaking of the goal, and goaltenders, keep an eye out for pictures from camp - both Garon and (later) Mason were wearing new masks on the ice today. I'm not sure if either were results from the "design a mask" competition, but I thought both looked very nice. Garon's featured the CBJ primary logo on one side of the mask, and the 10th anniversary design on the other. Simple, but very effective. Mason's new mask featured what looked like several soldiers (continuing a theme for his masks), and a new pattern that takes the primary logo and wraps the red and white striping from the Ohio flag around to the back of the mask. Very neat, though there was enough going on that I had difficulty making out all the details.
LeNeveu, Gill, and Machesney were still wearing the masks and pads they used in the AHL or NCAA last season, and camp invite Dan Taylor wore a plain white set of pads and mask.
As Group A's session went on, they began to drill for odd man rush situations and zone entries, with assistant coaches Bob Boughner and Ben Berry playing the part of opposing defense that the forwards had to get the puck past - and neither coach was afraid to get in the way or pokecheck lazy passes back out into neutral ice. There were also several drills that I believe were designed to start getting the players into the "puck pursuit" mentality, with coaches taking the puck up the ice and players having to catch them and get the puck away, then back the other direction. I also noticed that quite a few drills that might have ended with a shot on goal or a single player carrying the puck away in the old Hitchcock camps ended instead with cross ice passes or setting up another player.
Given some of the regular complaints about players not being able to finish strong passes the last few years, I'm looking forward to seeing if these changes in practice make changes in performance.
Interestingly, on one of these drills, though the unit of Filatov, Brassard, and Voracek was kept together, they moved Brassard to the off wing and set Filatov into the middle. You may recall that Filatov did play some pivot in the Russian junior leagues, but the previous plan was to let him learn the North American game on the wings. Perhaps it was simply an experiment, but I was surprised to see that shuffle so early.
I will say, though, that the "kid" line seemed to have a great deal of chemistry - particularly Filatov and Brassard. They set each other up for a couple of really nice plays during drills, and it seemed like the two have made a good connection.
Speaking of Voracek - Jake looks bigger. Even in pads, he seemed fuller across the shoulders and with more power to his skating.
There were, however, a few scary moments in the first group - first when Umberger took a puck to the face after it took a bad hop off of a stick (though he was able to return a few minutes later after getting the resulting cut stitched up, albiet with what promised to be one hell of a black eye tomorrow), and a collision between Voracek and Mathieu Garon when the young winger came in too fast at the net on a drill and was unable to stop. Both players, however, got themselves up, and Jake immediately offered an apology to the backup netminder.
When, after an hour and a half, Group A was called back in to center ice for cool-down stretches, there was a pleasant buzz in the air from both the fans and the team. Coach Arniel skated around, tapping a few guys on the shoulder or leg as he shared a few thoughts, and he had a brief exchange with Umberger to make sure he was feeling fine, and then a quick joke about his misadventure.
Once the "official" practice was over, the guys from Group A spent a little time relaxing and working out a few things with the coaches before returning to the locker room, and fans who stuck around rather than going for something to eat or to check out the Blue Line before the break were treated to a few fun moments, including Brassard performing a long no-look pass behind him which was picked up by new assistant coach Dan Hinote, who fired it in on Garon, beating him top shelf, and Hinote showing off something between a goal celebration and an "I still got it!" dance.
After the players left the ice, the Zambonis came out and a fair bit of the crowd got on with the rest of their day, but I'd guesstimate that there were still between four and five hundred fans who simply walked around the arena, stepped out for a snack, or took a look at some of the new 10th anniversary merchandise at the Blue Line before returning for Group B.
Like group A, there were a mix of "top line" and "bottom six" talent, but B clearly had some of the more marquee names, with Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius, Matt Calvert, John Moore, Mike Commodore, and Ryan Johansen all taking the ice.
Quite a few people in the crowd commented on Nash's appearance when he took the ice - the captain has never been in bad shape, but there's an air about him this year that I can only call "trim". He's just a bit leaner and perhaps seemed a little sharper in how he carried himself. Less of the "sleepy lumberjack" look he's had at past training camps, and more of an agressive, professional look. Ryan Johansen, this summer's first round pick, also seemed to have put on a bit of muscle since his appearance at the team's prospect camp in July.
Group B's practice was also Columbus' first chance to get a good look at Ethan Moreau, and I have to say that the impression I get from him is that he's incredibly solid. He's not the biggest guy on the team at 6'2, 220, but he something about the way he carries himself really projects that size to make him seem a bit larger than life. There's something about him that he seems a bit more muscular and thicker, even in full equipment, than some of the other players around him.
Once Group B started running drills, they got a slightly different workout than Group A. Where A seemed to do a lot more "breaking into the zone" or moving the puck away or across the ice from their imaginary opponents, group B seemed to do more work in faux PK or PP situations, at least to start their practice - particularly working on forwards getting in off the faceoff dots and being able to redirect shots from the point. Not surprising when you consider that between the top line and Anton Stralman group B probably had most of the first PP unit, but it got my attention.
