With three days left before the NHL training camp officially begins, teams are not only gearing up for the shortened season but also shortened training camp. Like every organization in the NHL, the Nashville Predators franchise has innumerable mental, physically and logistical preparations to go through to prepare for the 2013 season. From the players and coaches down to the box office, this year’s abbreviated preseason is going to be a dervish of activity.
There’s always a great deal for a hockey team to contend with coming back from any off-season. This season, thanks to the lockout, things are a little bit different not only in terms of strategies but on an emotional level as well. As both a fan and a player, I’ve experienced the sort of malaise that sets in when there isn’t hockey. When you can’t watch hockey, it feels like some vital part of your life is missing. When you can’t play, all you want is the chance to get back on the ice.
Let’s face it: for a player, hockey is what gives your life much of its purpose and meaning. Locking out a hockey player is like telling an architect that he’s not allowed to design buildings or a doctor that she’s not allowed to heal people. It’s hard to focus on playing better hockey when you’re not even sure if you’ll have a job. It’s hard to focus and maintain a certain level of preparedness when you’re not even sure if you’ll have a job. It’s understandable how easy it would be let yourself slide. You can lose a step both physically and mentally. This is one place where players who played in other leagues during the interim should see a benefit from staying in a focused mindset.
Given the abbreviation of the schedule, one certain thing is that the teams that jell the fastest are definitely going to have the advantage, and this is where roster stability is going to come in handy. Instead of the regular three-week training period and preseason, players and coaching staff will have about a week to get their legs back. The kind of play-based team cohesion that makes for success comes through repetition, running plays until they’re blue in the face and their legs give out, then running them again and again, until the team is operating like a machine. Without as much leisure in easing into the season as they normally might have, teammates who know what to expect from each other and their coaching staff, who already have a sense of everyone’s individual style of play and who have well-defined roles on the team, will have an advantage after the long layoff. A team that hasn’t dealt with major organizational changes is more likely to find its groove faster, making the limited preseason practice that much more beneficial.
I expect most of the training camp time will focus special teams play, and rightly so as killing off penalties and capitalizing on power play opportunities become more important with the shorter schedule. If every goal counts (and they do), then with fewer games this season, every goal is going to count a little more. That means there’s even less room for error than usual, and the penalty kill is going to be that much more vital to a team’s success. Having played for several amateur teams in my younger days, I know first hand how this kind of repetitive practice is paramount in determining how well a team will do come game day. It’s how teams develop their flow. The plays themselves become muscle memory and teammates develop a kind of “sixth sense” in terms of positioning and reading plays as they’re happening on the ice, and that makes for some great hockey.
These are unusual challenges both players and staff will have to work hard to overcome. Now that the will-they-or-won’t-they emotional rollercoaster of the lockout is over with, everyone can finally get back to the task at hand: preparing for and playing good hockey.