It had all the familiar ambiance of training camp: temperatures in the 70s outside of the arena, a few new faces, unscathed ice and freshly taped sticks.
Except that it was the 13th of January.
A group of 14 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders (depth chart here) took to the PNC Arena ice for the first time as a team on Sunday afternoon, marking the first day of a six-day training camp.
“There were a lot of happy faces,” said head coach Kirk Muller. “You can’t fake body language. We had a bunch of excited guys coming in the door.”
“It was just fun to be out there, having some coaches bark at us, getting us moving up and down the ice, just putting the work boots on and enjoying that sweat,” said captain Eric Staal, who has been skating three times a week at Raleigh Center Ice since September.
“It’s been fun. I was a little nervous coming in through the day,” Jordan Staal admitted. “It’s part of it I guess. Not being on the ice with the guys for so long, I got a little anxious.”
Though the condensed training camp doesn’t allow for a full slate of tryouts, a number of new faces were among the collection of 24, including the younger Staal, Alexander Semin, Tim Wallace and Dan Ellis.
“I got to know quite a few of the guys already,” said Jordan Staal, who also skated at RCI during the work stoppage. “It obviously made it easier starting training camp.”
Bobby Sanguinetti, Ryan Murphy, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jeremy Welsh, Wallace and Ellis comprised the select crop of players recalled for this week. The decision of who stays in Raleigh and who heads back to their team will happen a little quicker than usual: just days from now.
“Any time you get a chance to put on an NHL jersey it’s a huge achievement and a huge responsibility. I’m happy to be here,” Murphy, 19, said. “Better late than never.”
The players skated in two separate sessions Sunday afternoon. Cam Ward, set back with the flu, was held out of the second session, which focused heavily on special teams.
“I felt good out there today,” said Ward, now the father of a second child. “They opted to keep me off for the second half just to get some fluids in me and make sure I didn’t have any setbacks.”
“We knew they’d be anxious today,” Muller said. “We want to address one part of our game each day with training camp being so short. So we took a focus on defensive-zone coverage, special teams and just getting guys’ skating legs for the first day.”
Being responsible defensively is a key focus heading into this season, according to Muller. He said the team wants to limit its goals against; last season, Carolina ranked 25th in the league in goals against (243), as they averaged nearly three goals against per game, a mark higher than their average goals for.
The pace will continue to progress as the week moves along, in preparation for the season opener in South Florida that is just six days away.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Ward said of the shortened season. “It’s going to feel like an adrenaline rush. It’s going to feel like a race.”
Between now and then, the coaching staff will tweak lines and systems as much as they can, knowing full well that only so much is possible. That’s why they already had somewhat definitive lines drawn up for Sunday. With the Staal brothers centering the top two lines and Semin adding an incredibly adept pair of hands on the wing, the Canes top six is as dangerous as ever.
“You can write on paper what you think will be the right lineup,” Muller said. “Now it’s a matter of combinations and chemistry.”
“We want to give everyone an opportunity, too, to see where they fit in,” he added.
Muller slotted Jussi Jokinen in as the third line center, something that will likely remain constant through the first of the season. The head coach noted Jokinen’s versatility and added that he’d see power play time, as well.
Though he wasn’t at today’s practice, newly acquired winger Kevin Westgarth gives the Hurricanes the grit and toughness they’ve been searching for on the fourth line. It also solidifies the team’s depth in the bottom six, which is going to be vital in the abridged season.
“Rest on days off,” Muller said with a smile. “The fourth line this year needs to eat up minutes.”
The back-up goaltender will also serve a crucial role. Though confident in both, Muller said the team signed Ellis instead of promoting 26-year-old Justin Peters strictly because of his NHL experience.
More than 1,000 fans welcome the Canes back with open arms on Sunday, something for which team showed appreciation before leaving the ice and closing the book on a normal yet abnormal day one of training camp.
“It was awesome to see them. There are passionate fans here that love the game of hockey,” Eric Staal said. “We want to make sure we’re preparing this week as best we can to reward them with some good hockey here in the next few months.”