Friday marked the start of the Washington Capitals' 2016 training camp. Among several dozen players on the ice for the first practices and drills were four players whose time in the Washington organization began this past June in Buffalo when their names were called as Caps draftees at the 2016 NHL Draft.
Defenseman Lucas Johansen (first round, 26th overall), center Garrett Pilon (third round, 87th overall), left wing Beck Malenstyn (fifth round, 145th overall) and defenseman Dmitriy Zaitsev (seventh round, 207th overall) are all 18-year-old kids attending their first ever NHL training camps. For that quartet of players, last weekend's rookie tournament in Coral Springs, Fla. was important in terms of getting them up to speed and ready to go up against veteran NHL players for the first time.
"It was really exciting," says Malenstyn of the Florida tourney. "Coming down here, I didn't really know what to expect. I was just looking forward to the experience. Being 18, it's obviously your first rookie camp. I was really looking forward to coming here and it's been great."
In Florida, the Caps' kids were able to conduct one practice together before playing games on back-to-back days and three games in four days. A second practice session was conducted before the final game. Washington lost all three games, but hopefully the four youngest Caps were able to develop a level of comfort and confidence that will help them for however long they remain at the team's main training camp.
"That's been tough," says Malenstyn. "You come in and they throw systems at you right away, and you only have one day to work on them and then you're right into a game. I think [the first tournament game] was a little bit of a feeling out process for everyone, myself included. Time and space was a little bit limited from what I'm used to. Just getting those systems down, you're constantly thinking out there and not really playing as much. I definitely felt more comfortable [after the first game]."
Not all of the four kids are expected to see preseason game action before being returned to their respective junior teams. For that reason, pulling on the Washington sweater and playing against an opponent in another NHL sweater at the Florida tourney was a milestone experience.
"It's something you dream of as a kid, throwing on that sweater," says Pilon. "It's a big honor to be with the Capitals and to come down here and try to prove myself. It's been a great experience so far."
Even in the relative cocoon of the Florida tournament, the Caps' freshly drafted kids were playing against players in their early twenties. Some of those players played professionally last season, too.
"You obviously have some ups and downs out there," says Pilon. "I think there are times when you feel good when you have the puck and there are times when you're going up against a big [defenseman] and you're going to get outmuscled a lot of the time, just because they're grown up already and you're still kind of maturing a bit. There are times when you have to not get frustrated. You have to be realistic about who you're going up against and just find different ways to try and beat them."
Johansen is fighting a bit of an ankle ailment that kept him out of the finale of the three tournament games. He will get his first taste of NHL preseason action Monday against Carolina.
"It's pretty fast-paced," says Johansen. "There are a lot of things you try to pick up on in a short period of time. But nonetheless, it's been fun despite the losses. To be playing games again is a good thing."
Before heading south to join the Caps' rookies in Florida, Johansen had the luxury of skating in a preseason game with his Kelowna team of the WHL.
"I feel pretty comfortable," says Johansen. "I played one preseason game in the Western League and I was on the ice for the majority of that camp. I got my legs back there, so to be here I feel comfortable.
"I think everybody is catching up with the systems every day and touching up with whatever might be going wrong. I think day by day, we're getting better."
The quartet of Caps' kids got their first taste of life in the pros at Washington's annual summer development camp immediately after the draft. That weeklong camp also provided them some feedback as to what areas of their respective games need the most work going forward.
"I'm just trying to really improve my game," says Pilon. "You just want to take note of your weaknesses and come back next game and do better. I want to make sure I'm skating hard, moving the puck good and shooting the puck hard. You have to make everything a lot harder out here and at times there are some passes that may be a little soft, and they get intercepted. They need to be crisp and everything needs to be hard out there."
In addition to the games and the on-ice training, the five days in Florida also gives the kids a glimpse into the NHL life they're all striving to achieve.
"First and foremost, you just see the type of atmosphere that we create for them in terms of living the NHL lifestyle," says Hershey coach Troy Mann, "from the hotel to the great job the front office does in how they treat their players.
"You want to win hockey games, but hopefully at the end of the day they take away from it what they need to improve and where they're at compared to their same age category. Even though the results weren't there from a win/loss perspective, I do think it's a learning experience for all those guys."
"I think it's a really good steppingstone for everyone," echoes Malenstyn. "You come in here and you get a few games under your belt and get yourself back into that game mentality, and you take that back into main camp with some bigger guys. You get in there and you just want to prove yourself and do the best you can, so I think it's a nice way to start off and then carry that forward."
The kids also get a chance to get to know one another a bit better, and a chance to take in some of the local flavor.
"The first day, we got to go out and see the little strip along the beach there," says Pilon. "[Saturday] night, me and Beck Malenstyn went out for supper on the beach, and it's pretty crazy with all the people down there, and there was a nice sunset. It's a little bit nicer than Saskatoon."
With apologies to The Guess Who, five days in Florida isn't going to have anyone eager to be "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon."