Winnipeg coach Claude Noel runs the players through drills in the pre-season. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
This time of year brings back many memories for me. Players are full of anticipation and excitement to finally put all that hard work during the summer months to good use at an NHL training camp.
Most teams will have 50-60 players come to camp. Here is a basic breakdown of a few types of players you will see in the pre-season.
The faces of the franchise. Your Jarome Iginlas, Joe Thorntons and Nicklas Lidstroms. Their spot and role on the club is assured, but they are integral in setting examples for the culture of a team.
These are players with NHL experience who still have a lot to prove to hold onto their existing spot from incoming competition. These players are also looking to increase their roles/minutes in upcoming years.
These are players who have spent time inside the team’s farm system and are on the cusp of making the jump. They usually range from 22-24 years of age and are starting to display the physical ability, skill set and maturity required to play at the NHL level. In many cases these players have an existing two-way contract and are in a tough battle for an opening day roster spot.
These are players who have played and had success in high-level European Division I leagues and are trying to make the crossover to a North American game. Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers fit this mold last year. Some have existing contracts, while others are coming in to give management a closer look to judge if their game is transferable.
These players are under the microscope during their first two training camps. Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, Edmonton’s Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele are all in this boat. Each club has difficult internal decisions to make: what would be best for the prospect? Can he help the team this year? Will he be better off in junior? Can he compete at this level yet? They will be tested, but given an opportunity.
These players have shown some promise and skill, but are hard-pressed to crack the club during their first two training camps. Most come unsigned and are looking to make a splash to earn a contract. These players are driven to prove they have value and deserve the same attention afforded a top pick. Many will be cut in the first week without playing an exhibition game.
These are players such as Manny Legace, Owen Nolan and Steve Begin who are trying out for the Vancouver Canucks – guys with experience and the ability to add reliable depth to a winning team. They are driven to prove they still belong and deserve a contract. They will get exhibition games to test their mettle.
These are the unknown assets - players who have, for one reason or another, slipped through the cracks. Maybe they have struggled with injuries, are super-late-bloomers or play in a less-scouted circuit. Somebody (inside the organization) has seen something they like from this player. The player may be there as a fill-in, but he has nothing to lose. Nobody is expecting anything out of him and the odds are stacked against him, but he may show enough to earn some time in the system.
The players listed above will be mixed and matched for intra-squad games. Clubs will try to balance the teams to make the games as close and competitive as possible. They will give each player the same amount of ice time and opportunity to display their skills.
Daniel Tkaczuk was Calgary's first round pick in 1997 (sixth overall) and has been playing professionally in North America and Europe for the past 12 seasons. He is currently president of iHockeyTrainer.com, an online hockey school for skill development.