That’s been the theme of training camp, which shifts from Prince Edward Island to Frisco today. The focus of a lot of what has gone on during practice so far has been the details of team play, the backbone or spine of the team as head coach Glen Gulutzan likes to call it.
Defensive zone play was a big focus early on. Defensive structure is a key area where Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk wants the team to improve on this season, and Gulutzan’s teams seem to always play with good defensive structure. At least that was what I saw when I went to Cedar Park to watch the Texas Stars play the last two seasons. His teams don’t give up a lot of quality chances. I'm betting there will be an improvement in that area this year.
I’ll say this about Gulutzan, he is detailed and organized. Taped just outside the locker room door the other day there was a list of the day’s lines and defensive pairings along with diagrams and hand-written notes on what appeared to be one of the items on the day’s practice agenda. It’s not uncommon to see him talking to a player, answering questions or further explaining some point about what he’s implementing. As Nieuwendyk pointed out, Gulutzan comes from a teaching background and that’s what makes him a good coach.
Gulutzan keeps things moving along too. The Stars practice with pace. He said after the first days that if you want to play with pace, which the Stars do, then you have to practice with pace. Even his post practice interviews are done with pace.
As far as players that stood out, I asked Nieuwendyk about it and he noted that he liked Vernon Fiddler bringing his work ethic to the rink each day. That goes back to that “every day counts” part of the team motto.
Fiddler is an important part of the equation this season on the “everyone matters” front as well. Depth is key to the Stars’ fortunes this season. It’s hurt them the past few seasons and it’s something that Nieuwendyk addressed this summer. Guys like Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Jake Dowell are key guys as far as the forwards. Adam Burish, Tom Wandell and Toby Petersen, too.
The NHL regular season is a long grind. A marathon. Everybody who suits up during the season – including anyone who comes up from the minors – needs to contribute in some way. It’s not just about who ends up putting up the big stats, but guys who can do all the little things and chip in now and then on the score sheet. So, it was nice to see Fiddler and Dvorak click in the team’s first scrimmage Sunday night at the Charlottetown Civic Centre. Good to see a guy like Travis Morin look pretty good and a young guy pushing for time like Matt Fraser play well. Minor league vets liked Francis Wathier and Ray Sawada looked solid.
Of course, you need your top guys to be your top guys and it was a positive that Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder clicked in the first preseason game Tuesday night in Montreal. Jamie Benn and Steve Ott looked pretty good together in the scrimmage. Benn has been very impressive, even in those pre-camp skates in Frisco. Loui Eriksson is, well, Loui Eriksson – a top player in this league. Ott, Benn and Eriksson had a shift or two together in Sunday’s scrimmage and looked very good as a trio.
On the defensive side of things, newcomers Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray – both trying to have bounce back seasons – look poised to do that based on the first few days. This was my first chance to get a good look at Pardy and I liked what I saw. I think he’s taller than the 6-2 they have him listed as and he moves really well. Souray looks engaged. The kids pushing for time – Brenden Dillon and Philip Larsen – both played well. Dillon was paired with Stephane Robidas in PEI and I think that really was a plus for him.
Some of the younger prospects stood out as well. Jamie Oleksiak shook off some early nerves and really came on. He was paired with Brad Lukowich and you could tell that paid some big dividends for the big guy. Brett Ritichie didn’t look out of place out there either. Jack Campbell played well in the scrimmage, his first real taste of NHL training camp action.
It’s still early and a long way to go before the opener and a long, long season ahead. But so far it’s been a promising first few days of camp/preseason.