If the first day was any indication, Hurricanes players are in for a grueling camp.
Each of Saturday’s opening sessions ran around 90 minutes, with plenty of skating drills and individual battles mixed in. From the outset, they were noticeably more challenging than last year’s version, which was no accident.
“We will be on the ice longer, we will grind longer, we will battle more,” said coach Paul Maurice. “It’s really important not just for the younger players but for all our players to be very comfortable competing one-on-one so that when the puck drops we’re in full competition mode."
“It was a pretty hard practice and a definite wake-up call, but I enjoyed it,” said defenseman Austin Levi, who is the only 2010 draft pick other than the highly-touted Jeff Skinner to receive a camp invite. “I didn’t expect (to be here), but it was a good surprise and another great opportunity.”
Despite the long summer, the players seemed up to the task. Most have been participating in player-led informal practices for the last several weeks, while others are fresh from the Traverse City prospects tournament. Either way, Maurice seemed to be impressed with the overall level of conditioning.
”There were a number of veteran guys in that second group that not just pushed the pace but brought a little bit of physicality,” said Maurice. “There was some banging in practice, which is exactly what we want and what we hoped for.
“When you miss the playoffs, there’s some anger that goes with your summer and it drives you to train. Some of our big guys looked big and strong and powerful.”
Maurice had specific praise for defenseman Anton Babchuk, who appeared leaner from his first day in town and backed that up with his performance on the ice. Along with fellow blue-liner Tim Gleason, he was responsible for a few big hits that are seldom seen from veteran players this early in camp.
“He was one of the guys that brought a certain physicality and definitely an intensity,” said Maurice of Babchuk, who spent last season playing in Russia. “He’s worked hard, because he was in good shape and was able to drive right through that practice and close the gap.
“I think we all remember the last two and a half months of his regular season when he was here that he and (Joni) Pitkanen made a great pair and played against the other team’s best, and that was the best hockey I had seen,” Maurice continued. “Watching him in practice today, he looks even more powerful than he was then and more confident.”
The format of the first day had veteran players skating separately from prospects, but that will change starting tomorrow. Maurice said that today’s look was designed with the Caniac Carnival in mind, so that fans who could only spend around an hour at the event could plan to see the more well-known players if they so desired. Groups will be mixed from now on.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us as coaches to make sure our veteran players that we know are on the team get enough to be ready, and that we get an opportunity to look at these younger guys because a lot of them are going to contest for jobs,” said Maurice.
Skinner is firmly among those players, having dazzled management and coaches with his performance in Traverse City. Although appreciative of General Manager Jim Rutherford’s heavy praise, Skinner didn’t seem otherwise affected by it.
“I don’t think it really affects the pressure,” he said. “Everyone’s just trying to come out here and prove themselves because there are spots open. I don’t see myself as any different than anybody here.”
Maurice was in attendance for the prospects tournament and had kind words of his own, but said he would exercise caution in his initial assessment of all young players.
“I liked a bunch of guys that I saw today, but I’m going to reserve judgment,” he said. “They have to get through more than one practice, because most people can get through it the first day. They’ve got to get a bulk of hard practice under their belts and the grind of some games before you can really see where they’re at.”
Notable absences from day one included Sergei Samsonov, who Maurice said picked up a minor training injury and could be on the ice as soon as tomorrow, and Jiri Tlusty, who is recovering from off-season knee surgery but should be skating with the team next week.