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Busy weekend ahead as NHL teams open camp

by John Kreiser
The calendar says summer ends on Sept. 23. But for the players aiming to be on an NHL roster this season, it really comes to an end this weekend, when teams open their training camps open. The majority of veteran players will have their first official on-ice sessions Saturday morning.

Not that the opening day of camp will be the first time players have hit the ice since the end of last season. Most of them have already been skating -- Alex Ovechkin is so eager to prove that last season's 32-goal, 85-point performance was an off-season that he jumped on the ice and did drills during the Washington Capitals' rookie camp last weekend.

"He looks great and he's in great spirits," owner Ted Leonsis said of his captain. "When your captain and best player and highest-paid player is confident and in shape, I think that sets the tone for the rest of the team."

The question of whether the Caps can finally turn their regular-season prowess into playoff success is just one of the major topics as a new season arrives.

Will Vancouver’s meltdown in the Final have any residual effects on the team that finished first in the regular season? Will the extreme makeovers in San Jose and Philadelphia get these teams over the proverbial playoff hump? Will the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg help the Thrashers-turned-Jets make the playoffs, something they did just once in their former home? And can the Boston Bruins defend the Stanley Cup they won last spring -- the Bruins have never repeated as champions in their 85-plus seasons?

"Last year was a dream come true for pretty much everyone, but that being said, it's not over and we've got to keep on going," center Patrice Bergeron said. "Now we're the defending champs, and we should take pride in that."

A number of players will get their first official on-ice experience with their new teams this weekend. San Jose is hoping the arrival of defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat from Minnesota will mean a trip to the Final -- while the Wild are banking on ex-Sharks Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to jumpstart their offense. Philadelphia welcomes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year deal with the Flyers, while the New York Rangers are expecting big things from center Brad Richards, who inked a nine-year deal that will reunite him with John Tortorella, his coach when Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during Tampa Bay's run to the 2004 Stanley Cup.


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A host of players will be back after missing large parts of last season with injuries. The Pittsburgh Penguins expect to have 2009 Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin ready to go from day one after he missed the last two months of the season due to knee surgery. But the Penguins still don't know when they'll have captain Sidney Crosby back in the lineup. Crosby missed the second half of last season and all of the playoffs with a concussion. He said last week he expects to play again -- but that he won't suit up until he's 100 percent, and offered no hint as to when that might be.

"Maybe I can get by with 90 percent, maybe I couldn't but I'm not going to roll the dice with that," he said when asked if he had a date for his return.

For the first time since the spring of 1996, the NHL will be back in Winnipeg, where fans snapped up every available ticket to see the relocated Thrashers -- a team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once during its time in Atlanta. The relocated franchise took the name of the team that moved to Phoenix in 1996, but adopted a new color scheme and logo.

"This is our identity, what we're going to be wearing every night and what fans are going to be coming to the rink in," captain Andrew Ladd said.

Several other teams revamped their jerseys or added third jerseys to the mix. Nashville changed the base color of its home uniform from blue to gold, the Los Angeles Kings will use the black-and-silver models that were their third jerseys as their primary home uniforms this season. The Ottawa Senators will unveil a heritage jersey in honor of their 20th anniversary.

For the first time in recent years, there's actually a question as to whether the player taken No. 1 in the Entry Draft will make the NHL right away. Edmonton chose center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slick playmaker, with the top pick. But the 18-year-old may get another season in junior hockey to mature physically before trying to stand up to the pounding of an NHL season.

After playing with the Oilers' rookies at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, B.C., Nugent-Hopkins is ready to take his shot at helping Edmonton avoid a third straight last-place finish.

"It’s my first NHL main camp," he said, "so I’m just excited about getting out there and playing with and against some of the vets.”

Nugent-Hopkins isn't the only young player who will be trying to make his mark. Among the other 2011 draftees who could stick are Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida), Adam Larsson (New Jersey) and Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), the four players taken directly after Nugent-Hopkins.

A number of players taken last year may also be ready for NHL roles, including Eric Gudbranson (Florida), Ryan Johansen (Columbus) and Nino Niederreiter (Islanders).

Six teams will have new coaches leading the way as camps open. Paul MacLean (Ottawa), Kevin Dineen (Florida), Glen Gulutzan (Dallas) and Mike Yeo (Minnesota) are first-time NHL coaches, while Claude Noel, who served as interim coach with Columbus in 2009-10, will be behind the bench in Winnipeg. Noel will be in familiar surroundings -- he coached the AHL’s Manitoba Moose last season in the same building.

The vacancy in Florida was created when the Panthers fired Peter DeBoer -- who was promptly snapped up by the New Jersey Devils to replace the retired Jacques Lemaire.

The Jets have the NHL's only new general manager. Kevin Cheveldayoff, who spent several years running the Thrashers' top farm team before working in Chicago's front office, got the GM job.

Fans are already getting excited, and teams are doing their best to fuel that excitement. The defending champion Bruins are among a number of teams that will be hosting open practices on Saturday and Sunday. Chicago's annual Training Camp Fest is already sold out.

Most teams are staying close to home for camp. The one exception is the Dallas Stars, who will spend a few days working out in Charlottetown, P.E.I., as they did last year.

There won't be much time for fans or managers to judge how their teams look in practice -- the first preseason games will be Sept. 19.
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