I'm also going to single out one skater from Group B in particular for a moment:
Steve Mason, as part of Group B, saw a fair bit of rubber today, and not the least of it came from Nash, Vermette, and Huselius. Despite the concerns on how he would respond since last season, I thought Mase had a very good day at camp. He got into position quickly, he made some very nice glove and stick saves, he came out to challenge shooters several times in one on one situations, and perhaps most importantly, I noticed quite a lot of shots going to his high glove side....and he didn't let them through.
That's not to say that nothing got past him - the whole point of some of these drills was to cause a fair bit of confusion, and I don't think he let in any more or less than any of the other goaltenders today, but the -way- he was practicing struck me as very encouraging.
As the practice went on, there was an interesting shift in the mood. Where past practices could be quiet, almost studious affairs, today there seemed to be an undercurrent of "Hey, this is fun!" Every time I saw Ryan Johansen skating around with the puck, he was wearing a massive smile. Guys like Tyutin and Stralman would talk and give each other a bit of a hard time.
The mood really took a jump when, on a drill that saw forwards entering the zone while D tried to break up their passes, Rick Nash suddenly slammed on his brakes as he skated towards Mike Commodore, raising a laugh from both the crowd and the players as he showered the big defender in snow. After a laughing Commodore brushed himself off and skated off to the boards to wait for his next run through the line, Jared Boll sidled up to him for a "big brother, little brother" conversation with some playful elbowing from the younger forward before Commodore gave him a friendly tap on the back of the head.
I also noticed that in both sessions, players not taking part in fitness testing or off-ice workouts would frequently sit on the benches or in the entrance tunnels, watching their teammates go through the paces.
As one of the people sitting near me in the crowd said after Boll and Commodore's exchange, "They seem a lot closer...they actually seem a lot more like a team, this year."
I think the combination of the team's on-ice woes and the collective work this off-season to improve really have brought them into a tighter-knit group, and if anything, Arniel's attitude as head coach has encouraged it. There's certainly still a sense that the players need to put in a hard practice, but it's a lot less "SRS BSNS", and a lot closer to the "Find Joy!" attitude of Claude Noel.
I'd say the main difference between Noel and Arniel is that even at his most involved, Noel tended to set things up, then skate away to observe. Arniel and his assistants were either directly taking part in the drills by skating as "opposition" (no real contact, as they weren't in pads, but both Boughner and Berry stepped into players a few times), or circulating among the players and constantly offering advice and feedback even as the drills were being run, which I think goes back into the "open communication" that the coach has been promoting since his arrival.
After a certain point, Coach Boughner began outlining drills for offensive zone situations, though Arniel still stepped in to make suggestions here and there, and the "forward units" got shuffled a few times with different combinations.
Petr Straka had a couple of nice goals, working mostly with Ryan Johansen and Derek Dorsett, and Matt Calvert got to spend a few shifts with Nash and Vermette, allowing Nash to flip back to his "natural" left side. A possible future fourth line was also formed with Ethan Moreau, Derek MacKenzie, and Jared Boll.
Defensively, not surprisingly, Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore spent quite a lot of time together, while new pros John Moore and Cody Goloubef were matched up quite often, and Fedor Tyutin tended to skate with Anton Stralman or Jon Sigalet.
I think the best compliment I can offer John Moore is that he didn't look out of place when comparing him to the older Goloubef, or even on the occasions where he skated with Tyutin or Hejda. He's clearly put work into developing himself this summer, and I think he's ready for the demands of pro hockey, though I'll admit I still don't know if he'll end up in Columbus or Springfield.
Camp Invite Dan Fritsche is another player who didn't look out of place, but unfortunately I didn't really think he did anything to stand out from the pack, either. He seemed to enjoy himself, and he was skating well all day, but for someone hoping to earn an NHL contract, at least on the first day, I didn't have a real sense he was out-hustling someone.
A player who did look a bit out of place, or at least a bit overwhelmed, was former Nashville forward Ben Guite. I noticed that on a few occasions when he stopped at the boards after skating that he was seriously huffing and puffing, taking huge gasps of air, and seemed to be having a bit of trouble keeping his speed up on some of the drills. Other players didn't seem to have the same level of difficulty, even as the practice neared the end. I give him credit for pushing himself and keeping himself involved, but I wouldn't be shocked if he finds himself spending more time with new Strength & Conditioning coach Kevin Collins.
As the practice wound down, following their cool-down and stretches, group B took the time to salute the fans who had spent their morning with the Jackets, raising their sticks to the air as the fans responded with hearty applause. Afterwards, even though the practice was 'officially' over, every player stayed on the ice for some time afterwards, some working on faceoffs, some getting feedback from the coaches, the goalies chatting with goaltending coach Dave Rook, and a large group of defensemen (Moore, Hejda, Stralman, and Sigalet) playing what basically amounted to a game of horse wtih an empty net, starting at the blue line, moving closer if they made a shot, and moving backwards if they missed.
There was an optimistic buzz as I left camp today, as fans talked to each other, and I can see it in some of the traffic on Twitter and Facebook as well. It's not just the relief of hockey being back after a long offseason, though there's certainly a fair bit of that. It's a sense that maybe, just maybe, the team really is better than we thought it would be - that players seem to be 'getting it', and that the new coaches seem to be the right fit.
It's the sense that perhaps, at long last, we're getting the kind of team the fans hoped to see last year - one that will be able to challenge the long held expectations of the Western Conference, and truly compete for the post-season.