Ron Hainsey has seen the structure and content of NHL training camps develop quite a bit since he began his NHL career in 2002-03 with the Montreal Canadiens. And the new member of the Maple Leafs blueline can best sum it up in one word: compactness.
"It's shorter now," Hainsey said Thursday after the Leafs continued camp at their west-Toronto practice facility. "When I first started, I think we had five, six days of scrimmage, maybe even like a week before you played a pre-season game. And my first camp, you went through a week of development camp, a week of rookie camp and then regular camp - so camp was five or six weeks. Now it's 20 days, really, and Day One is a testing/medical day, so that doesn't even count. So it's 17 days of on-ice work, and bam - we're going."
The Leafs' camp has been running for a week now, and although the team already has two pre-season games under its belt, there's still much work to be done before the regular season opens Oct. 4 in Winnipeg. Toronto still has six additional pre-season showdowns (home-and-home games against Buffalo this Friday and Saturday, followed by clashes with the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings next week) against Atlantic Division rivals. Head coach Mike Babcock is experimenting with new faces and organizational prospects and allowing last year's returning members of the team to find their stride, but the biggest adjustment in the early going is the NHL's adjusted officiating standards on slashing and faceoff violations.
Indeed, the Leafs' first two pre-season games have been much like every pre-season game throughout the league this fall - a parade of players headed to the penalty box as officials underscore how much tougher they're going to be on calling minor penalties in those two specific areas. But the veteran Leafs and their younger colleagues are fine with the changes, but they're curious to see how long league brass can maintain the same standards as the year unfolds and players' competitive natures bring passions to higher and higher levels.
"Hopefully the pre-season will do the job," centre Nazem Kadri said in regard to players' adjustment period for the new faceoff and slashing standards. "The only thing, it's tough to stay consistent with all that throughout the whole year. It's really challenging on the officials and the linesmen. They're humans too, they're going to make some mistakes. It can be frustrating sometimes and overwhelming maybe, but at the end of the day we're kind of putting them in a tough position and it is hard to call."
It has been frustrating for players and fans to see the slowdown in the pace of pre-season games - Kadri said he felt like he played a three-and-a-half-hour game Tuesday night against Ottawa at Air Canada Centre - but players understand this is a correction of sorts for two issues that have become more of a problem in recent years.
"That's the competitive nature that comes out of the game," Kadri said when asked about players pushing the envelope with faceoff standards in the past. "That being said, there was a lot of cheating going on. You (were) almost better off trying to cheat because you weren't going to get kicked out that often last time, and (officials) weren't as strict. And there really wasn't that much to lose even if you got the warning to clean it up. I don't mind it, as long as both (linesmen dropping the puck) are on the same page and they're even-keeled, and one guy's not favoring the other and they're consistent throughout the whole process, I don't think it's going to be that bad."
"More veteran guys, they find a way to cheat, but it's kind of in a smart way," added centre Auston Matthews, who is entering his sophomore season in the league. "They've been in the league for a while, so guys like (Leafs centre Tyler Bozak), and those guys that have (faceoff win) percentages above 50 percent, they obviously find a pretty good way to kind of get around that stuff, but now they're calling it pretty tight, so I guess it kind of evens the playing field in a way. But it's still something you've got to get used to."
Another thing this season's Leafs must get used to is the depth of talent battling for jobs. Two years ago, Babcock noted that the organization had more NHL positions than they did players who could compete for them. But after a thrilling surge in the standings, a productive off-season and the ongoing development of the franchise's prospects, Toronto's coffers are now very deep and competition to secure a roster spot is fierce.
That is a sign of progress, and don't think Leafs players don't know that things have changed.
"I don't know if I've ever seen that kind of depth on a Maple Leaf team before - since I've been here anyways," Kadri said. "It's a good problem to have, and it's important also with injuries and certain things of that nature. It's part of the game of hockey, and it's reassuring to know that guys can step in and not miss a beat."
"We've got a lot of guys," added Matthews. "We've got plenty of NHL players with not many spots open, so it's definitely been a very competitive camp. Guys have been working really hard…but it's definitely been a pretty intense camp. It's been fun."
Toronto's next battle takes place at Ricoh Coliseum Friday against the Sabres - a rare opportunity to see the Buds in more intimate confines - and fans should expect to see a club that is different in terms of talent, but more crucially, in terms of approach.
"It's just a different mindset," Matthews said of the difference at camp between last season and this year. "Last year we didn't really know how everybody was going to do or what we were coming into. Obviously, the year before, a pretty tough year for everybody. This year we've got higher expectations for ourselves, we're a motivated group, we're hungry, we got a taste of what it's like to be in the playoffs last year, especially in a city like Toronto. So we definitely want to make sure we're back in that same position."