First, let me reiterate that reading too much into any single data point on the 1st day of practice is misguided. Line combinations will change. Players will have good days and bad days. And the best guess for anything based on all current information today could be completely different 2 days later. This said, what happens on the ice even in the 1st practice is a part of the puzzle that ultimately decides how the 2015-16 season starts, and the things that Coach Peters does for lines, pairings, etc. is not completely random. It is part of him evaluating players and figuring out the opening night lineup.
With that disclaimer aside, here are my notes thoughts from practice on Friday:
The format today had the 57 players in camp split in 3 groups (A, B and C). You can see the players in each group HERE. Each group practiced for about 45 minutes (B maybe a bit shorter) and then groups A and B scrimmaged for about 30 minutes at the end of A’s practice and before B’s.
I did not see the Group A practice, so I do not have any comments on that.
One of my favorite parts of the entire practice was non-hockey almost right after I got there. I walked in just as group A was heading off the ice and into the locker room. The Zambonis then came out and soon after the group B players appeared on the ice and started stretching. After doing the regular version of that for what must have been the needed amount of stretching, the guys sort started twirling around the ice a bit, but it was in that optional game-day skate/players slowly emerging on the ice kind of way. Peters and the coaching staff went down into the locker room probably to chat with group A about the practice, so there were no coaches on the ice. Then a couple players from group A emerged onto the bench, one of whom was Ron Hainsey. Like a veteran lieutenant, he took charge and started barking at the guys on the ice. I could not make it out exactly, but I thought I heard “Coach says do warmups” or something along those lines. So then the group B guys made a couple quick hand motions and got into their hockey 101 comfort zone doing a quick skate out, receive a pass, skate in shoot kind of drill. It was my imagination and NOT anything he actually did, but my version of it had Ron Hainsey sitting on the bench telling whoever was next to him “IF IIIIIIIII was President (Coach)…”
Notes from A vs. B scrimmage:
–Gerbe/JStaal/Versteeg started together and mostly stayed together, but the Gerbe’s slot also saw a couple shifts from DiGiuseppe, Hagel and just 1 I think from Tolchinsky. It is possible, but I did not notice any equipment issue for Gerbe (and he played the practice part, so he obviously was not injured), so best guess is that Peters was simply giving a few different players a couple shifts to show what they could do.
–My first impression of Kris Versteeg in a Canes uniform is that he really likes to and is comfortable playing with the puck on his stick. He regularly dangled, cut, carried or whatever looking for a passing or shooting lane. I am on record all summer as wanting a playmaking right wing to help create more scoring chances for Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal. Who knows where he ends up, but I think his skill set is that of a playmaker who could be exactly what the Canes need to score more.
–I also think this line makes some sense. Jordan Staal has decent finishing ability and when he is playing a simple game can drive the net. Gerbe is really an opportunistic scorer who actually maybe even more than the bigger guys will go to scoring areas. So I think the way this line could theoretically work is that Jordan Staal drives possession time with his 2-way game and ability to win/carry/protect the puck with his big body. Then inside or when entering the offensive zone, Versteeg maybe is the guy that the line most wants playing with the puck and making plays while Jordan Staal and Nathan Gerbe carve straight lines to the net to either be a screen or the recipient of a pass and scoring opportunity. And by putting Jordan Staal in between 2 of the Canes multiple undersized players maybe that balances that line out a bit.
–Skinner/Rask/Lindholm were reunited as another NHL-looking line. I did not notice the line as dominant, but they played with pace and did a decent job of moving the puck from stick to stick.
–I appreciated the chance to watch Rask’s game live and in a bit of a chaotic environment with some players figuring it out. He just really sees and think the game and consistently makes small but important plays. The thing that stood out for me was how good he was at figuring out where he needed to be to provide a passing outlet for defensemen with the puck in their own zone. With a few of the younger defensemen struggling a bit to move the puck sometimes, he seemed to know when he needed to stay back and receive the puck deeper in his defensive zone. This is not a recipe for racking up assists off the rush, but it is a solid and sound hockey.
–Haydn Fleury paired with Justin Faulk. He generally looked okay, but he was the defender who got his pocket picked at about center ice by Riley Nash for a breakaway and goal against the other way.
–Justin Faulk looked pretty sharp with the puck. He was not flashy and did not score, but he just seemed assertive and purposeful making simply plays going to/getting pucks and getting pucks off his stick and forward.
–As much as anyone, Riley Nash looked like a kid fighting for his place on the roster. That is a compliment given that he should have a roster spot. He had a steal and breakaway goal and was aggressive on the forecheck.
