All of the signs are there. The leaves on the maple tree are still green, but subtly fading. The days are shortening, and there is a distinct crispness in the air in the early morning. School is back in session. The apples are ready for picking. Hockey cannot be far behind.
In fact, hockey is here. The 2016 World Cup of Hockey has been playing exhibition games for a week, including last Friday’s USA vs. Canada matchup in Nationwide Arena. Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky are all participating, and all have acquitted themselves quite well thus far. The tournament begins in earnest on Saturday, and group play continues through September 22. The tournament wraps up on either September 29 or October 1, depending upon how the unique three-game final series progresses.
In the meantime, 23 Blue Jackets youngsters are preparing to head north, seeking a three-peat in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, which runs from September 16 through September 20. Sonny Milano, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Zach Werenski lead this squad, which is arguably the most talented unit the Blue Jackets have fielded at the tournament. Also participating for Columbus is Vitaly Abramov, the Blue Jackets’ third round pick, and maybe the steal of the draft.
Finally, training camp opens officially on September 22, with the first on-ice sessions on September 23. The first exhibition games come just 48 hours later, with split-squad affairs against the St. Louis Blues. Of course, depending upon the fortunes of Team USA at the World Cup, John Tortorella might be AWOL for the first stretch of camp. Whenever he arrives, it promises to be the most intense camp the players have seen. You can be sure that Brandon Dubinsky's cell phone is ringing off the hook with questions about surviving a Tortorella camp.
In many respects, the ramp-up to the season is one of the best times of the hockey calendar. Optimism thrives, as the anxiety of the daily win-loss equation has not yet kicked in. Speculation and debate grows as camp nears, and individual performances are scrutinized with contract terms and educated guesses as to who makes the roster, what deals may be in the works, and how the talent will be configured in lines and pairings.
Certainly, the Blue Jackets have more than their fair share of questions requiring answers as this season gets underway. These include:
- Can Sergei Bobrovsky get his mojo back, and stay healthy for the bulk of the season?
- How will veterans Sam Gagner and Jarret Stoll fit into the picture going forward?
- Will Pierre-Luc Dubois make the big club, or spend one more year in juniors?
- How many youngsters will be featured in the Opening Night lineup? (The over/under here is four)
- Assuming Murray, Jones, Johnson, Savard and Werenski are locks for blue line slots, who wins the battle for the remaining two spots?
- What is the future for Curtis McElhinney? Do the Blue Jackets stand pat with him, or elevate Joonas Korpisalo?
- Will Scott Hartnell be on the Opening Night roster?
- What effect, if any, will the World Cup have on the club's ability to develop chemistry and start well?
That’s a lot of food for thought and debate. Throw in the hiring of Brad Shaw as an Assistant Coach, replacing the retiring Craig Hartsburg, a re-vamped conditioning program and the opportunity for John Tortorella to start fresh and set the tone from Day 1, and the next 30 days will have more than the usual share of intrigue.
It starts for real in 30 days. Can you feel it?