|Goaltender Steve Mason was one of a handful of young Blue Jackets players who have impressed coach Ken Hitchcock during training camp preseason play.
At this time of year, every NHL coach is excited about his team's prospects. I’m no exception. We're looking at the emergence of many of these talented young players, and we're curious as to how many can make our team this year, either at the start or as we go along. We're giving the young guys a good, long look. With a week to go before the season, we still had 30 players in camp; they’ve all had good training camps and preseason games.
Goalie Steve Mason, our third-round pick a year ago, has looked very good, as have defensemen Kris Russell, a third-rounder in 2005, and Mark Methot, a sixth-round pick who played for the London Knights. Forwards Tommy Sestito, Gilbert Brule, Jared Boll and Derick Brassard, our first-round pick (sixth overall in 2006), are making these decisions very difficult. We've gone through several rounds of cuts and they're still here based on merit, not because we have openings. That's pretty exciting for our organization and the fans.
I also got a new boss this spring — general manager Scott Howson. We work well together, partly because we both came up in the Edmonton Oilers’ organization.
One reason I think we work well together is because Scott is a big-picture guy who understands the long-term effects of things, while I'm in the day-to-day world of coaching. Right from the start, it was obvious we had respect for each other. We both know the Canadian hockey scene, and we’ve both had experience in the Oilers organization. The Edmonton system was built on respect for everyone, and that's the atmosphere Scott wants to create here.
Here is Hitch’s take on the other coaches starting their first full seasons behind NHL team benches.
Brent Sutter, New Jersey — There is no doubt that Brent is going to have great success. I’ve known him a long time, and he’s one of those guys who has a good feel for every aspect of the game. He's a very smart hockey man, and he's not afraid of players. Every team that he has coached, whether it was the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League or one of Canada's teams in international play, has shown a great work ethic. Brent is very committed to the physical part of the game, so his teams are very hard to play against. Don't expect any changes in the way New Jersey will play.
John Stevens, Philadelphia — John Stevens, who replaced me in Philadelphia last November, is entering his first full season as an NHL head coach. John was my assistant coach and I'm really hopeful for him because he is a tremendous person and a great family man with great individual character. I'm proud he's taken on that job, and I'm looking forward to him having success. John has learned a lot along the way, and he paid his dues as a player and a minor-league coach. His time is now. He learned a lot last year when he was put in a difficult situation. Now, it is his team. He will go full bore at building it his way.
John Paddock, Ottawa — John was the former coach of the Winnipeg Jets. He’s back as an NHL head coach after a long time. Bottom line: John is a very good coach. He's been the head guy before, and he was successful. John is a career hockey guy and nothing surprises him. He's been through it all before. I know one thing: Everyone who ever played for John loved playing for him.
Claude Julien, Boston — Claude is a product of the Montreal factory of good coaches. They play a definite style that is committed to checking and leads to a lot of wins. Expect that checking from the Bruins because every one of his teams has been committed to that style. I expect it will be no different in Boston.
Denis Savard, Chicago — There are also two first full-year coaches here in the Central Division. Denis Savard was hired as the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks a few days after I was named coach here in Columbus, so he has some experience with his team, as I do with mine. These jobs should be fun for both of us because we'll be able to build our teams from the ground up. Both of us received a product, a team, that is the result of not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You don't make the playoffs, you get good draft choices. That's how the current Pittsburgh Penguins were built and how a lot of good teams in the past were built. Hopefully, we've drafted the right players and Denis hopes Chicago has drafted the right players. Now, we need to take time and get them to grow together. We both have a lot of young players to work into our lineup. One thing coaches have to remember with young players is that no matter what kind of physical tools a young player might have, you can't speed up the mental side of the game.
Mike Keenan, Calgary — Mike's reputation is that of a no-nonsense guy with his players, and he's very committed to the pressure part of the game of hockey. His teams initiate contact and force mistakes. I've found that when I'm coaching against one of his teams that it's very difficult to outwork them. You have to be at the top of your game to outwork a team coached by Keenan.
|Hitchcock believes that Mike Keenan's no nonsense personality should have a major impact on the Calgary Flames.
Andy Murray, St. Louis -- Andy took over the coaching of the St. Louis Blues last Dec. 11 and the team responded, going 27-18-9 the rest of the way. Andy is one of the most organized, well-prepared coaches in the world. There is nothing that seeps through the cracks. His teams are always ready to go, especially at the start of the season. He leaves no stone unturned.
I was asked if the Stanley Cup championship, won by the Anaheim Ducks, means NHL teams must get bigger, like the Ducks. No, I don't think so. The old adage still holds: You can't have enough competitive players. Size is not as relevant as competitiveness.
The NHL is really competitive right now. There are no soft teams and no easy opponents. Even the teams that finish out of the playoffs give you fits. Teams that are not in the playoffs are usually younger and play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
Good teams will be, and already are, having a hard time keeping their good players as a result of the collective-bargaining agreement. That makes for close, competitive games every night.
Anaheim won because they had a lot of competitive guys — not because they were big. The skill level is evening out in the NHL so the competitiveness is really important.
Our fans will get a good look at the Anaheim Ducks because we host them in our home opener on Friday, Oct. 5.
Like they say, good seats are still available.