–Sergey Tolchinsky. He had a quiet scrimmage offensively. Though I surely could have missed one trying to keep track of a bunch of stuff at once, I do not remember him having a scoring chance or passing play. The one thing that did stand out about him was his willingness to play in crowded places and take contact. His path to the NHL will not be by being the best player in 1-on-1 plays in the corner, but he must play a game where he is willing to go into the interior of the defense and not get pushed to the outside. I think he gets that and is willing.
–Brad Malone. Within the realm of a friendly scrimmage he played his game. He found contact and played aggressive obviously without leveling people.
–My 2nd favorite funny moment happened late in the scrimmage when Cam Ward tried to execute a goalie line change. The puck was in the one end, so I guess they figured they would just switch things up real quick. And he was coming from the far bench. About the time he started skating to switch sure enough the puck starts coming behind him. The best part was the other goalie (think it was Tirronen). At 1st he just stayed in the net trying to figure out if he should be playing the play coming behind Ward or getting out of the way for Ward to swap in. I am reported by my wife and kids to be too easily amused sometimes, so maybe the hockey oddity was not as fun for others, but I enjoyed it.
–I would not say I got a thorough read on Brett Pesce’s game, but I did not notice 2 instances where he got hemmed in his own end a bit without any good passing options and both times made what looked to be the right decision to eat the puck rather than risking a turnover at his own blue line. The team seems to be real high on him, so he is one to watch.
–Pesce paired with Ron Hainsey which was fun to watch. Hainsey was very vocal on the ice (“skate, skate, “go to it”, etc.) and also seemed to be talking to him quite a bit on bench. He has some good hockey left in him, but between that and the funny episode before the scrimmage just maybe he has coaching in his future.
–Clark Bishop did not jump out to me overall, but he did have 1 play where he went toe to toe with Justin Faulk battling for a puck in the corner and came out with it, pitched it to the point and then immediately went to the front of the net. He is probably a few years out, but the Canes need more of that.
–Eddie Lack struggled a bit. He was beaten on the Nash breakaway (tough save 1v0) but then also had a soft shot from a ways out from Ron Hainsey go right through him 5-hole without a screen as far as I coud tell. He also seemed to having some trouble finding the puck early in his practice that followed the scrimmage. But I would not make much of it. It is a very odd setup playing a game situation scrimmage at 10am without really having even a real warmup beforehand. At this stage of training camp goalies just need to see a bunch of pucks and eventually find a rhythm. Had today been the last practice before the regular season maybe I would be concerned. There is plenty of time.
–The 4 goals (finished 2-2 if my math was right) were by Nash, Hainsey, Wesley and Lindholm.
Group B practice
–Gerbe/JStaal/Versteeg were again a thing.
–Noah Hanifin paired with Wisniewski, so that made veteran/rookie combos for the top kids. Fleury/Faulk was the other.
–When they did 5s, Gerbe/JStaal/Versteeg—Hanifin/Wisniewski worked together, so that is another NHLish combination.
–That practice was a bit shorter (remember they scrimmaged 1st), and I had to take a phone call for work, so I missed a few minutes of it.
Group C practice
–Eric Staal centered a line with Zach Boychuk on his left and Chris Terry on his right. That combination is rich with insight.
* First, Eric Staal at least started training camp at center. That does not preclude him moving back to wing, but it suggests that Peters is at least considering a move back to center. It is not certain, but I guess you could also say that him starting Eric Staal at center means he is leaning that direction.
* Chris Terry played on the right side. If he is going to play on a scoring line with a left shot center I like him on the off side if he can adjust to the differences. It puts a one-timer from a forehand pass across right in his wheel house, and he has a good shot.
* It puts Zach Boychuk right where he wants to be. Again, day 1 of practice is about trying things and experimenting, but starting on a line with 2 players who are certain to be at the NHL level come October is a good place for Boychuk.
* I really get almost nothing measuring chemistry, quality of play, etc. when watching just drills (need scrimmages/preseason games), but I guess the trio looked okay.
* Finally, I think it is an interesting starting point for Eric Staal. Things may change for Eric Staal, but entering camp, I think most people would have labeled him, Jordan Staal, Kris Versteeg, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm and possibly Victor Rask as the pool for building the top 2 lines. Eric Staal was paired with exactly none of those guys. I said recently that the next step for Zach Boychuk and to some degree Chris Terry is for them to bring their improved 2-way play but also realize the offensive/scoring upside from what they do at the AHL level. If this combination clicked, and Eric Staal led it to become an okay defensive line and a scoring threat, the Canes suddenly get much deeper at forward which is where they are arguably thin.
–Trevor Carrick and Ryan Murphy were paired together as 1 of the more experienced prospect pairs.
I will not be able to attend practice on Saturday, but have the game-length scrimmage at Sunday’s Caniac Carnival locked on my schedule.
I would appreciate if anyone else who attended practice would chime in with their observations. With the volume of stuff going on, everyone usually sees different things.