Paul Maurice and Ray Whitney are trying to return to the Eastern Conference final again this season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
If you’ve been looking for the Carolina Hurricanes in the summaries and the highlights this pre-season, you’ve probably been a little disappointed.
There’s a reason for that. While most teams treat the pre-season like nothing more than a cash cow, the Hurricanes and their progressive-thinking GM Jim Rutherford have taken a rather novel approach to training camp and the exhibition schedule. That’s why they’ve scheduled only four pre-season games this fall, which is the fewest in the league and three fewer than the average of the other 29 teams in the NHL.
The New Jersey Devils will have played only five, but the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings will have played nine pre-season games before the puck drops for real.
When Rutherford looked at how fatigued his players have been and how susceptible they have been to injuries in the past, combined with an Olympic break and a compacted season in 2009-10, he realized what almost everyone in hockey has known for years – the pre-season is too long and contains too many meaningless games.
“We’re hoping it will keep our players more rested and healthier,” Rutherford said. “I thought about this for a while and we’ll probably have a few guys on Olympic teams. Our veteran players really like it.”
Of course they do. For players who are staring down the barrel of an 82-game season and the playoffs, the pre-season is nothing but drudgery. Despite the fact most teams already have their rosters decided long before training camp even begins, they like to make it out as though training camp is a battle for jobs and the pre-season games help them evaluate that.
But if you look at the roster the Pittsburgh Penguins sent for a pre-season game against the Maple Leafs Tuesday night, you’d see a team that would have a tough time making the American League playoffs. After all, it’s almost impossible for teams to evaluate their young talent when they’re playing against teams stacked with players who will never see a meaningful NHL game.
“You look at that roster and you say, ‘These guys won the Stanley Cup?’ ” muttered Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
More than anything, the pre-season is an opportunity for teams to charge top dollar for tickets and the best part for them is the players don’t begin getting paid until the first day of the regular season, meaning the revenues from the games go right to the bottom line.
The Leafs, for example, have five pre-season games at home this season and sell them all out, largely because season ticket holders must buy the games as part of their packages. In their defense, one of them was free, so it’s impossible to know how much revenue they got from that one. But the Leafs normally make about $2 million in revenues per game, which gives them $8 million in revenues they don’t have to give the players, at least not up-front.
But Rutherford, again in a clear departure from the norm, figures that by playing fewer pre-season games, they’ll have a chance to cash in at the other end of the schedule.
“I guess it depends on whichever way you look at it,” Rutherford said. “With pre-season games, you get the money up front, but if you play longer in the playoffs you get it then and we hope we’ve put ourselves in a position to do that.”
Rutherford said even with four games, the Hurricanes and their coaching staff will have ample opportunity to assess the young players in their system, the majority of whom are inevitably headed to the AHL or back to their junior teams. Each veteran will get three games of action and those the coaches really want to see, namely Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk, are getting into all the games.
“We pretty much knew what guys would be on our team and which would be going to the American League to develop and we had a pretty good look at our prospects at the rookie tournament in Traverse City,” Rutherford said. “Our young guys have had a chance to play and one guy who has really been outstanding for us so far has been Sutter.”
All of which proves the pre-season is a meaningless exercise, right?
“We haven’t proved anything yet,” Rutherford said. “We still have to see the results.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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