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Stanley Cup is the thing for these coaches

by Dan Rosen
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – John Anderson is jumping on the bandwagon – the new Atlanta Thrashers coach plans to campaign for change.

So like any candidate worth his podium, Anderson will try to win support for his vision of change by laying out his plan in a speech that should be motivational and informative.

"We want to show them there is going to be a change in the organization, a change in the thought process and that has to get going right away," Anderson said. "There is not too much time before the season starts, so when I speak to them the very first time in training camp, it has to resonate."

Anderson was one of four NHL coaches (Detroit's Mike Babcock, St. Louis' Andy Murray and Columbus' Ken Hitchcock) attending the Traverse City Prospect Tournament watching the prospects in action and anticipating the opening of training camp this weekend.

The goal for each of them, of course, is to win the Stanley Cup. The interesting thing about the sampling of coaches found in Traverse City is they're all leading teams in varying stages of growth.

Detroit is the team in the prime of its life. Columbus is the 20-something college graduate that thinks it has found the path to success. St. Louis is the pre-teen waiting for a growth spurt. Atlanta is the kid with potential who veered off path and now is hoping a fresh start is the answer.

Read on for a closer look:

View from the top

For Babcock, whose idea of a summer vacation is hunting wild and dangerous animals in Tanzania, training camp is about creating a sense of normalcy. That won't be easy when the Wings open camp in Traverse City on Saturday.

According to most pundits, the 2008 Stanley Cup champions are a shoe-in to become the 2009 Stanley Cup champions. To counter the soaring expectations and to keep some sense of normalcy, Babcock said he plans to remind his team, which now includes superstar forward Marian Hossa, that repeating as champion arguably is the hardest thing to do in sports.

 "For me, each year is totally different than the previous, but during my time as a head coach, the carryover has been good from year to year," Babcock said. "Now I'm cognizant of the fact that everyone talks about how difficult it is to repeat as champion, but what we're going to try is to create some sense of normalcy and just do what we do best at training camp – building a foundation based on work ethic and structure that will enable our players to thrive. We're going to establish that with nine exhibition games."

Babcock's goal is to use the first six preseason games as a gauge to assess all the statistical details, such as goals for, goals against, power play, penalty kill and overall points for victories.

"After that, we'll put together the top guys within those categories for the last three games and get ready for the start of the NHL season," he said.

A season that has the potential to be special, but definitely won't be normal.

The mystery team

When asked to talk about the beginning of training camp in Columbus, Hitchcock first makes it known that he has no idea what to expect.

"We changed out a third of our roster, which is significant," the Blue Jackets coach said. "We think we know what we have and we're really happy with our changes, but I don't think anybody in the NHL knows what we have. We're the mystery team in the West because we've made such significant changes."

The Blue Jackets will start the season with at least three new defensemen, including Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman and Mike Commodore.

Newcomers R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius are likely to join Rick Nash on the top line. It's a good bet rookies Jakub Voracek and Derrick Brassard will play second-line minutes, as could 2008 Entry Draft pick Nikita Filatov.

Raffi Torres also is new to the mix up front, and Fredrik Modin is basically like a new addition considering he missed all but 23 games last season with injuries.

"The realization for everybody – management, coaches, fans, media – is getting in the playoffs is not an accident. You have to be really deep and really competitive. The reality is we were neither one of those last year. We had some competitive players, but we didn't have enough. I don't think we were deep enough and over the course of seven months that shows up. It's not a fluke to get in." -- Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock

With all the changes, the first day of training camp, which is Sept. 20, probably will turn into a meet-and-greet session for the players.

"We feel like there is a definitive spot for everybody, but I'm curious just like our fans are," Hitchcock said. "How good is Umberger going to be? Is Brassard as ready as people think he is? Does Voracek make our team? How good is our defense with all the changes we made? I mean, we changed out half our group on defense."

The significance of all the changes won't be known until the spring, but Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson put together this team in hopes of gaining Columbus' first berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As Nash said, the honeymoon period in Columbus is over. It's time the Jackets start showing some results. Hitchcock thinks this is the team to do it, but after training camp he'll know a heck of a lot more.

"The realization for everybody – management, coaches, fans, media – is getting in the playoffs is not an accident," Hitchcock said. "You have to be really deep and really competitive. The reality is we were neither one of those last year. We had some competitive players, but we didn't have enough. I don't think we were deep enough and over the course of seven months that shows up. It's not a fluke to get in.

"We're in a different situation now. It feels a little bit like a fresh start. We've got a bit of a new team, but the reality is we're going to have to push really hard to push a team or a couple of teams out. We all know that now."

Rebuilding plan in action

Murray is aware that most of those same pundits picking the Red Wings to win it all again are picking his team, the Blues, to finish at or near the bottom of the NHL.

It's hardly a risky pick, either, considering the Blues should again be one of the youngest teams in the NHL.

Along with second-year players Erik Johnson and David Perron, who are each 20 years old, the Blues may incorporate rookie forwards T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund into the lineup along with possibly one or two of their talented young defensemen such as Alex Pietrangelo and Jonas Junland.

Only seven of their veteran players are older than 30, with the oldest 36-year-old forward Keith Tkachuk.

"If Keith would retire our average age would go down," Murray said. "I keep teasing him about that, but we'll still probably be the youngest team in the League."

Even with youth as an excuse, Murray won't concede anything.

"The only reason you start the season is to win the Stanley Cup, so our target will be the Stanley Cup just like everybody else," he said. "If you start thinking anything else then you shouldn't be playing."

Call it a reach if you want, but Murray won't back down from his position. However, to make believers out of everyone else, Murray said training camp will be all about commitment level and attention to detail.

Last season's experience of starting strong and finishing poorly should resonate with the players. The Blues were eight games above .500 and in fifth place in the Western Conference at the 41-game mark, but finished three games under .500 and with the second-fewest points in the West.

"We want to see guys show they invested well in the summer and because of that they're going to be in a better position to succeed this year," Murray said. "We have to lay some ground rules for success, and if we do these types of things our opportunity for success will be there every night."

Change in the Georgia air

Despite some prying, Anderson wouldn't reveal what he will say in that first speech to his players, but the message will be clear:

"It's important to get things going the way I want them to go, and quickly," Anderson said. "If we don't figure it out until January, it might be too late."

So Anderson didn't even wait for training camp to open to begin hammering home his message. He set up shop in Atlanta this summer, and as the players began showing up this month, he started informally sending the message to them.

"They have been skating in Atlanta for two or three weeks so I see them all the time," Anderson said. "Just to be around them and explain to them some of the things as we go, it's like an easing-in as opposed to bang, I show up and here it is."

This may be the 51-year-old's first NHL training camp as a coach, but Anderson hardly is a novice, especially in Atlanta. He has been to the Thrashers' last six training camps as the coach of the Chicago Wolves, Atlanta's American Hockey League affiliate.

"If it was my very first training camp I'd be really nervous, but I'm a little nervous," Anderson said. "I'm going to be the one they blame now. That's the difference, but that goes with any coaching job. Ultimately, the coach is responsible. I'm used to that."

Anderson said his idea of a successful training camp is when "you get a couple of surprises who make the team that you weren't quite sure would have." For Atlanta, that could mean prospects like Angelo Esposito, Arturs Kulda, Tomas Pospisil or Ondrej Pavelec.

If any or all of those players make the Thrashers’ opening-night roster, the change Anderson is stumping for will have started to come to fruition.

"Usually veterans come in ready to go, and of course they don't want to lose their job," Anderson said, "but if somebody takes their job that means we have made some changes and the team should be getting better."


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