David Poile and George McPhee have plenty in common, most notably that they are two of the longest-tenured general managers in the NHL and the only two to hold that position for the Washington Capitals in the past 30 years.
The next 10 days or so are likely to be frantic ones for all of the 30 GMs in the League, and the differences Poile and McPhee face highlight what could be an unpredictable start to the 2012-13 NHL season.
"We don't know what is going to happen, and it is going to be real unpredictable for everyone, and that's OK because we're playing hockey," McPhee said Wednesday after the NHL Board of Governors voted to ratify a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Should the NHL Players' Association also ratify the agreement -- they are expected to vote Friday and Saturday -- it could set in motion a whirlwind week for GMs across the League.
Training camps are expected to open Sunday, with the start of the season reportedly targeted for Jan. 19. Pending how teams schedule medical examinations and other typical early-camp activities, players might not be on the ice together until Monday. That would leave coaching staffs with five days of on-ice work to prepare for the season.
"We've been ready to go for quite some time. It was just trying to give people a start date," McPhee said. "We needed a date to start from and then we can get everything done. We can tell our trainers and get the doctors here because this is when we're doing medicals. We can tell our coaches this is when we're starting so we can plan out practices. Beyond that, we've had lots of camps before, but there are lots of unknowns."
McPhee's Capitals have a new coaching staff. Adam Oates will be conducting his first camp as a head coach, and assistants Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter are new to the staff. None has been a bench boss before, so it could be an even bigger challenge for the Capitals than some of the other NHL clubs who are breaking in new coaches with the start of the season.
"I think it is harder for a new coach because a coach that has been in place will just be reviewing systems, whereas a new coach is going to be teaching new systems," McPhee said. "That is a lot to get ingrained in five days."
Poile's Nashville Predators are at the "reviewing" end of that situation. Barry Trotz is the only coach the organization has known (just as Poile has always been its GM), so making no changes to the staff could prove to be a positive.
"I'm hoping the fact that we've only made two player changes and haven't had any changes to our coaching staff, that continuity and consistency will hopefully help us to get off to a good start this year," Poile said. "We're all hoping for [a fast start]. A 5-0 start could be golden and an 0-5 start could be deadly. We're all hoping to get off to a great start. In a 48-game schedule, it could be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs."
Every team, regardless of familiarity with its coaching staff, will face a significant challenge during camp and into the early weeks of the season: player conditioning. Some players have been active, either in Europe or minor leagues in North America; some have been training with other NHL players; and others have been training on their own.
No one really knows how it will affect on-ice results, but teams will have to get their players to a similar level, not just in conditioning but also in sharpness.
"They are all at different levels of conditioning," Poile said. "That's a little bit of a wild card for not just the Predators but for every team. It is going to be a shortened training camp, and coaches are going to want to do what normally takes about three weeks. It is going to be a sprint versus a marathon this year."
McPhee said, "Probably the biggest issue is not having any preseason games. It is one thing to skate and check out their conditioning, but you don't have a chance to experiment much with lineups and lines and combinations. I think that's the hardest thing for managers right now. ... I don't know about young teams vs. veteran teams. I don't know what is going to do the trick. We're just excited that we're going to be playing. It should be really exciting hockey."
Poile was the GM in Washington in 1994-95 and McPhee was an assistant to Brian Burke with the Vancouver Canucks. One GM who experienced the previous shortened season as a player is Tampa Bay's Steve Yzerman (with the Detroit Red Wings).
Whether or not that experience will help Yzerman prepare his club this time around remains to be seen, but he can offer some prospective to the guys in his dressing room.
"At that time I don't think we did anything in particular," Yzerman said. "Our team got off to a pretty good start. It's exciting but you are very busy. You're going to play a lot of games, travel a lot -- you won't get a lot of quality practice time once the games get going. But I think it has potential to be extremely exciting.
"I just think [it is about] not trying to do too much. To get ready to play too soon you can overwork yourself -- that leads to tired muscles and injuries. It's just about ramping up slowly."
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