- Craig Custance
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A Sabres fan was sitting about five rows up from the First Niagara Center glass Friday morning as the Rochester Americans practiced in front of him. He was one of a handful of Buffalo hockey fans who took advantage of the free opportunity to watch the start of AHL training camp. He even used a personal day to do it.
About midway through the practice, he pointed up several rows to a man sitting on the fringes of the fans.
"There's Lindy Ruff," he said, spotting the Sabres coach observing Zemgus Girgensons and some of the other Amerks practicing under Ron Rolston.
Later that morning, Ruff would join Rolston on the ice, working current and future Sabres through drills, trying to strike the balance between helping his AHL coach while not interfering with another man's practice.
The lockout had long canceled the Sabres' home-and-home exhibition series with the Maple Leafs that was scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Until the lockout is settled, working with the Sabres in player development will have to do.
"That's really the game plan," Ruff said. "Without being too intrusive, [the plan] is to do some development work, be involved with all the players down there in certain aspects. Trying to involve all the coaches without being too cumbersome."
The lockout has wiped out the entire NHL exhibition schedule, and the regular season is up next on the chopping block, with an announcement canceling games expected this week. While negotiations drag on, players compete locally or overseas. General managers are returning to their scouting roots by attending junior hockey games and eventually AHL games. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and Penguins GM Ray Shero were among those scouting Saturday's All-American prospect game in Buffalo.
For the coaches, it's a balance of preparation, research and player development.
And a lot of waiting.
"The best way to describe it is, you're at the airport, you're on standby, and every plane that comes in is full," explained Nashville's Barry Trotz.
Many NHL coaches will help out this week at AHL training camps, with first-year Capitals coach Adam Oates the most invested. On Sunday, the Capitals announced that he would join Mark French as co-coach of the Hershey Bears. It's a chance for Oates to implement his new Capitals system at the AHL level so there's less of a transition period for younger players in the franchise.
"I think it's a great opportunity for him," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who had Oates on staff in New Jersey as an assistant. "The one thing he doesn't have as a head coach is bench experience and running a practice experience."
Ruff, Rolston and their coaching staffs spent several hours the last couple of weeks planning out exactly how they wanted both the Sabres and Amerks to play. There should be a payoff when players are shuffled back and forth this season, which is possible in Buffalo with a Rochester roster that includes guys like Kevin Porter, Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno and Luke Adam -- who all should see time this year at both the AHL and NHL levels.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Mike Babcock is more of an observer since the team is coached by Jeff Blashill, who was an assistant in Detroit last season. Blashill already knows exactly how things are done with the parent team.
Like Babcock, DeBoer will be watching more than coaching when he's spending time with the Devils' AHL affiliate.
"We've got a very competent staff at the American league level," said DeBoer, who is driving to Pennsylvania on Tuesday to watch Albany play Adirondack in an exhibition game. "It's an arm's-length approach. You're watching with interest."
As the lockout extends, Trotz and his staff will eventually re-evaluate how they'll run training camp, anticipating a much shorter time frame if and when a settlement is reached between the league and its players.
"What you would be doing with 45 players would be different than 20 players," he said.
Trotz also encourages coaches to research how they coach. Are they using the most cutting-edge video analysis? Is training up-to-date? Are there new drills that can be implemented? All this can be evaluated during the time usually spent preparing for games.
"We have a couple projects, and you can have a project organizationally," he said. "Maybe you have a lack of success against a certain team. This is a time to really dissect them really well and maybe have an answer to that."
The Predators are so well-versed in what Trotz expects from them that a short training camp shouldn't be an issue for a team with a long-established culture. For new coaches still waiting to spend significant time with the teams they were hired to improve, the lockout hurts.
Like many coaches, first-year Calgary coach Bob Hartley is involved with the AHL team this week. Last week was spent on quality time with every person on the staff -- coaches, trainers, everybody -- to get to know each other better.
"Every day, I have a meeting with one of those guys to see how he works, to tell him a little bit about what I'm looking for from each of them," he said last week. "We also watch lots of games right now. We're watching lots of our players in our roster from last year. We're looking at strengths and weaknesses."
When he was hired in Calgary, Hartley sent every player on the team a questionnaire to be filled out so he would know them a little better once they arrived. He asked for areas in the game where they feel they can help the Flames improve. He asked for areas in which each player thinks he can get better.
There were off-ice questions about best friends, family and interests that help the coaching staff create a complete picture of every player on the roster. Hartley has used the extra time to review those answers to try to get a better feel for his new players.
"We're trying to dig in every way we can to find out more about our guys," Hartley said. "I'm not a big excuse guy. Whatever days we will have in camp, we will be ready."
No, it's not the same as face-to-face contact, but that's not happening right now. Guys like Hartley, Oates and Montreal's Michel Therrien have to be a little more creative in assessing their new teams while they wait. It's not ideal, it's just the current reality.
While the NHL lockout drags on, coaches fill their time with a balance of preparation, research and player development, writes Craig Custance.