After three decades of watching NHL practices, the sum total of knowledge gained amounts to five simple points:
A 5-on-0 power play is difficult to stop.
No correlation exists between great practice players and great players.
Goalies hate high shots.
It’s tough to play defence holding your stick upside down.
The “bag skate” – no pucks – is even more dreaded than finding your last night out in Chicago is all over Facebook.
But this morning add a sixth: There are times – perhaps only one, actually – where it is difficult to tell an opening practice from Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final.
Take Winnipeg over the weekend, for example. Had tailgate parties been part of the celebration, they’d have been grilling breakfast, as the parking lot of the suburban MTS Iceplex began filling before dawn on Saturday.
In a rink that held only 1,500 spectators, they packed the stands and filled the lobby for the first drop of an NHL puck in 15 years, an event officially recorded at 9:04 a.m.
They cheered when the first of the reborn Jets, former Toronto Maple Leaf Nikolai Antropov, stepped onto the ice. They drove up and down Portage Avenue with Jets flags snapping in the wind and horns honking. They cheered every play, every moment, practically blew the roof off, as they say, for the first puck to hit the back of a net. And when it was all over, the players gathered at centre ice and raised their sticks in salute to the fans.
All this for a practice.
“It was awesome,” team captain Andrew Ladd said. “Most players don’t look forward to training camp, but this was fun.”
All the same, next morning at a closed practice downtown at the MTS Centre, forward Bryan Little said there was “a kind of sigh of relief” amongst his teammates that they could practise without the pressure of a couple of thousand eyes measuring their every move.
Sunday also featured the very first scrimmage of the reborn Jets, reds vs. blues, and the few gathered to watch saw the first Jets goal of any sort scored in 15 years: a whiffed non-shot that somehow slipped through a traffic jam at the net.
As ugly a goal as might be imagined – as lovely a goal as might be hoped for.
The problem, see, is that no one knows how this team will score this year. Their top scorer last year was Ladd with 29 goals and 59 points. Second place was defenceman Dustin Byfuglien with 20 goals and 53 points, third was defenceman Tobias Enstrom with 10 goals and 51 points.
The Jets concede that their greatest threat on attack comes from their defence, which is hardly in keeping with a playoff hockey team. The Thrashers, incidentally, never won a playoff game. The Jets are expecting to challenge for the playoffs and therefore will need scoring.
This is why so many eyes have been on lanky centre Mark Scheifele, the 18-year-old Barrie Colts junior star who was the Jets’ top draft pick in June. He excelled at the NHL rookies tournament in Penticton, B.C., last week and on Sunday he was the best looking forward on the ice, scoring once on a rebound and just missing on a breakaway.
If this were still Atlanta, he’d likely be guaranteed a spot on the team, as the NHL has a history of elevating 18-year-old potential stars when there is a need to sell tickets.
No such need exists in Winnipeg and Scheifele, no fool, is acutely aware that he’s likely headed back to junior for further development. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said Sunday he worries about promising youngsters who’ve been “ruined” by being pushed too far too fast, but did add: “When a player’s ready to play, we’ll find a place for him to play.”
“I just have to show them that my body’s ready and that I’m ready mentally, as well,” the youngster said.
From the Jets side, of course, the measure is need.
No need to sell tickets, but desperate need for goals.
And it will be one of those that decides.