It’s hard to make sense of this Saber training camp. We can guess that it will be fun to watch, but it’s hard to figure out what exactly it will be.
The basic fact is that we can all name the entire roster before a single exercise. There isn’t much competition for jobs, and it’s going to be far more about competing for spots within the team structure.
That’s because the Sabers have acquired so many young assets that have established themselves or are about to happen, that they didn’t go out and bring in a bunch of veterans and feel the need to merge them into one group. That’s what Steve Yazerman did in Detroit this summer and it turned out to be a terrifying move.
No panic is coming from GM Kevin Adams and coach Don Granato. The ship hasn’t been so stable since the days of the rough-razier.
Now, some annual reminder amidst all the bill hysteria: A hockey training camp is not the same as a football training camp. Your draft team of choice isn’t competing to form and you’re putting together a roster of minor-league teams to craft the big club. There is no Triple-A or AHL in football.
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In hockey, camp drills do not consist of breathless recitation of the results of each game. And every Precision game has real meaning. All six of them. This is where you can mesh forward lines and defensive pairs and see how they work. Many of your key players actually play as well. Unlike fake football.
Still, knowing who will be on the team will remain a key point of emphasis for the next two and a half weeks. How Good Do Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka Look? How about Casey Mittelstadt? How will Owen Powers handle his first NHL training camp? (Yes, after his eight games at the end of last season it was easy to forget that he never had one). Who will be the partner of power?
1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft has always been passionate about hockey.
How ready is the newly acquired Eric Comrie to be the No. 1 goalkeeper? How Healthy Are Craig Anderson and Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen and Is the UPL Ready for a 50- or 55-Game Run in Rochester? Can Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner, and Kyle Okposo match last season’s production? How Much Crime Will Come From Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin? How much can Alex Touch produce in an entire season?
(We’re all getting older in the department, Thompson’s seven-year contract extension that begins next season is the first in the organization to extend through 2030. Obviously, it won’t be the last.)
Here’s my big question: When are Adams and Granato naming the captain? They should do it on the first day on Thursday. End the questions about it. The assumption here is that it will be Okoposo, with Touch being placed in the leadership group as captain-in-waiting along with a few others.
The prevailing sentiment is that this is a franchise growing up, there just isn’t a lot of talent for it. It seems Okopso has everyone’s ears and one message they have all summer is that the Sabers really have expectations now and have to be ready to meet them.
“If you’re on a team like this and you’re playing camp, this is the opportunity,” NHL Network analyst and former Stanley Cup champion Mike Rupp said of the Sabers earlier this month. “(Atlantic Division) For the past several years, you basically know you’re not going to go to the playoffs. Now you have a chance and it’s exciting.”
But then you look at last season’s standings and you remember how tough things were in November, December, January and February.
When the Sabers hit the All-Star break in early February after a disappointing defeat in Vegas, Those snakes were rolling their eyes. Too many injuries, too many covid cases, times when a goalkeeper wasn’t making a basic save. They were on pace to become a 65-point team.
But March and April felt unlike any time in the past 10 years, an organization that was no longer spinning its wheels. There were points in 19 of 28 games, wins in 16 of them, and 103 points of momentum if you take it through the entire season. The rematch with Vegas featured a Tank-era exorcism, with Jack Eichel on the ice—and Touch snatched the puck from him for a blank-net goal.
The Leafs had triple punks, who were made to look like the Loughs again, and could not hold out once in front of more than 25,000, with the Sabers twice at Scotiabank Arena and at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
By the end of that memorable afternoon, you had to raise your double-double saber the way they were in the Leafs’ head.
Auston Matthews was so frustrated that he was suspended for trying to hit Dahlin in the head, and Cozens was a rabid maniac for taking on anyone in his 1918 Toronto Arenas jersey. There were no takers.
On a day filled with snowstorms and windy, in front of more than 26,000 fans and 40 minutes later in a tie game, the Sabers made all the plays. Then he added exclamation points. It was a 5–2 victory over the troubled Maple Leafs, a Legacy Classic victory that would live on forever as the first outright victory in franchise history.
There Crazy Four Goal Comeback in ChicagoThompson scored the winning goal on a wild pinball Ricochet with 10 seconds left. And there were couple nights in the burnt-in-memory bank Celebrating the one and only Rick Generet.
The vibes have been great all summer long. There was a lot of hype about making three picks in the first round in the draft, there was a lot of buzz in the development camp and all you had to do was watch the autograph line at Sahlen Field last month, when Power, Okposo, Skinner and Malcolm Subban showed up. Get even more confirmations.
Players only had an hour to sign before the first pitch and, as Okposo told Power, “it’s not an hour-long line.”
The public wanted to see the kirpan. in August. And with good reason. It’s been a while since we can say that.
It was an hour before the Bison game and an hour after the Bills preseason game, but all the ruckus was because the Sabers were in the house. And when the team aired a clip of veteran Kyle Okposo talking to players at development camp last month, his message was clear: People can’t wait for hockey season.
“He has a good skill set. I mean, he’s drafted pretty well and made some clever trades,” former Islanders coach Barry Trotz said after his team lost here in April. “Obviously, they have a really good skill base. I think the experience that some of their young ‘D’s are getting is paying off.
“They’re playing so well as a team. I just told someone that I can see this team take a big leap forward to see how they’re finishing a real strong year.”
But for any good feelings we have about where Saber is going, you’ll also need to do some reality checks. They finished 35 points out of the top three in the Atlantic Division, 32 points behind fourth-place Boston, and 25 points behind the previous Eastern Conference playoff spot.
It’s not a shortcoming that you usually make up for in a season.
“At the end of last season, we got a good position in our game,” Skinner said that night at Sahlen Field. “We still have a lot of work to do and start up again. So it was a good move, I think. We have to keep moving forward.”
Camp comes to you early. The first exercise is Thursday. The first preseason game is on September 25 in Washington. We already have a month to go for the season opener against Ottawa on October 13th.
March and April don’t count in this year’s standings, but they matter big time. Then it will be September. It will be interesting to see what we are about to learn.